President Joe Biden, who took office amid the biggest US political crisis in decades, hosts representatives of more than 100 countries for a democracy summit Thursday that is drawing fire from China and Russia.
The event, held by video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, is billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.
“Make no mistake, we’re at a moment of democratic reckoning,” said Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
“It’s no secret that democracies around the world are facing increasing challenges from new and novel threats. Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding.”
The summit, running Thursday and Friday, will feature opening remarks from Biden at the White House and is set to gather representatives from some 100 governments, as well as NGOs, private businesses, philanthropical organizations and legislatures.
But the fact that Biden continues to face a shocking challenge to US democratic norms from Donald Trump and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election provides a troubling backdrop for the summit.
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And even before summit attendees could meet, tensions erupted simply over who should be on — and off — the list.
China and Russia, which Biden sees as champions of the autocracies camp, were pointedly left out, something they say is stoking an ideological “rift.”
“No country has the right to judge the world’s vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick,” wrote ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China in a joint essay last month.
Further prickling Chinese sensibilities, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan — the democratically ruled island that mainland China considers part of its territory, albeit not yet under its control.
On Monday, the Biden administration also announced it would not send US government officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February in protest at human rights abuses, including “genocide” against the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.
Australia, Britain, and Canada have joined the diplomatic boycott, although the countries’ athletes will still compete. Again, Russia joined China in criticizing the decision.
Deciding when other countries should be excluded from the summit for human rights abuses or vote rigging hasn’t been any less fraught.
For example, Pakistan and the Philippines are in, while EU member Hungary’s nationalist government is out. Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is invited, while the leader of NATO member Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been shunned.
Democracy problem at home
The most awkward element to the summit, however, is the fact that Biden is struggling to restore faith in democracy at home, let alone on the other side of the world.
Trump refuses to recognize the results of the 2020 election, in which Biden defeated him.
With the help of sympathetic media outlets, including the powerful Fox News, the former Republican president continues to spread lies about fraud to his tens of millions of supporters.
And with shockwaves from the January 6 storming of Congress by Trump supporters still reverberating, there are growing fears over the 2022 legislative elections and the 2024 presidential vote in which Trump may seek a comeback.
Bruce Jentleson, who teaches political science at Duke University, said the summit was “never a good idea.”
“Our problems here are much worse than in any other Western democracy. We had our Capitol building attacked, an attempted coup. We haven’t seen that happen in Paris, or at the Bundestag, or at the EU headquarters in Brussels,” he said.
“If we want to compete, we’ve got to do our best and that is really more up to us within the country than somehow getting 100 leaders together and saying, ‘We like democracy.'”