At the recently concluded Democracy Summit, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team pledged to revitalize democratic governance at home and called for democratic solidarity to resist creeping authoritarianism abroad. Even amidst all the understandable eyebrow-raising about the summit’s guest list, the administration addressed the United States’ own shortcomings with honesty and humility, made welcome announcements of important new anti-corruption measures, and launched a Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal to ensure that U.S. support for civil and political rights abroad is more concrete than encouraging words.
But where citizens are struggling to move their governments in more democratic directions in Africa, activists on the ground do not always perceive the United States as a resolute partner. In October in Sudan, the military hijacked the country’s transition to democracy despite widespread popular opposition. In the ensuing weeks, the United States has sometimes appeared too willing to endorse superficial nods to civilian empowerment, and the leadership touted at the democracy summit has yet to materialize in the form of a clear strategy for the way forward (although Congress has acted quickly to signal strong bipartisan support for democratic forces in Sudan).
In Somalia, the United States has been strangely lackadaisical about the widening the rift between the governed and the governing. While even the best of circumstances would not soon deliver the kind of governance most observers would recognize as fully democratic, a slow political process aimed at establishing governing norms and accountability has been undermined by the country’s current leadership, seeding justified—and possibly ruinous—doubts about the integrity of that process. If the United States is working behind the scenes to fend off manipulation and restore a shared understanding of the rules of game, it would be wise to make that more apparent to the Somali people, as well as to others in the region trying to assess whether Washington really means what it says.
Questions about the United States’ seriousness in supporting democratic governance do not just revolve around the Horn. In Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United States has embraced transfers of power with dubious constitutional legality and democratic legitimacy. Of course, policymakers have to confront hard choices, weigh competing interests, acknowledge the limits of U.S. influence, and reckon with realities on the ground. But if the United States wants to assert global leadership in invigorating democratic governance and encouraging the risk-taking that is often required to move a society toward greater accountability and respect for the rule of law, decision-makers will have to address the skepticism of reformers who question Washington’s sincerity and commitment.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.