If the current state of global democracy is struggling to survive, as new studies indicate, will we feel any better after this weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Argentina?
Not likely. And the reason will be on stark display in Saturday’s closing group photo of the leaders attending the summit.
With despots, dictators and at least one cold-blooded killer among them, it will resemble a rogues’ gallery of pretenders who are working tirelessly — often in the dead of night without us knowing — to undermine democracy in many countries.
Although not a word about this will be uttered at this year’s G20, that is the issue that should be dominating the summit.
In October, a Stockholm-based international institute updated its report on “The Global State of Democracy” — a study of the performance of 158 countries since 1975. It reported an “alarming” decline in the past year in the health of democracy worldwide, warning that “democracy’s global rise has come to a halt.”
According to the study, “the number of countries experiencing democratic decline is now greater than the number experiencing democratic gains,” the first time that’s happened since 1980.
Much of this is due to what it called “modern democratic backsliding,” characterized by political parties or leaders “using legal means to weaken democracy from within.”
Similar conclusions were found in this year’s 12th annual survey of “the state of global democracy” by the U.S. research institute Freedom House.
It concluded that democracy faces “its most serious crisis in decades … as its basic tenets — including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law — came under attack around the world.”
It reported that 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties — including nations such as Turkey and Hungary that “a decade ago seemed like promising success stories.”
The report was also critical of Donald Trump’s America: “The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.”
These are not the issues at this year’s G20 and the reason for this is obvious. The summit is being dominated by the very leaders whose actions in the past year have proved to be such a threat to global democracy.
There is Trump, of course, the leader of the pack. In the two years he has been U.S. president, his efforts to attack America’s key democratic institutions, such as a free press and independent judiciary, have been ceaseless. And they have provided incalculable inspiration and cover for authoritarians and despots in every corner of the globe.
Most of the dominant G20 cast of characters also have blood on their hands. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are there, as is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But this year’s award for the most notorious leader in attendance surely goes to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the alleged mastermind behind the savage killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Although still willing to accept Saudi money, many leaders will be horrified at the prospect of having to shake his hand.
The fire and fury at this year’s G20 summit will eventually dissipate, but that likely won’t be enough. The underlying malaise threatening the global order will deepen.
A hundred years ago, an exhausted world was celebrating the end of the First World War and was about to begin the Paris 1919 peace conference intended to create a harmonious, modern new world.
Instead, it led to a century of violent and bloody upheaval.
Decades from now, when historians assess the direction of this 21stcentury, will they note that democracy’s fateful death began here in 2018?
Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributor for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman