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President Biden’s failure to invite Somaliland to the Democracy Summit 2021 is a missed opportunity. While the United States recognized the former British protectorate upon its 1960 independence until it joined with the former Italian Somaliland to form Somalia.

By Michael Rubin

President Joe Biden’s desire to convene a summit of democracies is a good idea that has bipartisan roots; it will convene as an online forum 15 years after Sen. John McCain called for a “League of Democracies.” While the democracy summit’s agenda is unclear and is likely to be a grab bag of loosely tied ideas, the event is nonetheless important for its credentials. After the preliminary invitation list leaked, for example, Turkish journalists noted their country’s omission.

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The draft invitation list, if real, suggests a welcome prioritization of reality over diplomatic nicety. The White House will invite Armenia and Georgia, for example, but not Azerbaijan. Hungary is also absent. Biden plans to invite Israel and Iraq, but not any other Middle Eastern or North African states that might have slid back on democracy, like Sudan or Tunisia.

Biden Should Invite Somaliland To Democracy Summit
US President Joe Biden. Image: Creative Commons.

Importantly, Biden’s team plans to invite Taiwan, whose robust democracy threatens China’s autocratic rulers. Taiwan’s inclusion is also important because it signals that the White House puts democratic credentials above formal diplomatic recognition.

By this standard, however, Biden’s failure to invite Somaliland to the democracy summit 2021 is a missed opportunity. While the United States recognized the former British protectorate upon its 1960 independence until it joined with the former Italian Somaliland to form Somalia. Dictatorship ruined Somalia. Siyad Barre turned the country’s guns on Somaliland and killed upwards of 100,000 people. His regime ultimately collapsed and, as much of Somalia descended into state failure, Somaliland reasserted its independence. While neither the United States nor any other country recognized Somaliland this time, it stopped neither the country nor its democratic aspirations.

The African Union Should Resolve Somaliland’s Status
Somaliland flag

Somaliland has among the best track records of multiparty electoral democracy in Africa. In 2003, Dahir Riyale Kahin won the presidential election by 80 votes out of almost 500,000 casts. He lost the next election by 80,000 votes to Ahmed Mohamed Sillanyo and stepped down gracefully. While Somaliland’s three major parties revolve more around personalities and patronage than ideology, debates are active and result uncertain. Citizens have great faith in the process; recognized or not, Somaliland was the first country to secure elections with biometric iris scans.

In Somaliland’s most recent parliamentary elections—which European diplomats observed but State Antony Blinken’s State Department bizarrely boycotted—the opposition surprised the incumbent administration, won the parliamentary majority and defeated the president’s choice for speaker. Not only does Somaliland aspire to democracy, but diplomatically it also actively aligns itself with other democracies. While Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia cultivate China, for example, Somaliland has turned toward Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Denmark.

For too long, the State Department’s fear of the precedent of African separatism has led it to keep Somaliland at arms’ length, never mind its previous recognition of the territory or the strategic logic of tighter ties. But celebrating democracy—as with the Taiwan invitation—need not mean recognizing independence; it need only requires recognizing that certain territories regardless of what their final status might be are democratic and should be celebrated as such.

Should Somalia or the People’s Republic of China complain about Somaliland or Taiwan’s inclusion, the proper response for Biden, Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan should either be to ignore them. Washington should never sacrifice democracies to dictatorship. Conversely, they might tell Mogadishu or Beijing that should they wish to be included instead, they should follow the path that the states they claim as their own have hewed.


About Michael Rubin

Michael RubinMichael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he researches Arab politics, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, terrorism, and Turkey. He concurrently teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion, and history for US and NATO military units.

A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq, and he spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of several books exploring Iranian history, American diplomacy, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016), “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a B.S. in biology.

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