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Summit for Democracy – the future: how to sustain international support

Wednesday 7 – Friday 9 February 2024 | WP3355

Summit for Democracy – potential images

In association with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Westminster Foundation for Democracy.


At the outset of an unprecedented year of elections and ahead of the third Summit for Democracy (S4D3) in March 2024, this Wilton Park event considered:

  • Why democracy matters
  • The state of democracy
  • Opportunities for democratic renewal
  • The value and role of the Summit for Democracy so far
  • Possibilities for the way forward

The value of democratic political systems, the reality of democratic backsliding, and the danger of increasing autocratisation are widely acknowledged. Globally, although people are dissatisfied with their governments, there is still widespread desire for democracy. Democratic renewal is urgent .

A revitalised democracy narrative; united, democratic alliances that act quickly; regional action; upholding and enhancing electoral integrity; young people; and patient, politically informed, adaptive international support are all opportunities for democratic renewal. Ultimately, though, democratic renewal will depend on ensuring democracies can address the problems people face and deliver security, development, and shared prosperity.

The Biden Administration’s Summit for Democracy initiative provided a forum for focus at a critical time for the international community and catalysed domestic action in a range of countries by enabling leaders, governments, academics, the private sector, and civil society to align on democratic priorities and follow this up with sustained support and action. This made the S4D process a potential “north star” for people working to support democracy.

The challenges we face – including those related to digital technology and elections, conflict, and climate change, for example – will impact democracy even further and mean we need closer coordination. There is clear support for an ongoing forum like the Summit for Democracy but with flexibility on its exact format and frequency. In broad terms, the key elements include an engaging and inspiring leader-level discussion that enables collaboration among democratic actors, learning about effective responses to challenges, and support for initiatives to address those challenges. Activity between leaders’ discussions is also critical and needs to be well organised and resourced. This could require establishment of a secretariat


  1. In December 2021, against a background of declining levels of democracy across the world, the US hosted the first Summit for Democracy (S4D), a virtual event that brought together over 100 world leaders to focus on challenges and opportunities facing democracies and announce commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.
  2. A second, hybrid summit was co-hosted by the US, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Zambia, and the Republic of Korea in 2023. At S4D2, the gathered world leaders reaffirmed their shared belief that democracy is “humanity’s most enduring means to advance peace, prosperity, equality, sustainable development, and security[1]”.
  3. Ahead of the third Summit for Democracy (S4D3) hosted by the Republic of Korea in March 2024, this Wilton Park event sought to consider the role and value of the Summit for Democracy and what should come after S4D3.
  4. Subject matter experts and engaged stakeholders came together to discuss the challenges to democracy, opportunities for democratic renewal, and to support the development of a clear plan for galvanising multilateral and national efforts to protect and strengthen democracy.

Why democracy matters

  1. The ability of human societies to address the increasingly complex challenges we face depends on enabling the personal, economic, political, and social freedoms that are the hallmark of open societies and democratic political systems. Following the wave of democratisation in the past century, evidence and research show that democracies perform better than autocracies on all key measures.
  2. On average, democracies have higher growth, higher levels of accountability and justice, lower levels of corruption, more ambitious climate policies, and are less prone to conflict, instability, and atrocities. They have lower infant mortality rates, increased social spending, and better gender equality[2].
  3. In certain cases, autocracies have been able to demonstrate achievements in economic growth and development. But their data may not always be reliable.
  4. The societal criticisms of open societies would not be possible in autocracies and the opportunity alone to have this debate is a worthy freedom.
  5. In providing the space for creativity and innovation, democracies can unlock another level of development that autocracies will fail to reach. Democracy empowers people to go after their dreams.

The state of democracy

  1. Authoritarian regimes are becoming more entrenched and hybrid regimes are finding it hard to democratise.
  2. According to V-Dem’s most recent analysis, 72% of the world’s population lives under an autocratic regime[3]. 2023 was not a good year for democracy by most metrics: the global average score on the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index fell, with 68 countries registering a decline in their score[4].
  3. The global decline in democracy manifests in several ways, including:
    • Increasingly assertive authoritarian actors that are closing civic space and using technology to crush dissent.
    • An increase in the popularity and number of populist movements across the world, with more and more people turning to nondemocratic alternatives.
    • Demoralisation, disengagement, and growing cynicism among citizens who are not confident that engaging in the democratic process will lead to tangible changes in their circumstances – and declining public trust in institutions.
    • A growing tendency towards polarisation in societies on the basis of identity-based politics which is then used to justify repression of rights.
  4. These are symptoms, not the cause, of democratic decline and we must keep asking why the decline is happening. Reasons include:
    • Authoritarians are learning from their experiences, and one another, and putting these lessons into practice.
    • Citizens lack choice and agency: they often cannot see credible alternative leadership, and closed political systems dominated by wealthy elites make people feel they cannot access power and do not have a voice.
    • Uncertainty, insecurity (especially linked on organised crime), and rising levels of conflict across the globe.
    • Resentment towards Western powers and inequalities within the multilateral system.
    • Corruption and the influence of money in politics.
    • Dis- and misinformation.
  1. Importantly, people turn to populist and authoritarian leaders because their governments are not delivering, not because they have given up on democracy. The failure of governments in democracies to deliver the security, development and shared prosperity citizens want is a central challenge. Addressing issues like rising insecurity, cost of living, and housing affordability is essential to maintain public trust. Where there is bad pollution in cities, poor child healthcare, and unreliable transport, people will turn to alternative solutions.
  2. Together, resentment, apathy and insecurity are hugely damaging to the perception of democracy as a legitimate and effective problem-solving system and provide fuel for the populist fire.
  3. But the fact that people are dissatisfied with their governments does not mean they do not want democracy. There is widespread support for and commitment to the principles and values of democracy among people across the world. Democratic reversals are elite led and even autocrats recognise the need to be seen as representing the will of the people and to add a veneer of legitimacy to their rule through electoral victory.
  4. There are also many heartening examples of successful democracies and of backsliding being resisted and/or reversed, like in Brazil and Poland.
  5. In 2024, more people than ever before will go to the polls, with elections being held in countries home to more than half the world’s population. Leaders may be voted in whose commitment to democracy is not strong and a window of opportunity to reverse democratic decline and unleash democratic renewal may close. Action to support and strengthen democracy is urgent.

[1] Declaration of the Summit for Democracy – United States Department of State

[2] C4DReport_230421.pdf (

[3] V-dem_democracyreport2023_lowres.pdf

[4] Democracy Index: conflict and polarisation drive a new low for global democracy – Economist Intelligence Unit (


Opportunities for democratic renewal

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