On December 9th and 10th, President Biden will host 110 countries for a virtual “Summit for Democracy.” The purpose, according to the State Department, will be to “showcase one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently, so that we may, as the United States Constitution puts it, ‘form a more perfect union.’”

As several commentators have noticed (e.g. here, here, and here), a number of the invitees have substantial imperfections that urgently need acknowledgement and confrontation.

In a Niskanen Center commentary earlier this week, I outlined a system for scoring countries regarding their degree of liberal democracy and state capacity. Liberal democracy is scored according to a list of characteristics that governments ought to have if they want to be considered members of the club – things like government integrity, the rule of law, secure property rights, personal freedoms, and fair elections. State capacity is scored according to things that determine whether a country can accomplish what it sets out to do, without regard to whether its aims are good or bad – things like the ability to prioritize and execute, to maintain internal and external security, and to manage state finances. 

Figure 1 shows the scores for countries invited and not invited to the democracy summit. The horizontal and vertical axes show standardized scores with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1. Countries that fall to the left of the vertical axis are thus “illiberal” in the sense of having scores lower than the global mean. (Follow this link for the complete data on which the chart is based.)

Of the 83 invitees for which complete data are available, 25 have liberal democracy scores lower than Hungary, which, despite its EU membership and a positive liberal democracy score (+0.16), was not invited. From highest to lowest liberal democracy rankings, those 25 countries are Columbia, Senegal, Mexico, Albania, Moldova, Serbia, Guyana, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Philippines, Malawi, Paraguay, Nepal, Ecuador, Suriname, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Zambia, Niger, Pakistan, Iraq, Angola, and last of all, the misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo. Countries from Kenya on down have negative liberal democracy scores. (Singapore, the most liberal excluded country, has a high overall liberal democracy score because of its adherence to liberal principles such as rule of law, property rights, and government integrity even though it has scores below the global mean for personal freedoms and does not run regular, free and fair elections.)

Democracy, like other human virtues, is always a work in progress. Let’s hope that at least some of the invitees see the summit as an occasion to take a step forward.

Photo: iStock