WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden expressed alarm at a “backward slide” of democracy around the globe on Thursday, calling on fellow world leaders to work with him to bolster democratic institutions as his administration grows increasingly concerned about China's and Russia's push for global influence.
Biden's comments to more than 100 leaders at the White House's first virtual Summit for Democracy came as they pointed to a host of challenges confronting democracies, including corruption, inequality, and limitations on press freedom. The leaders also expressed increasing worry about the perils of disinformation and strengthening autocracies.
“Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?” Biden asked. “Or will we together -- together -- have a vision ... and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?”
He didn’t mention either China or Russia by name. But he has repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and like-minded allies need to show the world that democracies are a far better vehicle for societies than autocracies. It is a central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy outlook — one that he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Trump’s “America First” approach.
Biden underscored that even long-established democracies, like the United States, haven't been immune to the strains, and he called the moment an “inflection point in history.”
Local elected officials are resigning at an alarming rate amid confrontations with angry voices at school board meetings, elections offices and town halls. States are passing laws to limit access to the ballot, making it more difficult for Americans to vote. And the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol has left many in Donald Trump’s Republican Party clinging to his false claims of a stolen election, eroding trust in the accuracy of the vote.
“Here in the United States we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” Biden said..
Beyond rhetoric, the president announced he was launching an initiative to spend up to $424 million for programming around the world that supports independent media, anti-corruption work and more.
Thursday's video gathering drew backlash from the United States’ chief adversaries and other nations that were not invited.
The ambassadors to the U.S. from China and Russia wrote a joint essay describing the Biden administration as exhibiting a “Cold-War mentality” that will “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.” The administration also faced scrutiny over how it went about deciding which countries to invite. China and Russia were among those that did not receive invitations.
Other leaders at the summit delivered their own remarks on the state of democracy — many prerecorded — often reflecting on the stress that rapidly evolving technology is having on their nations. They also bemoaned the increase of disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining institutions and elections.
“The democratic conversation is changing,” said Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. “New technologies and large tech companies are increasingly setting the stage for the democratic dialogue, sometimes with more emphasis on reach than on freedom of speech.”
The summit comes as Biden is pressing Russia's Vladimir Putin to step back after a massive buildup of troops on the Ukraine border that has created growing concern in Washington and European capitals as well as Ukraine itself. Biden on Wednesday said that he warned Putin of “severe consequences” if Russia invaded.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took part in Thursday’s summit and later spoke by phone with Biden, said on Twitter, “Democracy is not a given, it must be fought for."
Poland's Andrzej Duda spoke out against Russia in his address, decrying Moscow and its support of Belarus.
Poland and Western allies have accused Russian ally Belarus of using migrants as pawns to destabilize the European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Hundreds of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have flocked to the Belarus-Poland border.
Poland “took on a commitment to be a support for democracy in Eastern Europe,” Duda said. “It is a beautiful task, but it has its consequences. It has made us the target of the Kremlin propaganda.”
Putin made no public comment on the summit Thursday as he took part in his own video call with members of the Kremlin council for human rights.
Biden has said passage of his ambitious domestic agenda at home — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law, as well as the roughly $2 trillion “Build Back Better Act” of social and climate change initiatives moving through the Senate — will demonstrate how democracy can improve people’s lives.
Some advocates also want Biden to focus more on shoring up democracy at home. One early test came Thursday as the House approved the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the third in a trio of bills — alongside the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — largely backed by Democrats. All three are expected to be stalled by Republicans in the Senate.
“Here in the United States, we know that our democracy is not immune from threats," Vice President Kamala Harris said in remarks to close out the first day of the summit. “Jan. 6 looms large in our collective conscience, and the anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy.”
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said in its annual report that the number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding “has never been as high” as the past decade, with the U.S. added to the list along with India and Brazil.
Chinese officials have offered a stream of public criticism about the summit. They have also expressed outrage over the administration inviting Taiwan to take part. China claims the self-governing island as part of its territory and objects to it having contacts on its own with foreign governments.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan declined to attend the conference. In a statement issued ahead of the meeting, the foreign ministry said, "We value our partnership with the U.S., which we wish to expand both bilaterally as well as in terms of regional and international cooperation.”
Yet Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. has been fraught with suspicion on both sides. Islamabad has balked at Washington’s often-stated criticism that Pakistan has not been a reliable partner in the war on terror, accusing it of harboring the Taliban even as that group fought a U.S.-led coalition. Pakistan says it has lost 70,000 people to the war on terror since 2001 and is ready to be a partner in peace but not in war.
Other uninvited countries have shown their displeasure. Hungary, the only European Union member not invited, tried unsuccessfully to block the EU Commission's president from speaking on behalf of the bloc at the summit. Last year, Biden referred to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a “thug.”
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto dismissed the summit as a “domestic political-type of event” where countries whose leaders had a good relationship with Trump were not invited.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro in Washington, Justin Spike in Budapest, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and video producer Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.