'The American democracy doctor needs to heal thyself first!’
Published: Dec 09, 2021 07:41 PM
Photo: Xinhua

Photo: Xinhua

Editor's Note:

The Summit for Democracy hosted by the US is set for Thursday and Friday. Many believe the summit is the US' plan to isolate China and Russia in terms of values. Is the US qualified to regard itself as the leader of world democracy? Can the banner of democracy solidify the countries participating to the summit into a unified camp against China? Sourabh Gupta (Gupta), a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, expressed his views on these issues with Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Lu Yuanzhi.  

GT: In your opinion, what is democracy? Does the US have the dominant right to define democracy?

Gupta: Democracy, in a nutshell, is about representative government. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, democracy is self-government "of the people, by the people, for the people." Supreme power is vested in the people but is exercised on their behalf by a representative institution or body. Two features are paramount: The system must be representative, and the system must be consultative. These features allow for different forms of preference aggregation, depending on the political system. In the Western tradition, this has taken the shape of periodic elections to test the strength of the sitting government's public mandate. 

Western democracy has a storied history, and the US has justifiable reason to be proud (for the most part) of its democracy and democratic traditions. Its democracy has weathered war and economic depression at home and abroad and renewed itself through times thick-and-thin. That does not give it any more right though to define who and what is and is not a democracy - let alone proselytize for democracy abroad, and that too out of the barrel of a gun at times. It is for each people to make their choice on the representative nature of their own political system based on their own national traditions and preferences. It is telling that Lincoln's quote from November 1863 was in fact borrowed from the prologue of a translation of the Bible that was written half a millennium earlier, which had deemed the Bible to be a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." In our secular age today, few would consider the Bible to be an adequate basis for representative government. So also, today, let it be for nations and peoples to choose - rather than be lectured on - their own forms of representative government that is attuned to their national conditions. And, at the end of the day, people will gravitate toward the best political choices that they view to be uniquely suited to their well-being.

GT: The New York Times cited a new analysis that "The United States and its allies accounted for a significantly outsize share of global democratic backsliding in the last decade," and said that Western core elements like election fairness or judicial independence have weakened. In your view, what are the main causes? Against this backdrop, is the US qualified to regard itself as the leader of world democracy? 

Gupta: Democracy is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end - that being the welfare and pursuit of happiness as a people. Stripped down to its bare essentials, democracy must deliver the goods - in this context, the goods being socio-economic opportunity, upward mobility, job stability, wage gains, political inclusion, and national security. On many counts, the US is failing and failing miserably. 

While the US economy had averaged annual GDP growth of 3.9 percent over the last six decades of the 20th century, it has struggled to break through the 2 percent mark in the first two decades of the 21st century. The one-off structural factors that had propelled America's late-20th century "golden economic age" (favorable baby boomer demographics, the rise in female labor market participation, the expansion of tertiary education, and a huge increase in household debt) are all moving into reversal, which will worsen America's economic prospects over the next quarter century. Furthermore, as globalization and digitalization accentuate social divisions, roughly one in seven prime-age men - many white, working-class and lacking a college degree - have exited the labor market altogether. It is estimated that anywhere between a quarter and a third of American prime-age males might be out of work by mid-century, a predicament unseen since the Great Depression and perhaps even since the end of the Reconstruction era after the American Civil War in the late-19th century. Democracy isn't quite delivering the goods for the average American, which is an important reason for the rise of the type of lumpen elements that we witnessed at the gates of the US Congress on January 6. 

It bears mentioning that this backsliding is not particular to America or developed societies. Indeed, one reason why democracy has had a hard time consolidating itself in many post-colonial developing societies in Asia and Africa is because not even one country on these two continents that began its post-colonial political life as a democracy has managed to transform itself into an advanced economy. By contrast, (well-governed) societies in East Asia that started off with an authoritarian cast of mind have crossed or are about to cross the threshold of advanced economy status. Some have even gone on to become far superior in their democratic processes than their counterpart democracies in developing Asia and Africa. As I noted at the start, democracy is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. And while people will cherish democracy and afford it the benefit of doubt, democracy too must deliver at the end of the day. And in parts of the world, rich and poor, it is failing to do so.

GT: The US said it has been spreading democracy across the world. But wherever it goes, it has left wars and chaos and people suffer from poverty. You said, "Democracy is for each country to shape and work through in its own ways, systems and fashions." What's your take on the practices by which the US and Western countries try to impose their own model of democracy on other countries? What do you think of the US using its own criteria to define some countries as "democratic" while others as "autocratic"?

Gupta: I would somewhat differentiate between the US' neo-imperialist interventions, many of them illegal, conducted under the guise of nuclear non-proliferation, humanitarianism, and anti-terrorism, and the US' democracy promotion activities. The former was not taken with intent to foist democracy on an unsuspecting country; rather the outcome of the intervention was to evict its incumbent leaders and thereby by default impose a one-size-fits-all democratic model under American tutelage on the country. Unsurprisingly, the upshot of this malpractice has been a somewhat unpleasant experience, as a new polity untethered to its existing socio-cultural and political traditions, has failed to deliver the economic goods. In places like Afghanistan and Libya, it has even been a waystation to anarchy. As the [failure of the] Arab Spring reminds us, democratic transitions are neither easy nor for the faint-hearted, and such transitions must enjoy significant local, self-sustaining ownership and motivation to succeed. Top-down approaches by metropole-dispatched military commanders and civilian democracy advocates, semi-illiterate to the ways of their new wards, is never a good recipe for success 

As for the US using its own criteria to define some countries as "democratic" while others as "autocratic," well, the distinguishing feature of the represented South Asian countries at the "Summit for Democracy" is not democracy or autocracy but the pro-US  orientation of the incumbent government. If this summit was held in 2018, neither Maldives nor Nepal would have received an invitation. And contrarily, Sri Lanka would have been a valued guest. Which again speaks to the geostrategic purposes of the summit rather than an abiding idealized commitment to democracy. 

Setting aside this quibbling nevertheless, the best thing that Washington could rather do at this time is to put its own house in order. This should start with reform of its archaic presidential electoral college system. Since the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988, Republican candidates have won a majority of ballots cast in presidential elections on only one occasion (George W. Bush in 2004), yet they have held office for almost an equal amount of time as the Democrats in the time since. And had a mere 45,000 votes changed hands in three states during this current cycle, Donald Trump could yet be sitting in the White House despite having lost by 7 million votes to Joe Biden in the popular vote count. This outrageously skewed system of vote-counting has material consequences, which includes the nomination of an unrepresentative Supreme Court that may be about to strike down longstanding jurisprudence and heap further polarization on the country. The American democracy doctor needs to heal thyself first! 


GT: In a recent interview, you said, the so-called "Summit for Democracy" will only create "a sense of division" at a time when "all countries need to get together and pull in the same direction." To what extent can such "sense of division" generated by the summit aggravate the division of the world? 

Gupta: The great global challenges of the day, notable climate change, virus control and economic recovery, require all major countries to pull together and work in unison. These challenges do not require the inauguration of a new era of Great Power competition, which is part-and-parcel of what the "Summit for Democracy" is attempting to achieve. Make no mistake, the summit is essentially just an American power-play with regard to its Great Power competition with China. And it really isn't even about democracy per se, given the lack of major opposition figures and broad-based civil society participation. Rather, the summit's primary logic is to channel idealism in the service of realist goals - that being, strengthening realism-based geopolitical alliances which divide parties along pro-and-anti-China lines. And thereafter proceed to construct a "coalition of the willing" that could enforce long-arm jurisdiction selectively on corruption, forced labor and human rights-related issues in pursuit of an "us-versus-them" geopolitical contest against Chinese power in Asia and the world.   

At this time, the pressing challenge in US-China relations is to build bridges that could harmonize their respective approaches toward each other. At their recent virtual summit, President Xi Jinping had suggested that the two sides adopt a "peaceful coexistence, no conflict, no confrontation" bottom line and sincerely adhere to it. For his part, President Joe Biden spoke of the need to manage strategic risks responsibly and equip the relationship with common sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict. The two sides need to use their respective approaches as a common bottom line and build a relationship of "constructive and cooperative coexistence" on this foundation. Rather than build a bridge that could facilitate the tackling of some of the large collective challenges in concert, the Summit for Democracy will in fact sow greater division and make it harder for Washington and Beijing to tackle these challenges. For example, reforms to the global public health architecture, such as fast-tracking and sharing support during emergencies, bolstering global health surveillance systems, etc - let alone collaboratively trace the origins of the virus - will stand little chance of success, going forward. 

GT: It is widely believed that the summit for democracy has nothing to do with democracy and its real intent is to isolate China and Russia.  Do you think the banner of democracy can solidify the countries participating to the summit into a unified camp against China?  

Gupta: I would go a step further and say that the "Summit for Democracy" is intended to isolate China primarily - not China and Russia. One cannot directly say so at the inter-governmental level, hence the dressing up of the occasion as a democracy v. autocracy event and not purely as an anti-China event. 

The original idea to hold the summit was struck up by Candidate Biden to project that he was not "soft on China" to the American electorate. [When he was] Vice President Biden, after all, he had a constructive and purposeful relationship with President Xi. But in the day and age of COVID-19 and Donald Trump's furious stigmatization of China, running for president on the basis of his China credentials was political suicide. And so he hit upon the idea of calling a democracy summit in his first year in office in a Foreign Affairs article that he penned in Spring 2020, and borrowing from Cold War imagery framed the US-China relationship in Manichean terms - one where the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy defined not just the past but the future too. There is a certain irony here. Even during the peak of the Cold War, Soviet communism was not deemed in itself to pose a threat; it was only to the extent that authoritarianism and communism were used as instruments of Soviet geopolitical expansion was Soviet communism deemed to be a threat. Even hard-boiled critics of China today will acknowledge that the Communist Party of China's ideological evangelism stops at the water's edge. Chinese socialism is not an instrument of geopolitical aggrandizement or a model for export. 

And it is for these precise reasons that the Summit will also fail to solidify a consensus among participating countries into a unified camp against China. A summit that is called in order to check a box on an expedient election campaign promise and which distortedly uses the democracy v. autocracy prism to refract the great global challenges of the day, will have little lasting effect or value. Rather, like the farcical - and quickly forgotten - "New Atlantic Charter" that Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed earlier this year (to recreate the spirit of that great original document authored by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941), the Summit for Democracy, and perhaps a successor summit, will leave little lasting imprint.