There is an unmistakable irony in the United States hosting a summit for democracy less than a month after an international think tank formally categorized the country as a “backsliding democracy” for the first time and just a few months after the collapse of Washington’s 20-year democracy-building project in Afghanistan. But the current state of U.S. democracy offers critical lessons about the importance of government accountability to prevent abuses of power in domestic institutions and abroad.

The virtual gathering this week of more than 100 countries is a welcome first step in the fight against authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights abuses worldwide. But U.S. President Joe Biden’s summit faces the same perils that plagued the pro-democracy efforts of previous U.S. administrations, including the unrealistic grandiosity of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the narrow technocracy of Barack Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board. Neither offered a coherent, practical, or long-term strategy of democratic renewal.

In order to truly fight back against this era of “democratic recession,” as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called it, Washington needs a new approach. At the heart of this strategy must be accountability: the checks and balances on power that guard against the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the Biden administration is serious about using the summit to help democratic countries build back better, it should start by strengthening institutions of accountability at home—especially as they pertain to warfare—and uniting democracies in a coalition against impunity abroad.

There is an unmistakable irony in the United States hosting a summit for democracy less than a month after an international think tank formally categorized the country as a “backsliding democracy” for the first time and just a few months after the collapse of Washington’s 20-year democracy-building project in Afghanistan. But the current state of U.S. democracy offers critical lessons about the importance of government accountability to prevent abuses of power in domestic institutions and abroad.

The virtual gathering this week of more than 100 countries is a welcome first step in the fight against authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights abuses worldwide. But U.S. President Joe Biden’s summit faces the same perils that plagued the pro-democracy efforts of previous U.S. administrations, including the unrealistic grandiosity of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the narrow technocracy of Barack Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board. Neither offered a coherent, practical, or long-term strategy of democratic renewal.

In order to truly fight back against this era of “democratic recession,” as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called it, Washington needs a new approach. At the heart of this strategy must be accountability: the checks and balances on power that guard against the adage that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If the Biden administration is serious about using the summit to help democratic countries build back better, it should start by strengthening institutions of accountability at home—especially as they pertain to warfare—and uniting democracies in a coalition against impunity abroad.

Over the past decade, the number of countries ranked as full liberal democracies has fallen from 41 to 32. More than two-thirds of the world’s population lives under autocratic rule—a 20-point jump in a decade. 2021 represents the 15th consecutive year of declining global freedom. The Varieties of Democracy Project at the University of Gothenberg has called this trend a third wave of autocratization.

One obvious lesson from the past 30 years, seen everywhere from the efforts to build democratic processes in Iraq and Afghanistan to the weakening of post-Cold War democracies such as Poland and Hungary, is that democracies cannot be sustained without the institutions that hold governments accountable: the free media, an independent judiciary, and free elections. It is these pillars of accountability that acts, systems, and cultures of impunity are eroding.

The summit finds its toughest tests—of seriousness, realism, and commitment—in the world’s conflict zones. Nowhere is the trend toward impunity—the exercise of power without accountability—more pronounced than in those places.

Combatants in conflict zones increasingly and openly violate international humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions. Russian air power targets civilian infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, and water pipelines, in Syria; Saudi-backed forces block medicine and food from reaching people in need in Yemen; Boko Haram kidnaps and murders humanitarian workers attempting to deliver aid in Nigeria. All of this happens with few consequences: We see statements of concern at the United Nations, but little action following them.

Although the Biden administration has shown its commitment to ending what it calls endless wars, it needs to give equal attention to the more numerous lawless wars. Democracies that defend international humanitarian law and the idea of a rules-based international order have extra responsibilities when it comes to atrocities in conflict and accountability for war criminals. This is why the recent revelation that the U.S. military perpetrated and covered up dozens of civilian causalities in a 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria, is such a cause for concern. Washington needs to get its own house in order.

Just as democratic renewal begins at home, so too does international accountability. That begins by establishing a gold standard of behavior in conflict, holding security partners and allies accountable, and then building from that base to hold the world’s most extreme abusers accountable.

Here are five concrete things the United States can commit to this week to prevent war crimes, reduce attacks on civilians and aid workers, ensure access to humanitarian aid in conflict zones, and prove that accountability is the strongest asset of democratic governance.

First, the Defense Department should assess adherence to international humanitarian law in the performance review and promotion consideration process for all military officers and make clear that repeated, knowing violations of the Geneva Conventions will result in dishonorable discharge. The Pentagon should also commit to publishing honest and transparent civilian casualty counts for all military engagements.

Second, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. should provide financial and technical resources and diplomatic support for multilateral mechanisms that monitor violations of international humanitarian law. Examples include the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism, which helps investigate and prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in Syria, and the now-defunct Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen.

Third, the Treasury Department should regularly publish Financial Crimes Enforcement Network advisories on individuals and organizations at home and abroad involved in international humanitarian law violations to discourage private financial institutions from engaging in business with them.

Fourth, the Justice Department should establish an office dedicated to investigating and prosecuting war crimes and commit to exercising the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute abusers when states fail to act, with convictions resulting in asset seizures and Magnitsky-style sanctions for corrupt figures and their networks.

Finally, the State Department should uphold U.S. commitments to the multilateral Arms Trade Treaty by incorporating more rigorous evaluation of humanitarian impact in Blue Lantern, its end-use monitoring system that ostensibly ensures exported U.S. weapons are transferred and used appropriately. Given that U.S. arms manufacturers account for 54 percent of arms sales by the world’s top 100 arms companies, a real U.S. commitment to end-use monitoring would have a significant effect on the global arms trade.

The Summit for Democracy this week is an opportunity for the United States to hold itself and its partners accountable for their behavior in combat, where accountability is critically lacking. Though only 8 percent of the world’s population lives in a full democracy, a much larger portion would like to. That is our greatest strength.

Democracy Renewal Begins With Accountability at Home