The inaugural Summit for Democracy hosted by President Biden presents both a challenge and an opportunity.
In the past, such a gathering would be designed to draw a bright line between the community of democracies and authoritarian regimes. While this is still the case, there are questions about the strength and resiliency of democracies globally and here in the United States. There have always been challenges in conducting a long-term strategic foreign policy in a democracy that has multiple institutions with different priorities and ideological swings which hamper coherent execution. Now stark domestic political divisions and a lack of civility further impede collaboration on key foreign policy priorities.
While building alliances and gathering leaders of democratic nations is essential, simply holding a formal summit is not enough to underpin these efforts. There must be a sustained campaign across sectors to reaffirm the value of democratic principles, rules-based order and universal rights in our international relationships.
At Meridian we have long advocated supporting government efforts with communities of interests drawn from civil society, the private sector and journalists to advance the cause of democratic engagement and accountability. We introduce thousands of current and emerging international visionaries to the United States each year through our slate of leadership exchanges and training programs. While the program themes vary, each participant, regardless of country of origin, views the experience primarily through the lens of American democracy. Our system of government and democratic institutions are the backbone of these study tours. While we recognize that federalism is not perfect, my team and I believe in this system wholeheartedly, and we take considerable pride in shining the spotlight on our values. I hope that the Summit will embrace this broader definition of leadership, as it will take all of us to ensure that the cherished privilege to live in a democratic society with strong values is preserved and strengthened.
Outside our work, it is imperative for all of us to shine the spotlight on the virtues of democracy – and not just this week but in all we do going forward. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently found that 70 percent of the global population is now living in either non-democratic regimes or in democratically backsliding countries. The same democratic backsliding can be said for democracy within the U.S. as well. A national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School indicates that 52 percent believe that our democracy is either “in trouble” (39 percent) or “failing” (13 percent).
Regardless of polling outcomes, we remain committed to preserving democracy at all levels. We continue to share our democratic values through various programs targeting youth engagement, diversity, and inclusion such as DiplomacyRISE, an inclusive diplomatic professional development program that provides greater access to critical skills training, career guidance networks and emerging issue expertise to cultivate the next generation of U.S. diplomats that reflect America’s diversity and are equipped with 21st century statecraft skills and knowledge. Additionally, we hosted a Summit for Democracy preview with Jon Finer, Principal Deputy National Security Advisor, which brought together chiefs of mission to learn more on the Biden administration’s national security priorities. Mr. Finer discussed the importance of revitalizing alliances and partnerships around the world and across sectors and demographics to confront shared global threats. Stephenie Foster, Meridian Council member, moderated the conversation sharing, “It’s so critical to ensure that all of our diplomatic efforts have a gender lens. That is why I see the new U.S. Strategy on Gender and Equality and Equity as so important on setting those goals across government, but especially in terms of our foreign policy and national security.”
Citizen diplomacy is all about calling on friends, community members and fellow global citizens to share the tenants of democracy, values of freedom and respect of human rights in order to consider their lives through the lens of democracy – and an alternative to authoritarian regimes. While President Biden may only be gathering heads of state this week, there is a role for all of us.