(CN) — At a two-day virtual summit ending on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders acknowledged the poor health of democracy around the globe and pledged to take steps to fight creeping authoritarianism over the next year.
But Biden's much-hyped “summit for democracy” was seen by many as both reflecting the worrisome state of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China and doing little to advance democratic values.
The White House's choice of countries that it invited and did not invite drew a lot of criticism because it appeared Biden's summit was more about building an alliance against China and Russia rather supporting democratic values.
“The first controversy around the gathering emerged from the guest list, which includes some of the United States' chief regional allies,” wrote Marcos Peckel, a Colombia-born university lecturer and executive board member of the World Jewish Congress, in the Colombian daily El Espectador. His column was highlighted and translated by Worldcrunch, a Paris-based news outlet.
There were lots of apparent contradictions. Poland was invited but not Hungary, the only European Union country not to be accepted into Biden's democracy club. But both countries are under immense fire for democratic backsliding.
There were many other questionable choices. For instance, The Economist magazine's 2020 democracy index shows countries excluded from the summit – among them, Tunisia, Hungary, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh and Bolivia – all score higher than Zambia, Pakistan, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries that got a seat at the table. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Bolivia also got the cold shoulder even though they have democratically elected governments.
“Is this a real stab at strengthening democracy, or rather a naked attempt to alienate those who cozy up to foes like China and Russia?” asked GZERO, the media arm of the Eurasia Group think tank.
On Thursday, Biden opened the summit with a speech where he declared that threats to democracy are the “defining challenge of our time.”
“Democracy needs champions,” he said. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation.”
Upon taking office, Biden made supporting democracy, human rights and multilateralism the main thrust of his foreign policy. In doing so, he also tried to put the U.S. back into its traditional role as democracy's chief advocate around the globe and erase former President Donald Trump's “America First” legacy.
On Thursday, Biden said the U.S. too must revive its own democratic institutions and he pledged to “lead by example.”
“Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” he said, a reference to an attempt by Trump supporters to overturn the election results in the Jan. 6 riot. He also took aim at Republican efforts to restrict voting.
For the past 15 years, Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that promotes democracy, says authoritarianism has been on the rise globally.
Without naming Russia and China, Biden blamed the decline in democratic values on autocratic forces seeking to “advance their own power, export and expand their influence around the world” and justify repression by saying their style of government is a more “efficient way to address today’s challenges.”
Biden said autocratic forces seek to “fan the flames of societal division and political polarization.”
The president asked the 110 countries attending the summit to take steps to foster democracy at home and to report back results at a subsequent summit in a year. This summit was held via video links due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden said he hopes to get Congress to approve $424 million to spend on bolstering democracy around the globe.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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