In diplomacy, a snub can be a hard thing to shake off. Earlier this year, US President Joe Biden invited dozens of world leaders to his ‘Leaders Summit on Climate’ – but he skipped Pakistan’s PM, who was already feeling spurned over not receiving the customary phone call from the then new US President. Biden recently tried to make amends by inviting Pakistan, among 100+ other countries, to his ‘Summit for Democracy’ (taking place December 9 to 10). The invitation was widely seen as an olive branch.
However, at the last moment, Islamabad gently turned down the RSVP. That’s a rare decline to this hyped-up new forum by Biden, who is hoping to assemble a coalition of democratic countries and aspiring democracies, in order to repel the appeal of rising authoritarianism across the world. With an eye on Russia and China, America is trying to re-frame the debate around governance systems. Pakistan’s decision to abstain will be noticed in DC, in the backdrop of recession in bilateral relations.
Pakistan being unable to attend could be linked with reasons beyond those of personal nature. Its close friend China was not invited to the said democracy conclave. On top of it, Taiwan, which China hopes to one day peacefully reunify with, was found on the list of invitees. The reaction from China’s Foreign Ministry has been to strongly oppose the summit and denounce US efforts to divide the world. As for Pakistan, well, it appears that it chose to stay on the right side of its all-weather friend.
The democracy summit is expected to produce pledges and declarations around issues of human rights, religious liberties, internet freedom, organized crime, corruption, and money-laundering. The next summit is planned for next year, which observers say will be bigger, face-to-face, and more assertive in tone. It won’t be possible for Pakistan to keep on boycotting this platform if it took off.
However, the times are such that fiscally-strapped developing countries (the target audience for such summits) are trying hard to contain the pandemic, with their economic recoveries mired in an on-again, off-again spiral, thanks to one Covid-19 variant after another. Therefore, it remains to be seen if America’s appeals to “values” will fly. Besides, since the state of democracy within the US itself is in need of repair, it isn’t clear whether America’s message for deeper democracy will sell well.
Associated with dysfunction, democracy is in decline globally. Some Western commentators have argued that instead of giving lectures on democracy, America should donate the largely-unvaccinated developing countries tons of vaccines, so they can fight their way out of pandemic. Besides, efforts need to go into operationalizing the US-backed ‘Build Back Better World’ and EU’s ‘Global Gateway’ infrastructure-funding initiatives in developing countries. Actions do speak louder than words.