President Joe Biden on Thursday opened the first White House Summit for Democracy by sounding an alarm about a global slide for democratic institutions and called for world leaders to “lock arms” and demonstrate democracies can deliver.
Biden called it a critical moment for fellow leaders to redouble efforts on bolstering democracies. In making the case for action, he noted his own battle win passage of voting rights legislation at home and alluded to the United States’ own challenges to its democratic institutions and traditions.
“This is an urgent matter,” Biden said in remarks to open the two-day virtual summit. “The data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.”
The video gathering, something that Biden had called a priority for the first-year of his presidency, comes as he’s repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and like-minded allies need to show the world that democracies are a far better vehicle for societies than autocracies.
The premise is a central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy outlook — one that he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First approach.
But the gathering also drew backlash from the United States’ chief adversaries and other nations that were not invited to participate.
Ahead of the summit, the ambassadors to the U.S. from China and Russia wrote a joint essay describing the Biden administration as exhibiting a “Cold-War mentality” that will “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.” The administration has also faced scrutiny over how it went about deciding which countries to invite.
After Biden’s opening remarks, leaders took turns delivering their own remarks on the state of democracy—many prerecorded— with many reflecting on the stress that rapidly evolving technology is having on their nations. They also bemoaned the increase of disinformation campaigns aimed at and undermining institutions and elections.
“The democratic conversation is changing,” said Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. “New technologies and large tech companies are increasingly setting the stage for the democratic dialogue, sometimes with more emphasis on reach than on freedom of speech.”
The U.S. may be at its own pivot point.
Local elected officials are resigning at an alarming rate amid confrontations with angry voices at school board meetings, elections offices and town halls. States are passing laws to limit access to the ballot, making it more difficult for Americans to vote. And the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol has left many in Donald Trump’s Republican party clinging to his false claims of a stolen election, eroding trust in the accuracy of the vote.
Biden has said passage of his ambitious domestic agenda — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law, as well as the roughly $2 trillion “Build Back Better Act” of social and climate change initiatives moving through the Senate — will demonstrate how democracy can improve people’s lives.
Some advocates also want Biden to focus on other ways to shore up democracy at home. One early test will come Thursday as the House moves to approve the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the third in a trio of bills — alongside the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — largely backed by Democrats in Congress but stalled by Republicans in the Senate.
“The United States has a thriving democracy, but it’s been hurting in recent years,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, whose annual report marked a 15th consecutive year of a global democratic slide. “Right now, we’re going through a phase in America where it’s very difficult to get things done and to really prove that democracy can deliver.”
In its new annual report released Wednesday, CIVICUS Monitor, a global rights index, said 13 countries saw their civic freedoms downgraded in 2021 from the previous year. Only one, Mongolia, saw civic freedoms improve, according to the report. Of the 197 countries graded by the group, only 39 were rated as open societies.
A Pew Research Center report released this week said that while “people like democracy, their commitment to it is often not very strong.” Even wealthy countries, including the U.S., have some people who favor military rule, the report said.
Another group, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said in its annual report that the number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding “has never been as high” as the past decade, with the U.S. added to the list alongside India and Brazil.
Chinese officials have offered a stream of public criticism about the summit. They have also expressed outrage over the administration inviting Taiwan to take part. China claims the self-governing island as part of its territory and objects to it having contacts on its own with foreign governments.
“Facts once again show that the so-called Leadership Democracy Summit has nothing to do with international public welfare, but to serve the American private sector; it has nothing to do with global democracy, but to maintain American hegemony,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Thursday. “U.S. political manipulation under the banner of democracy will only meet general opposition from the international community.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan declined to attend the conference. In a statement issued ahead of the meeting, the foreign ministry said Khan would not attend without offering an explanation.
While expressing appreciation for the invitation, the statement said “we value our partnership with the U.S. which we wish to expand both bilaterally as well as in terms of regional and international cooperation.”
Pakistan is seen as moving increasingly closer to China but in a televised speech Thursday Khan said Islamabad has no interest in joining any bloc and he offered to help smooth relations between Beijing and Washington.
Yet Pakistan’s own relationship with the U.S. has been fraught with suspicion on both sides. Islamabad has balked at Washington’s often stated criticism that Pakistan has not been a reliable partner in the war on terror, accusing it of harboring the Taliban even as they fought the U.S.-led coalition. Pakistan says it has lost 70,000 people to the war on terror since 2001 and said his country was ready to be a partner in peace but not in war.
Other uninvited countries have shown their displeasure. Hungary, the only European Union member not invited, tried unsuccessfully to block EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen from speaking on behalf of the bloc at the summit. During the 2020 campaign, Biden referred to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a “thug.”
Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto dismissed the summit as a “domestic political-type of event” where countries whose leaders had a good relationship with former U.S. President Donald Trump were not invited.
The White House declined to detail how it went about deciding who was invited and who was left off the list.
For example, Turkey, a fellow NATO member, and Egypt, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, were also left off. The Biden administration has raised human rights concerns about both nations. However, Poland, which has faced criticism for undermining the independence of its judiciary and media, was invited.