It wasn’t the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and it wasn’t meant to be. Bono wasn’t there, nor was Beyoncé, but former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair were. The event was the first Copenhagen Democracy Summit held on June 22, 2018. No glam, no glitz, just serious policy discussions from an array of former and current world leaders to discuss the precipitous slide in democracy and democratic values the world over. I had the privilege to attend as a board member of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, which was supporting the conference. Here are my impressions.
The brainchild of former Danish Prime Minister and NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Democracy Summit is dedicated to strengthening the resolve of the world’s democracies by providing a high-level forum exclusively focused on the cause of democracy. With democracy under threat from nationalist movements, autocracies, and terrorist organizations, the Summit seeks to meet the need to revitalize the world’s democracies by bringing together current and former heads of state as well as leading business executives, academics, and dissidents into open dialogue to support the maintenance of shared democratic values.
Sounding a somewhat familiar mantra, Summit Chairman Rasmussen opened the conference by declaring to the 350 participants from over 40 nations, “We are here to make democracy great again.” In a time when the world’s democracies are being challenged both from internal and external forces, this Summit did a deep dive why long-accepted democratic norms such as free speech, human rights and free trade are under assault from populist, nationalist and nativist forces at home as well as autocratic nations abroad.
Opening the conference was a sobering statistical study by Dalia, an international research organization. Using its Democracy Perception Index 2018 (DPI), the single largest study measuring citizens’ trust in government, Dalia found that democracies are facing a severe crisis in faith in the eyes of the public. The DPI 2018 found that a majority of people living today in democracies no longer believe that government works for them. Among the report’s findings, a surprising 51% of people living in democratic countries think their voice “rarely” or “never” matters in politics. Moreover, in democracies, a majority of the population, 64%, believes that their governments “rarely” or “never” act in the interest of the public compared with only 41% saying the same in non-democracies.
This tocsin of democracies in peril was addressed throughout the Summit, but most notably in an extraordinary panel discussion with the former heads and deputy heads of state of Canada, Spain, Estonia, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. The panelists agreed that for many, democracy is perceived as deaf, cut off from the needs and aspirations of immigrants, unresponsive to the fears of workers caught in rapidly re-tooling economies and sclerotic in its ability to respond quickly to disasters or update crumbling infrastructures. “People tell us they are unhappy, we must listen,” said former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “We have to show that democracy can adapt and innovate to meet challenges of a changing society,” opined Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Indeed, democracy did not get off lightly at the conference. Speaker after speaker bemoaned the back-sliding, seemingly epidemic in democratic nations today where their governments are perceived as inept, incompetent, or worse, indifferent. Joe Biden was most forceful in his assessment that “the threat to democracy isn’t just Russia. Authoritarianism is on the rise in every region.” Biden called for a re-dedication to the principles that form the bulwark of democracies: inclusive institutions, the rule of law, equal protection, and equality of opportunity for all. Concluding with a strong statement meant to throw down the gauntlet to the democracies of the world, Biden said, “Democracy demands diligence. Democracy demands engagement. And sometimes democracy demands sacrifice of its citizens. That’s how we keep it.” “Let’s not forget who the hell we are.”
Another panel delved into the current conundrum of “fake news” and how movements and forces use it to sow discord and fear in the electorate. Indeed, many fingers were pointed to the Russians as masters of these dark arts, while criticism was also subtly leveled against the current U.S. administration for labeling political opponents and news organizations as purveyors of the trade.
Running a close second to the “fake news” topic was cyber security and hacking and how democratic institutions are besieged by a blitz of hacking from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. Often, this activity goes beyond the simple stealing of data and intellectual property and seeks to undermine public confidence in the electoral system of many Western democracies.
Tony Blair closed the conference with a plea for a more “muscular” democracy as a statement that those who hold it dear will fight to keep it. He urged participants and governments alike to spread the gospel of democracy and to communicate that it does work and that it is worth fighting for. Pointedly, he said, “Democracy needs to revive its spirit.”
As is often the case, the real value of these conferences was not what was said at the podium by the speakers, but was whispered in the halls amongst the participants. Time and time again, we Americans were questioned by our European colleagues about the direction of our government regarding NATO, free trade, and immigration. While anger was never apparent, confusion and frustration were. The confusion was based upon a general befuddlement over current policies towards Europe and the frustration stemming from an inability to understand our seeming rejection of 73 years of collective security in favor of warmer relations with Russian autocrats. As one conferee noted at lunch, “The autocrats and the despots are on the march again. They think this is their time.”
Notwithstanding attendees’ confusion and frustration, it was clear that America does matter, America is the key, and America is indispensable to democracy and to global leadership. They just don’t know if America agrees.