The core mission of the democracy summit

Reversing the rise in autocracies will require democracies to self-reflect on the corruption that breeds a loss of trust.

People protest against corruption in front of the Chancellery ahead of the swearing-in ceremony of a new government in Vienna, Austria, Dec. 6.

One unintended consequence of President Joe Biden’s Dec. 9-10 Summit for Democracy is all the complaining beforehand about the 110 nations attending. Critics in many countries asked if their governments can really be called a democracy with so much political favoritism, hidden wealth, bribery, and so on. Critics in the United States were no exception.

But that’s the point. A country’s self-criticism about corruption, made possible by freedom and a bias toward integrity in governance, is the bedrock of democracy. In contrast, dictators squelch public deliberation to hide the stealing of public resources that helps keep them in power.

Mr. Biden made sure the summit is not only about improving the mechanisms of democracy or joining forces with other democracies against a rise in autocracies. Corruption, he says, “is nothing less than a national security threat in the twenty-first century.” It forces democracies to demonstrate “the advantages of transparent and accountable governance.”

Days before the summit, Mr. Biden unveiled the first U.S. strategy on countering corruption. It is aimed mainly at bolstering federal agencies to watch for illicit money flows, whether in U.S. assistance to foreign militaries or the purchases of U.S. real estate by foreign corrupt elite. He also expects countries to bring their own anti-corruption commitments to the summit and be held accountable at a followup summit next year.

Such self-reflection is essential. The world’s democratic decline is driven by a loss of trust in governments that comes with a rise in corruption. Or, as the world’s leading anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International puts it: “The corruption problems that established democracies face at home diminish their ability to confront the rising authoritarianism around the world.”

Cleaning up graft has another benefit. “Nothing gets under the skin of dictators more than democracies working together and confronting corruption,” says Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.

It was probably not a coincidence that opening day of the democracy summit is also International Anti-Corruption Day. Global efforts against corruption barely existed four decades ago. Now at least half of recent pro-democracy protests in countries from Sudan to Myanmar were driven by popular demands for clean governance. Many leading political dissidents, such as Russia’s Alexei Navalny, are primarily anti-corruption fighters. And according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the world has never had so many investigative reporters working to expose corruption.

Mr. Biden’s summit is riding a wave of global activism to revive the ideals of democracy, starting with the self-criticism that helps sustain the social contract in each democracy.

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