One of President Biden’s foreign policy campaign commitments was to hold a “Summit of Democracies” in the first year of his presidency. While skeptics have raised valid concerns—not least which countries should appear on the guestlist— a summit could spur useful reforms at home and abroad. One way to ensure meaningful outcomes, and helpfully side-step the invitation question, would be for the Biden-Harris administration to build on a successful initiative of the Obama-Biden era: the Open Government Partnership.
President Biden issued the call for a summit as part of a speech that highlighted the many fixes required to strengthen democracy at home in the US: from voting rights and criminal justice reform, through campaign finance transparency, to openness around beneficial ownership. He suggested any summit should galvanize country commitments to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism, and advance human rights. Finally, he indicated the summit should include civil society organizations.
The Obama-Biden administration’s signature international governance initiative, the Open Government Partnership, already boasts many of these features. It is a coalition that now includes seventy-eight national governments and thousands of civil society organizations. The two groups work together to create a reform agenda over a two-year cycle—and reform progress is independently monitored. The Partnership already tracks thousands of commitments in areas from corruption, through digital governance, to gender. Rather than creating a new institution to track commitments in the same area, the Summit of Democracies could use the Open Government Partnership as a tool (something suggested by OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan).
Cultivating the invite list for a meeting of democracies is almost sure to spawn reputational risks, particularly where it comes to countries with questionable democratic bona fides or excluding countries that don’t fit around the designated table. The “Community of Democracies”—an initiative born during the Clinton administration—has a 29-strong “Governing Council” envisioned as a venue for countries to “work together to learn from each other and identify global priorities for diplomatic action to advance and defend democracy.” But the list of member states includes countries you would be hard-pressed to highlight as speeding on the road to a stronger democracy. The Atlantic Council has offered an alternative—building on the regularly convening of a D-10 group—made up of the current G-7 members, plus South Korea, India, and Australia. But Sweden, New Zealand, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and the Maldives are only some of the countries who might be out by their exclusion (they all score higher on the Freedom House Index than the US).
The Open Government Partnership avoids this problem by allowing any government to be a member as long as it signs up to the Open Government Declaration and continues to make reform commitments. Committing to a direction of travel seems appropriate given that all countries are still on a journey towards greater democracy, as both President Biden’s speech and America’s recent history have suggested.
Perhaps the Summit to be hosted by the President could be open to all countries who have signed the Open Government Declaration, but also an additional set of country-specific commitments to future reform judged actionable and exceptional by both the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee and the US government. That would surely help encourage a bumper crop of significant open government reforms. After a decade of global backsliding on measures of democracy, it would make the Summit’s commitments welcome indeed.