The United States opens its second pro-democracy summit Tuesday with its eyes firmly on the rest of the world and seeking a united front against authoritarianism as Russia attacks Ukraine and China launches a diplomatic offensive.
President Joe Biden took office with a pledge to stand up for democracy and made his first year with the inaugural summit aimed at reaffirming U.S. leadership after his predecessor, Donald Trump, disrupted democratic norms and attacked had undermined the Capitol, success.
Alluding to concerns that the first edition was too much about US navel-gazing, this time Biden has tapped into co-hosts on every continent — the presidents of Zambia, Costa Rica and South Korea, and the prime minister of the Netherlands.
In total, he invited 121 managers to the three-day, mostly virtual summit – eight more than in 2021.
The summit comes as threats to democracy “evolve from an important issue, albeit a slowly evolving threat, to an issue that is now both important and extremely urgent,” said Marti Flacks, director of the human rights initiative at the center for strategic and international studies.
The sessions will invite civil society representatives to discuss a range of challenges to democracy, including surveillance technology, which the United States sees as a growing threat as China makes rapid technological advances.
“With no pending action by Congress in this area, it is important that the government engage bilaterally with other countries, including companies, on voluntary actions that can be taken in the meantime,” Flacks said.
Shun Turkey, Hungary
The summit will open on Tuesday with a virtual talk on peace in Ukraine with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Not only the embassy, but the setting will be a striking contrast to the first summit, where Zelensky, now a military-clad wartime leader, was clean-shaven and dressed in a crisp black suit.
While Biden has kept his campaign promise at the Democracy Summit, he has disappointed some human rights activists by relaxing his earlier vows to shun autocratic leaders.
Biden has visited both Saudi Arabia over the past year to acknowledge the kingdom’s role in oil markets, as well as Egypt, host of a climate summit and US regional security partner, and has worked increasingly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ukraine .
None of these three countries will be invited to the summit, an insidious criticism especially of Erdogan, who faces re-election on May 14 after two decades in power during which he has been accused of creeping authoritarianism.
Alone in the EU, Biden is not inviting Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a fourth term last year but has been accused of deviating from liberal values by cracking down on the press, denouncing non-European refugees and speaking positively of Moscow.
US partners shunned for the summit include Singapore, whose elections are widely considered free but which restricts freedom of assembly and regulates the media, and Bangladesh, where hundreds have been arrested under the Digital Security Act.
The State Department declined to discuss criteria for inclusion.
“However, we reiterate that we aim for the summit to be inclusive and representative of a regionally and socio-economically diverse list of countries,” a State Department spokesman said.
“We don’t want to define which countries are democracies and which are not.”
Growing US partner India, said to be the world’s largest democracy, is on the attendance list days after opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was ousted from parliament, the latest move under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has alarmed rights groups.
India’s neighbor and arch-rival Pakistan, where Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister last year and later impeached, is also on the list.
More Africans invited
Of the countries that received invitations after being sidelined in 2021, five are in Africa, including Tanzania, where President Samia Suluhu Hassan has vowed to resume competition policy, and Ivory Coast, where tensions have eased since the 2021 election Gambia, Mauritania and Mozambique ran calmly.
In Latin America, Biden is inviting Honduras for the first time, which has received praise for the authorities’ improved conduct of the 2021 election, despite ongoing violence and a recent shift in ties with Taiwan in favor of China.
The summit comes as the United States focuses on Africa, where China and Russia have both made inroads.
Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia later in the week – whose President, Hakainde Hichilema, has been upheld by Washington as a model for democracy and will hold his own events as co-host of the summit.
Freedom House, the US-backed research group, saw a general deterioration in global democracy but also a growing number of bright spots in its latest annual report.
Katie LaRoque, the group’s coordinator for the summit, said that while a single meeting is not crucial, the meeting does provide an opportunity.
Democracies can “coordinate policy changes that can curb rampant authoritarian aggression,” she said.
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