Biden's Democracy Summit Convenes as U.S. Hits a ‘Rough Patch’

The president kicked off his summit as critics questioned the guest list and whether the United States could be an effective advocate for democracy amid problems at home.

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During the opening of a two-day meeting with more than 100 countries, President Biden stressed the importance of protecting democracy globally and domestically.Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s Summit for Democracy was intended to rally the world’s democracies against the authoritarian models of Russia and China in what the president called on Thursday “the defining challenge of our time.”

Speaking by video from a White House auditorium, Mr. Biden welcomed officials from more than 100 countries that have multiparty elections, as well as civil society activists, business leaders and journalists, to strategize ways to strengthen and defend democracies.

“In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights, and, all around the world, democracy needs champions,” the president said.

But in a sign of the difficult times, even organizing the summit, which goes through Friday, raised murky questions about the definition of democracy, and who should and should not be invited. It was no surprise that China and Russia were not included, but the administration was second-guessed for its decision to invite other countries with checkered human rights records, like the Philippines and Nigeria, while excluding NATO allies Turkey and Hungary, both led by rulers with authoritarian streaks.

The unusual summit, part pep rally and part policy symposium, grew out of a Biden campaign promise and was conducted by video because of the pandemic. But while the administration may have viewed the promotion of democracy as an easy way to firm up alliances and partnerships, which Mr. Biden has said were badly damaged under his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, the event has become a focus of criticism from around the world, as well as from U.S. activists concerned about the fissures within America’s own democratic system.

In remarks opening the event, Mr. Biden acknowledged such criticisms. “Here in the United States,” he said, “we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort.”

He added, “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions; to recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence.”

But he also made the case for America to take a leading role in bolstering democracies against what U.S. officials call the march of Chinese and Russian-style authoritarianism in recent years.

He added that the United States would “lead by example, investing in our own democracy, supporting our partners around the world at the same time.”

“This is the defining challenge of our time,” Mr. Biden said, reprising a theme from his 2020 campaign, during which he argued that Mr. Trump had undermined democracy at home and coddled dictators abroad.

Aiming to put substance behind that rhetoric, the White House announced on Thursday that Mr. Biden planned to work with Congress to spend about $424 million to support independent news media overseas, combat corruption, aid activists, advance technology and defend fair elections. The administration also intends to combat “digital authoritarianism” through greater export controls of technologies that can empower surveillance states.

Particulars of how such initiatives might work were being discussed at the summit in sessions on elections, technology, the rule of law and human rights.

The summit’s two main foils, Russia and China, denounced the event before it even began. Last Friday, China’s foreign ministry issued a report depicting an American government ruled by dollars and paralyzed by division and, citing the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, said that “the gunshots and farce on Capitol Hill have completely revealed what is underneath the gorgeous appearance of the American-style democracy.”

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman last month called it “pathetic” that the United States “claims the right to decide who is worthy of being called a democracy and who is not.” The two nations even teamed up in the form of an unusual joint opinion essay by their respective ambassadors to Washington, which charged that the summit was based on a “Cold War mentality” that divided the world into competing blocs.

Gergely Gulyás, a leading member of Hungary’s parliament, said his country “does not have the same serious democratic problems as the United States,” citing the millions of Americans who believe the 2020 election result was fraudulent, Hungarian news media reported.

But the event drew supportive words from participants on Thursday. “Democracy is not a given, it must be fought for,” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said that his country’s support for democracy in Eastern Europe was “a beautiful task, but it has its consequences. It has made us the target of the Kremlin propaganda.” (Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group, finds that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has rolled back some of that country’s democratic progress, but still rates the country just below the United States in terms of political freedom.)

While derision from authoritarian governments excluded from a pro-democracy summit might be expected, even U.S. officials concede that America’s republic is straining under political polarization, racial injustice and discord, voting rights restrictions and domestic extremism, among other issues. And some activists are urging Mr. Biden to devote more attention to problems at home before turning his focus abroad.

“You can’t try to export and defend democracy globally when you can’t protect it domestically,” said Cliff Albright, a co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a progressive nonprofit group in Atlanta. “You can’t be the global fireman when your house is on fire.”

Some have cautioned against the Biden administration focusing overseas while domestic problems fester. False claims about the 2020 election continue to embolden extremists, authorities say.
Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

Federal authorities have said that violent domestic extremists continue to be emboldened by false claims about the 2020 election. Mr. Trump is fighting in court to block the release of documents requested by a congressional committee investigating the mob attack on the Capitol. And Republicans have passed voting restrictions in 19 states this year.

While Mr. Biden has called defending the right to vote an urgent priority, many of his supporters complain that Congress, which his party controls, has failed to advance federal legislation to bolster voting rights, standardize basic election rules and outlaw gerrymandering.

A White House fact sheet issued before the summit cited the passage of his bipartisan infrastructure plan as a prominent example of a functioning democracy. But Marc H. Morial, the president and chief executive of the National Urban League, said that more action was needed on domestic threats to democracy. He called the summit “a missed opportunity.”

“You cannot separate what’s going on globally with what’s going on in the United States,” Mr. Morial said.

The Biden administration could also use the summit to set out longer-term plans to work with other countries facing similar threats to democracy, said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. For example, officials could strategize on ways to crack down on U.S. extremist groups increasingly making connections overseas, she said.

“American democracy at home and global democracy abroad are in dire need of strategy, of improvement, because both are facing swift recession,” Ms. Kleinfeld said. “But a summit is not a strategy. In fact, a summit has been a distraction.”

Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, said the United States was “clearly going through a rough patch right now.”

But he said domestic shortcomings should not deter the United States from promoting its core values “as long as it’s done with humility.”

“Without United States engagement and leadership, the cause of democracy will not advance,” he said. “Who else will do it?”

The administration has also faced questions over its criteria for invitations to the summit, but has not explained how it defined democracy. Critics have questioned the inclusion of countries like the Philippines, which the State Department has condemned for extrajudicial killings, and Pakistan, which the United States accused of “forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture; and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government.”

Freedom House found that Georgia’s oligarchs wield influence over its politics and news media, and that Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, suffered from endemic corruption and permitted the harassment and arrests of journalists.

“I would not have thrown a party in quite this way,” Ms. Kleinfeld said of the “broad tent” of invitees.

Some countries with significant ties to the United States, but repressive political systems, were also not invited, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

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“The United States reached out to a regionally diverse set of democracies who we assessed whose progress and commitments would advance a more just and peaceful world,” Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, told reporters during a Tuesday briefing.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said this week that the invitations should not be treated as a “stamp of approval on their approach to democracy.”

“This is an opportunity, again, not to celebrate everything we’ve done on democracy, either for the United States or all these countries, and call it a day,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to continue to strive to do better.”

Michael Wines contributed reporting.