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Biden Acknowledges US Democratic Vulnerabilities at Summit Opening


President Joe Biden speaks from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Dec. 9, 2021, for the opening of the Democracy Summit.
President Joe Biden speaks from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Dec. 9, 2021, for the opening of the Democracy Summit.

U.S. President Joe Biden acknowledged his own country’s vulnerabilities as he hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy that brings together world leaders, civil society and the private sector to "set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action."

"In the face of sustained and alarming challenges to democracy, universal human rights and all around the world, democracy needs champions,” Biden said Thursday during his opening remarks at the start of the two-day event. “And I wanted to host this summit because here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort."

For the first time, the U.S. was labeled a "backsliding democracy" in a 2021 report released in November by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, mainly because of a challenge to the 2020 elections results, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 by supporters of former president Donald Trump.

Biden did not mention the former president nor the insurrection attempt but said that American democracy is an ongoing struggle "to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions and recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence."

The Biden team is approaching the summit with a "lot of humility," recognizing that the U.S. has its own problems they need to work on, said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think that's a really important tone they are setting."

Biden Acknowledges US Democratic Vulnerabilities at Summit Opening
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Initiative for Democratic Renewal

Biden announced the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, a series of foreign assistance initiatives of up to $424.4 million in the coming year, subject to Congressional approval.

The initiatives include funds to support independent media; back anti-corruption efforts; empower reformers, labor unions and marginalized groups; advance technology that supports democracy; and defend free and fair elections.

Leaders are encouraged to announce pledges in line with the summit's pillars of strengthening democracy, defending against authoritarianism, addressing corruption and promoting human rights, but the pledges will not be legally binding. The summit is not expected to result in a communique or any kind of joint declaration.

"We see the summit as really a launch of the work that's to come, and so we didn't want to get ahead of ourselves," said a senior administration official in a briefing to reporters.

Still, human rights observers applaud the fact that the summit is being held.

"Labor rights is one area where the administration has begun to translate its strong domestic position in support of worker organizing to increased support for labor rights around the world," said Marti Flacks, director and senior fellow of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The summit is part of Biden's campaign pledge to strengthen democracy around the world at a time when autocratic governments are on the rise – a point the president made in his speech.

"They seek to advance their own power, export and expand their influence around the world and justify the repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today's challenges," Biden said.

Notably, 2020 marks the 15th consecutive year of global freedom and retreat, according to a recent report by the policy research group Freedom House.

"As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny," the report said.

Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, said now is the time to bolster global democratic renewal. "It’s more important than ever under tougher conditions to fortify and defend democracy when it’s under such clear duress."

Not everyone invited came

More than 100 countries are attending the summit, including liberal democracies, weaker democracies and even several states with authoritarian characteristics.

Summit for Democracy
Summit for Democracy

On Wednesday, a day before the summit, a senior Pakistani official, who declined to speak on the record, confirmed to VOA that Islamabad will not be attending. The official said Pakistan "firmly" supports a "One-China Policy" and Taiwan’s participation at the democracy summit is not in line with Islamabad’s long-standing stance.

Islamabad’s decision to back out is unsurprising and is motivated by its own political calculations, said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. With the backdrop of an economic crisis and other domestic woes, the decision to snub the event would play well in a county with high anti-American sentiments.

"There's unhappiness in Islamabad that Biden has not been willing to have a phone call with Prime Minister (Imran) Khan," Kugelman said. "By backing out of this democracy summit, the Pakistani government can derive some political benefits and conclude that it has nothing to lose by not participating."

While the summit does not specifically mention China or Russia, it is widely seen as the Biden administration’s effort to mobilize support against what it sees as increasing authoritarian influence from both leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

Beijing has countered with its own hastily arranged summit called the "International Forum on Democracy: The Shared Human Values" in early December, with topics including "pluralistic origins of democracy" and "China's view of democracy."

This week the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, citing China's human rights "atrocities." Australia, Canada, and the UK have joined the boycott, which Beijing calls a "smear campaign" and "political posturing."

VOA's Ayaz Gul and Lin Yang contributed to this story.