Nationalism, populism, political polarisation and identity politics are challenging liberalism and institutions in democracies worldwide. More countries are abandoning democracy than embracing it. The overlay of geostrategic competition brings a potential clash of systems between liberal democracy and autocracy into sharp focus. President Biden argues that democracy must prove itself, reasoning that this will be key to competing with China and Russia. But some development experts and foreign policy analysts warn against making liberal values the primary frame of engagement in the Indo-Pacific, instead favouring investment by donors in governance, service delivery and accountability.
Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held on 9-10 December 2021, was something of an each way bet on these two propositions. Biden was clear that his Administration intended to affirm “the democratic values that are at the heart of our international system” and that the United States was committed to working with other democracies to “shape the rules of the road that are going to govern our progress in the 21st century”. Democracies, Biden said, must prove that they are best at solving the world’s “big problems”.
Still, for all these rhetorical flourishes, as much if not more weight was placed on a practical agenda to protect and defend the institutions, rules and principles that support human rights and basic freedoms, promote just societies, and protect the dignity of individuals. Biden emphasised that this agenda was needed as much to fix the rot inside democracies, including in the United States, as it was to roll back the march of autocracy.
The Biden Administration sees the summit as a process more than an event. It wants to galvanise action by summit attendees to support press freedom, fight corruption, bolster democratic reformers, advance technology for democracy and defend free and fair elections (all areas where the Administration announced new action).
So, the real test of whether the summit was a success will come not now but in coming years.
Coming out of the Democracy Summit, the question the Lab is asking is: what will this agenda mean for the Indo-Pacific? And specifically, what opportunities are there for the international community to shift how we work?
In recent years, Australia has partly retreated from efforts to support good governance, human rights, civil society, free media and access to justice in the Indo-Pacific.
A combination of factors is at work, including development budget cuts and local environments more hostile to external interventions, especially in Southeast Asia. Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy, with its strong emphasis on working with others to balance China’s power, also requires a degree of pragmatism when it comes to working with some partners.
But the brilliant short essays in this paper demonstrate there remains significant need and ample opportunity for creative diplomacy and long-term development efforts to find space for civil society, create local demand for better governance and support service delivery. Australia, as the authors note, can support principles like pluralism, tolerance and accountability without being explicitly in the democracy promotion game.
As our essays demonstrate, practical partnerships and listening to local leaders and communities maximise the chances of impact. So too working with the experienced development experts and organisations that are navigating increasingly complex local environments.
A high-profile democracy initiative by Australia would not be welcomed by regional partners. But that does not mean Australia has to sit on its hands. Our task, now and into the future, is to ensure that neither illiberalism in the region nor the vital work of the Indo-Pacific strategy extinguish the nation’s long-standing efforts to contribute quietly and consistently to good governance, human rights, and just and accountable political systems in the Indo-Pacific.
This, ultimately, is not just a matter of additional resources but of political will.
Bridi Rice and Richard Maude.