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US to Host Summit for Democracy Amid Questions About Its Own


FILE - A wind-worn flag flies atop the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building near the White House in Washington, Dec. 6, 2021.

On Dec. 9-10, U.S. President Joe Biden will host a virtual Summit for Democracy that will bring 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."

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.

Here's what we know about the event.

What is the goal?

The summit's goals are to strengthen democracy, defend against authoritarianism, address corruption and promote human rights.

According to the Biden administration, leaders will be encouraged to announce "specific actions and commitments to meaningful internal reforms" in line with those goals.

It's unclear how many attendees' commitments will translate into action. While their pledges will not be legally binding, governments will still need their constituents' support and resources to turn them into something beyond lip service.

"If you look at the agenda, it's really abstract," said Stacie Goddard, the Mildred Lane Kemper professor of political science at Wellesley College. Goddard told VOA she wants to see a more practical approach, such as working groups on election security.

Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the meeting “shows a pretty significant break from the [former U.S. President Donald] Trump administration, so that's important. And I think the kind of subsequent ‘year of action’ that the Biden administration has announced will really be the proof of concept.”

US to Host Summit for Democracy Amid Questions About Its Own
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Christopher Walker, vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, struck a similar chord.

"The mobilization and the awareness raising and the focusing of the collective mind on these important democracy issues has already been a very salutary step taken by the administration," he said.

Walker said part of the summit's goal is to implement cooperation between governments and civil society, including on issues such as transnational corruption.

An early result may be more targeted actions by a smaller group of countries. In a briefing to reporters last week, senior administration officials said they were set to disclose a list of countries that had pledged to work together to curb exports of technology that could be used by repressive governments and others to violate human rights.

The administration said there would be follow up consultations in the so-called "year of action." Biden will host an in-person summit in about a year to "take stock of the progress made and forge a common path ahead."

Who is coming?

More than 100 countries have been invited, including liberal democracies, weaker democracies and even several states with authoritarian characteristics.

According to Freedom House's Democracy Index, 77 invited countries rank as "free" or fully democratic; 31, "partly free"; and three, "not free."

"There's a very large tent in terms of how the Biden administration chose to organize the summit," Feldstein told VOA. He pointed to the three of those invited categorized as "not free" by Freedom House: Iraq, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

FILE - A member of the Asayish stands guard near the building of the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, May 13, 2018.
FILE - A member of the Asayish stands guard near the building of the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, May 13, 2018.

The guest list has raised questions — for example, why certain countries were invited and not others. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which scored 53 in Freedom House's index, was not invited, but Kosovo, score 54, was invited alongside the nine other Balkan countries. Pakistan, which had a score of 37, made the list, while Sri Lanka, score 56, did not.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told VOA that an invitation does not mean a U.S. stamp of approval.

"Every democracy is a work in progress. And it doesn't mean that we are giving the opposite of a stamp of approval or a negative stamp to people who are not invited. This is just meant to be — to include and invite a diverse set of voices, countries who can speak to our global effort to protect democracy," Psaki said.

Several factors play a role in determining the guest lists, Feldstein said, such as regional dynamics and U.S. strategic interests, including using the summit to encourage a country's movement toward democracy.

The administration is also inviting very small states. Around 30 countries with populations under 1 million will be attending.

Is it meant to rally the world against Russia and China?

While the summit is not solely about rallying the world against Russia and China, it is an opportunity for Biden to mobilize support against what he sees as increasing Russian and Chinese authoritarian influence, Goddard said.

"It's a soft version of 'you're with us or you're against us,'" she said. "Bringing together democracies is in many ways is a strategy that's designed to draw a line between the United States and its allies and Russia and China and really try to call on those states to choose a little bit."

Goddard said this approach is making some states uncomfortable, including South Korea and Germany which depend on China for their economic prosperity. Taiwan's invitation is a particular source of frustration to China, which considers the self-governing island a breakaway province.

FILE - Hong Kong students in masks and other human rights activists chant and wave flags including the Tibetan flag outside the parliament building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct 1, 2021.
FILE - Hong Kong students in masks and other human rights activists chant and wave flags including the Tibetan flag outside the parliament building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct 1, 2021.

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 the “One-China Policy” and Taiwan’s participation at the democracy summit is not in line with Islamabad’s long-standing stance.

“We will continue engaging with summit participants and non-participants alike to address ways to strengthen democracy, promote respect for human rights, and fight corruption, whether that work occurs within or outside of the summit framework,” a senior Biden administration official told VOA in response to the snub from Pakistan.

Last week, two ambassadors to the United States, Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China published a rare joint opinion article assailing the summit as "an evident product of its Cold-War mentality" that would "stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new 'dividing lines.'"

Responding to criticism that the summit is divisive, Psaki said the United States will always continue working to strengthen democracy around the world.

"That's nothing we're going to apologize for," she said.

China 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.”

According to the state-backed China.org.cn, the forum brought together more than 500 participants from more than 120 countries. A closer search on Chinese state media found no list of who the attendees are other than these numbers.

Doesn't the U.S. have its own issues with democracy?

For the first time, the U.S. was labeled a "backsliding democracy" in the 2021 report released in November by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

The European think tank moved the U.S. down on the democratic scale, noting that the historic turning point came when Trump baselessly questioned the results of the 2020 elections, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 by supporters of the former president.

FILE - Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
FILE - Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

Similar pessimism on American democracy is reflected in a new poll by the Harvard University Kennedy School's Institute of Politics. According to the poll, 52% of young people in the U.S. believe that the country's democracy is either "in trouble" or "failed." Only 7% said that it is "healthy."

Some have questioned whether the U.S. has moral standing to host the summit.

"The U.S. record of democracy is anything but glorious. The storming of the Capitol is still fresh in everybody's memory," said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng.

The administration says it is precisely the ability to acknowledge imperfections and confront them transparently — a strength which is unique to democracies — that the summit is meant to showcase.

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