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Democracy is in trouble, and Biden’s summit is not going to fix it

Aleksandar Hemon is an author, essayist and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Aida A. Hozic is an associate professor of international relations and associate chair of the department of political science at the University of Florida. Srdjan Vucetic is a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. 

At this time of year, Sarajevo is usually enveloped in hellish smog. The city sits in a valley, surrounded by mountains, and the smoke and pollution produced by heating oil and car exhaust simply have no place to go. And when the smog descends upon the capital, visibility is minimal. The airport shuts down, driving is difficult after dark, residents stay indoors, as if in a lockdown. Sarajevo’s minarets and church spires, its famous clock tower and the illuminated city hall eerily glow in the dark, seemingly located in some alternate universe and not at the heart of Europe.

This year, however, the smog is not stopping an array of foreign emissaries coming and going. There are mounting fears that Bosnia’s prolonged political crisis — a product of a debilitating institutional structure created by the Dayton Peace Agreement and continued aggressive nationalism on the part of the country’s leadership – might lead to its breakup or another war. Concerned emissaries try to reason with Bosnia’s natives, offering them carrots and sticks to stay the course on the same dysfunctional ethno-nationalist path, and to postpone their petty squabbles until the next election cycle descends upon the world’s metropolitan centers. 

Yet these representatives all know, Bosnia is not alone in this — trouble is brewing all over the Balkans. Tensions are high in Montenegro and in North Macedonia, the two most recent NATO members. Kosovo and Serbia are nowhere close to agreement over the former’s sovereign status. Even the neighboring European Union countries — Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and, of course, Hungary — are increasingly dropping the pretense of becoming the reliable democratic partners that Brussels and Washington say they want in the region.  

Thus, the emissaries pinch their noses while in Sarajevo, worried that the smog they are confronting could be some dreaded Balkan miasma, which has already created enough trouble for the civilized world they imagine themselves a part of. 

But the Balkans is not at the root of the world’s current problems. Ethnocentric, racist appeals to nationalism are simmering under the surface of democracies everywhere.  

The countries gathering virtually today for U.S. President Joe Biden’s first Summit for Democracy are no exception. There, participants from 100 more-or-less democracies will deliver mostly predictable speeches about “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” and the need for democratic allies to listen to one another and make nice. 

Endorsed early on by Biden’s presidential campaign managers, the Summit for Democracy was supposed to be a relatively safe undertaking. Once upon a time, Republicans as well as Democrats agreed that democratic nations should work together to provide international public goods. Former President Bill Clinton, State Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton as well as Senator John McCain had expressed interest in a similar “league” or “community” of democracies, as had some foreign policy advisers to former President Barack Obama. Even Senator Bernie Sanders argued for a “global democratic movement.”  

Yet Biden’s summit is now facing criticism from all directions — especially when it comes to who’s been invited. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not included in this summit. It is the only Western Balkan state to be kept off the list, while countries like Serbia and Croatia that fought hard for the segregation in Bosnia have been welcomed. Perhaps their delegates, together with those from the “backsliding” Poland and the Philippines, will now get to tell us what democracy really means.

Critically, even the host of the summit has plenty of problems at home. After all, the gathering is taking place at a time when the American right wing itself is deeply divided over the benefits of liberal democracy. Many conservatives think America’s multiracial, multicultural national identity is just one more illusion to be dispelled, and the Constitution an optical obstacle to overcome. 

In the face of the rising global tide of authoritarianism, Biden’s usual tactical approach — confrontation avoidance for the purpose of false unity — is not only morally wrong but also politically counterproductive. Unless he changes tack and understands that he has a fight for the survival of democratic governance on his hands, his second Summit for Democracy will be taking place in a far more challenging environment — both at home and everywhere else.  

30 years ago, the U.S. and Europe had a chance to prevent and then stop the war in Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They chose convenient containment instead, and the price was genocide. If the U.S. and the EU care about democracy and about their own future, they must realize the world is being primed for major conflict — conflict whose arrival the people in the Balkans, peripheral to the fantasies of eternal democracy, have learned to recognize long before the Western diplomats who excel in slapdash conflict containment. 

If the U.S. and the EU, and all those ready to eulogize democracy for the select audience of President Biden and his advisers, are at all serious, they must aggressively support progressive democratic forces in America, Bosnia and everywhere — for today is almost over, and tomorrow will be too late. 

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