Supposedly, US President Joe Bidens’ summit for democracy that begins on December 9 would show America is back as leader of the free world. Unfortunately, the Biden administration isn’t big on thinking before the fact or rationale afterwards.
And in many parts of the world, including here in South Asia, the summit is likely to do more harm than good. India, the world’s largest democracy, although not as strong these days as it once was, will naturally be there. But Sri Lanka, which has comparable democratic credentials, is not.
Most confusing, perhaps, is the choice to exclude Bangladesh while inviting Pakistan. Neither is a particularly shining example of democracy at this time. The last elections in Bangladesh took place after the main opposition leader was jailed for corruption and were described as “improbably unbalanced by the State Department.” Pakistan’s last election, meanwhile, came after its main opposition leader was first disqualified and then, for good measure, sentenced to prison. The election itself was, according to the State Department, marred by “pre-election interference from the military and intelligence agencies which created an uneven electoral playing field.”
So why was one flawed democracy invited and the other not? On the contrary, Bangladesh performs better on various objective indicators of institutional strength than Pakistan. It scores 39 out of 100 on Freedom House, while Pakistan scores 37. Bangladesh is ranked 76th in the world on the Economist Intelligence Units Democracy Index, barely missing “flawed democracy status.” “. Pakistan is much lower on the list, in 105th place, just below Turkey, an uninvited nominal US ally.
So how do you read this kind of blunder? Perhaps his just negligence, yet another reminder after Afghanistan that Bidens promises to restore US foreign policy competence has not been kept.
On the other hand, it may be deliberate. The United States may have determined that it still “needs Pakistan to help run Afghanistan and therefore cannot officially admit that Prime Minister Imran Khan was indeed selected by the almighty military establishment.” of the country, and not simply elected. Such cynicism somewhat undermines the idea that the summit aims to “renew a common goal.” Certainly, this will make countries like India feel that no matter how our own democratic credentials erode over time, the United States will continue to call us a democracy because it needs us.
So, would you prefer to think that the Democracy Summit is talking about incompetence or cynicism? In fact, you may not have to choose. Because even if the decision to leave aside Bangladesh and Sri Lanka while inviting India and Pakistan was pure realpolitik, it remains a big mistake.
After all, any pragmatic argument for a democracy summit centers on showing faltering democracies the benefits of keeping Beijing at bay; and in doing so, remind the Chinese leadership that their political system is still not the one to which most countries aspire.
So countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, imperfect democracies that are courted by the People’s Republic with money and flattery are precisely the countries you want in the room. They are two pivotal nations in the geopolitical competition to determine the course of this century, and the Biden administration has decided to tell them they don’t matter.
The point is, once you’ve turned a conference invitation into a certificate, it’s the certificate that counts, not the conference. A certificate from the US President plays on national self-image and domestic politics in complicated ways. The position of the Pakistani regime vis-à-vis its besieged liberal dissidents has strengthened; and Bangladeshi politicians have been given a reason to be suspicious of the United States. or terrorism. He might as well have added that when Chinese leaders insult a country, it is at least blunt.
Derek Grossman of Rand Corp. said the administration “essentially blew up (its) Indo-Pacific strategy overnight with the Democracy Summit.” He’s not wrong. The US strategy for the region, like everyone else, argues for common democratic principles underpinning alliances to constrain illiberal actors like Beijing. Now, however, when American diplomats or their European and Indian counterparts travel to Colombo and Dhaka and talk about “shared values,” their hosts can silence them in seconds. Why should we listen to you talk about values, they will ask. The US president doesn’t even think it was a democracy.
Mihir Swarup Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi and responsible for its Economics and Growth program. He is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.
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