It was an international summit of democracies, but several democratic countries in Asia and Africa were absent; some were not invited and some turned down the invitation.
Pakistan declined to attend, giving no excuse except that Islamabad will engage Washington, a close ally, bilaterally.
The real reason for Pakistan’s absence, experts say, was not about democracy but about China.
“This was a fairly straightforward diplomatic decision,” Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia institute at the Wilson Center, told VOA.
“China was not invited, and Taiwan was. Pakistan, out of deference to its Chinese ally, would not want to attend a forum where Taiwan was present,” he said.
The only nuclear-armed, majority-Muslim country in the world, Pakistan has extensive economic and political ties with the United States and China.
In 2020, the United States was the top export country for Pakistani products — over $4.1 billion — while Pakistan imported products worth more than $12.4 billion from China, more than from any other country, according to the World Bank.
China is the single largest creditor to Pakistan with over $31 billion in loans, while the United States has given more than $32 billion in direct support to Pakistan over the past two decades.
It is unclear how Pakistan’s preference to skip the U.S. invitation to gain China’s approval will work out at a time when the country is facing serious economic challenges.
Yet Pakistan’s decision was not driven purely by economic calculations, experts say.
The U.S. summit came at a critical time for democracies around the world. The pace of democratization has slowed, while authoritarian regimes have become more effective and influential, according to Freedom House, a U.S. entity that reports on civil and political freedom globally.
“Democracy is on life support in Pakistan,” Kugelman said, adding that the country’s democratic progress made since 2008 is in peril.
For much of its existence since 1947, Pakistan has been taken over by a military dictatorship whenever the country suffered a civilian political breakdown.
Amid intensifying political brinkmanship between the incumbent coalition government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, leader of a major opposition party, there is fresh speculation about yet another coup.
A declaration of martial law by the Pakistani military “would be the worst possible outcome for the country,” tweeted Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
The United States has long held a policy of supporting and promoting democracy across the world, but Washington seems to be distancing itself from the intensifying political drama in Pakistan.
“The sobering reality is that the U.S. has itself contributed to Pakistan’s democratic deficit by emphasizing its relations with Pakistani military leaders. That may advance U.S. goals for Washington’s relations with Pakistan, given that the army makes the big decisions on relations with the U.S., but it doesn’t help a perpetually fragile democracy that today is gasping for breath,” said Kugelman.
The United States did not invite Turkey, a constitutional secular democracy and a NATO ally, to the first democracy summit held in 2021 nor to the one that took place last week.
Often labeled as an autocrat and dictator, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is blamed for taking Turkey on an undemocratic path — criticism that Erdogan has strongly rejected.
“Turkey is no longer a democratic state but is perhaps best described as an electoral autocracy,” Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, told VOA.
Aside from concerns about its democratic backtracking, Turkey is the only NATO member country that has refused to enforce Western sanctions against Russia, particularly in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Ankara feels like it cannot afford to antagonize Russia, as it is dependent on energy imports and deferment of loan payments, as well as needing Russian cooperation to achieve its own objectives in Syria,” Levin said.
By playing on both sides of the war in Ukraine, Erdogan tries to offset the economic crisis that Turkey has been facing, analysts say.
The absence of Turkey and Pakistan in the democracy summit was not conspicuous. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim democracy, Bangladesh and many others were also absent.
“Regarding why certain countries are not invited, we will not discuss internal deliberations. However, we reiterate that for the summit, we aim to be inclusive and representative of a regionally and socioeconomically diverse slate of countries. We are not seeking to define which countries are and aren’t democracies,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State told VOA in an emailed response.
Bringing 74 democracies to a forum, despite significant differences evinced in the final declaration of this year’s summit, was officially lauded as a major achievement.
But that achievement has limits, some analysts say.
“There was a certain arbitrariness to the summit guest list that I fear takes away from the credibility of the summit itself,” Kugelman said.