More than 70 years ago, Britain’s Winston Churchill warned that an iron curtain was descending across Europe splitting the continent between democratic states and those in the thrall of the Soviet Union. In a speech in Fulton, Missouri, the legendary wartime leader urged the free nations “to stand together in unity” otherwise “catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”
His speech drew the ire of then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin who dubbed Churchill’s warning “a call to war.” But three years later the democracies heeded Churchill’s rallying cry and NATO was born with the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations signing a collective defense charter that many historians believe prevented war breaking out again on the continent of Europe.
This week, Joe Biden is hosting a summit for democracy, a virtual conference starting Thursday with more than 100 nations participating, which the U.S. leader hopes will assist in renewing democracy in the United States and around the world, and one that will send a message of resolve to Moscow and Beijing.
As with Churchill’s Fulton speech, the Summit for Democracy is prompting the displeasure of the Kremlin and this time also of the Chinese government. Neither Russia nor China have been invited to participate. “The US calls itself a leader of democracy and organizes and manipulates the so-called Summit for Democracy,” Xu Lin, vice minister of the party’s publicity department told a news conference in Beijing Saturday. “It cracks down and hampers countries with different social systems and development models in the name of democracy,” he added.
The drumbeat of authoritarian disapproval began last month with a joint opinion article by the Russian and Chinese envoys to Washington. They said the summit was a product of Cold War thinking and argued it would “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new 'dividing lines.’” China appears especially infuriated by the inclusion of Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty and says should be under its rule.
But “dividing lines” appear to need little help from the summit. The virtual conference comes against the backdrop of rising tensions between the West and the authoritarian governments in Moscow and Beijing.
The Kremlin has been accused of using disinformation to meddle in Western elections and of assassinating Russian dissidents and critics on European soil. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say Moscow has been massing troops along its shared border with Ukraine, the largest movement of Russian troops, tanks and missiles since the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and incursion into its Donbas region in 2014.
Biden, who is scheduled to talk with his Russian counterpart Tuesday, has pledged “the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do.”
And a virtual summit between Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month has done little to calm strained U.S.-China relations, which have become fraught over Beijing's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and repression of its Muslim minority in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where the communist government has interned more than a million Uyghurs in detention centers, according to rights groups.
America and other Western powers also accuse China of unfair trade practices and economic coercion, including encouraging poorer countries to take up large Chinese loans that can then be leveraged by Beijing later for political purposes, known as debt-trap diplomacy.
Biden has repeatedly highlighted differences with China and Russia in his broader call for the U.S. and its allies to demonstrate that democracies are prepared to defend themselves and are able to offer humanity a better and more equitable path than autocracies. Next week, to highlight that democracies have teeth, the administration will announce a series of new sanctions to mark the Summit for Democracy, targeting people engaged in corruption, serious human rights abuse and who seek to undermine democracy, a Treasury Department spokesperson said.
“Treasury will take a series of actions to designate individuals who are engaged in malign activities that undermine democracy and democratic institutions around the world including corruption, repression, organized crime, and serious human rights abuse,” he told reporters.
Administration officials hope other participants will demonstrate a readiness to act against foes but also to signal their readiness to renew and strengthen democracy in their own countries, saying the summit’s focus is “on challenges and opportunities facing democracies and will provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.”
American officials have sought to avoid framing the summit just in terms of great-power struggles and to focus less on geopolitics and more on the sustainable material benefits of democracy. Since his presidential election campaign, Biden has talked of the importance of America leading by example to rally the world to meet common challenges. That requires Americans to strengthen their own democracy and for other democracies to do the same, he has argued.
Among the summit’s key aims is trying to halt democratic backsliding. A decision to exclude Hungary, the only EU member state not to be invited, was meant to send a clear message that Hungarian leader Viktor Orban and other democratic backsliders can expect no favors from Washington, according to some analysts.
“As for Hungary, its steep democratic decline combined with upcoming elections next year and the possibility that Orban may have used a democracy summit invite to legitimize his reelection makes Hungary a reasonable country to exclude,” says Steven Feldstein, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
But with more than a hundred countries participating Feldstein and others worry the summit may end up just becoming a talking shop producing few practical outcomes.
“There is a risk that a large virtual gathering will end up generating very little tangible action,” said Feldstein, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, a Washington think tank. “Biden’s team has tried to get around this issue by calling for a ‘year of action’ following the summit that will attempt to turn pledges into concrete commitments — it remains to be seen how effective this effort will be.”
Although, Feldstein said, “By going bigger, the summit is able to include more democracies on the margins that could benefit from greater attention.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is less sanguine than Feldstein, saying the Biden administration may have hamstrung its own summit. “It invited more than 100 countries, including many states that do not fit the definition of democracy — Pakistan, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, the Philippines, and others. In other words, they do not hold freely and fairly contested elections, and do not allow substantial civil liberties.”
He suspects some countries were invited for strategic reasons rather than because they are democracies.
But Biden administration officials say the summit is an opportunity for the United States to highlight civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and peaceful dissent at a moment in which democracy is in a fragile state around the world.