On Thursday, United States President Biden inaugurated the first-ever Summit for Democracy—an online, two-day forum inviting over 100 world leaders to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing democracies in the 21st century.
During his opening remarks, Biden announced the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, a set of policy and foreign assistance initiatives that build upon the U.S. Government’s efforts in “bolstering democracy and defending human rights globally.”
The White House stated it was in talks with Congress to provide $424.4 million toward the new initiative, which includes support to independent news media, anti-corruption efforts and—perhaps hypocritical in light of the crackdowns on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Edward Snowden—the protection of whistleblowers. To what degree Biden’s administration attaches importance to independent media is not wholly unreasonable to doubt.
“We stand at an inflection point in our history, in my view. … Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked? Or will we together have a vision … and courage to once more lead the march of human progress and human freedom forward?” the President said.
The initiative is part of Biden’s pledge to return the U.S. to ‘global leadership,’ distinct from the policies of his predecessor Donald Trump, who favoured a more isolationist and decidedly non-interventionist approach. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. And we have to renew it with each generation,” he said. “In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time.”
More of a mission statement by each world leader than an actual in-depth discussion of the topic, some of the core themes at the summit addressed the strengthening of their own democracies, safeguarding rights and freedoms, and promoting egalitarianism wherever possible. Threats posed by ‘authoritarianism,’ ‘populism,’ and ‘fake news’ were common throughout.
The European contingent of participants was headed by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who said that “each democracy is unique. But it all comes down to being able to speak your mind. To change things with a ballot. It is power given and taken away by citizens, framed by checks and balances.”
Mirroring the Biden administration’s initiative, she announced its European equivalent, the new Global Europe Human Rights and Democracy programme, worth €1.5 billion. “Beyond this, our Global Gateway strategy will unleash EUR 300 billion for infrastructure investments around the world; infrastructure that is based on values, on transparency, and on sustainability,” she added.
Notably absent from the list of invitees were Russia and China, with the latter angered over the inclusion of Taiwan, a country it considers part of its territory.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, stated that the invitation of the contested island showed that the United States was duplicitous, only using democracy as a “cover and a tool for it to advance its geopolitical objectives, oppress other countries, divide the world and serve its own interests.”
A White House official denied the allegation. “In the context of this summit we don’t see this as … being about any one specific country. We are really emphasizing at this summit that we are seeking to build democratic momentum,” he told reporters.
U.S. officials hope that the meetings will commence global initiatives, such as the use of technology to enhance privacy or circumvent censorship, and will help countries make specific commitments to improve their democracies before an in-person summit, planned for late 2022. Leaders are encouraged to announce specific actions and commitments to meaningful internal reforms and international initiatives that advance the Summit’s goals. The Director of Advocacy for the non-profit Freedom House Annie Boyajian said that “full assessment won’t be possible until we know what commitments there are and how they are implemented in the year ahead.”
Human Rights Watch’s Washington director Sarah Holewinski stated that the only way to get nations on board was to make invitations to the summit dependent on delivering on these commitments.. Otherwise, Holewinski stressed, some “will only pay lip service to human rights and make commitments they never intend to keep. They shouldn’t get invited back,” she said.