Nathalie Tocci is Pierre Keller visiting professor at Harvard Kennedy School, director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, member of the board of directors of ENI and author of POLITICSView of the world column.
In an age of rivalry between the great powers, the protection and promotion of democratic values are increasingly becoming two sides of the same coin. And as global democracies virtually come together at US President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit this week, guests – including 26 European Union member states – should consider them as such.
Two of the main objectives of the summit are to protect democracies from authoritarianism and diseases like corruption, and to promote democracy in the undemocratic world. Biden therefore naturally opted for a broad approach to his list of participants: more than 100 countries will be present at the summit, several of which present themselves as weak democracies or visibly display authoritarian traits.
The logic is both strategic – because the rivalry with authoritarian China is at the forefront of all minds – and normative: if democracy is an endless journey that can advance but also retreat, we must first recognize its weaknesses. in order to remedy it.
The summit’s protection agenda includes strengthening human rights, the rule of law and good governance, tackling socio-economic inequalities, investing in innovation and industrial capacities and improving of security. It means showing that liberal democracy keeps its promises and that it is worth striving for. It also requires confidently dissuading and constraining all these external attempts at interference and hybrid destabilization, especially by authoritarian powers.
This agenda is both ambitious and complex, but at least it is clear. The real difficulty arises when we move on to promoting democratic values.
Foreign policy instruments developed for the promotion of value belong to a bygone era. Military interventions, sanctions, development and trade conditionality, civil society support and, in the case of the EU, enlargement and neighborhood policies all worked best in the height of the country. liberal international order.
The application of these instruments in our current post-interventionist era of contestation of values may still function in the same way in some cases, such as Georgia or Ukraine. But in most of the rest – from Serbia and Turkey to Belarus – they just don’t. Indeed, the latter two countries weren’t even on Biden’s rather generous invitation list.
There is, however, an advantage in the United States explicitly turning away from military interventions carried out with the (apparently) aim of promoting democracy. The damage done to the global appeal of liberal democratic values during these years and to the credibility of the West has been enormous, especially in much of the South.
However, the hard power of the United States also supported the EU’s largely soft power tools as they propagated the liberal democratic ideals of the bloc. With this fundamental overhaul of the role of the United States in the world, the weight of European policies aimed at disseminating such standards has also diminished.
This does not imply the abandonment of European policies of enlargement, association, sanctions or trade or development. In fact, the opposite is true. However, this means that by doubling the values promoted by these policies, the EU must acquire a good dose of strategic patience.
Above all, this means that given the diminishing direct and short-term effect of its foreign policies, the most important thing the EU – and all liberal democracies – could do is put some order in. their own home.
For the EU, this means ensuring that the values enshrined in the Treaty on European Union, including human rights, the rule of law and democracy, are respected not only by the countries that wish to join. the Union, but also by those who are already members. The cases of Hungary and Poland stand out on this front, the former not even having been invited to the summit and currently trying to block the EU’s joint contribution because of it.
The legal path to ensuring EU countries stay true to EU values - including the suspension of voting rights in the bloc – is difficult, if not impossible, to follow. The political route of persuasion has so far not been effective either. It is therefore the path of economic conditionality, in which the European Commission has embarked and defended by the EU’s Advocate General this week, which is the necessary path to take. We must ensure that EU money stops flowing to countries that do not follow its rules.
What is at stake here is not only democracy in Hungary and Poland, but the signal to other illiberal and nationalist forces in Europe. It is about protecting the foundations of the EU and of liberal democracy in general.
The democratic path is far from linear, and the aim of this summit must be to find how to work together along the way. This is central US and EU leadership, not from the front, and in order to promote liberal values, the democratic model must be seen as worth emulating.
It requires first looking the newspaper in our own eyes and being prepared to recognize – and remedy – our own democratic weaknesses.