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Politics

Why Biden is hosting more than 100 countries to talk about democracy

President Biden spoke to participants in the Summit for Democracy from a soundstage that the White House has set up for such virtual events.
Chip Somodevilla
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Getty Images
President Biden spoke to participants in the Summit for Democracy from a soundstage that the White House has set up for such virtual events.

When Joe Biden rolled out his foreign policy platform for the 2020 presidential campaign, he made a big promise: if elected, he would gather the world's democracies at a major summit, where they would show solidarity against a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Over the next two days, that promise will become a reality — sort of. The still-lingering, variant-driven COVID-19 pandemic means President Biden's democracy summit will be yet another virtual conference, unlikely to have the energy and impact of an in-person event.

White House officials insist the on-screen gathering of representatives from more than 100 countries will still have value. Participating countries are expected to announce new commitments to fighting corruption, standing up for human rights, and pushing back against authoritarian movements.

But in a sign that expectations for the gathering have perhaps shrunk since Biden made it a regular part of his campaign stump speech, a senior administration official told reporters during a preview call that a big outcome of the summit would be — simply having conversations about democracy.

"One of the main points of the summit is simply to put this issue on the front burner, in terms of the global conversation amongst governments and civil society," the official said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was invited to the democracy summit. Asked about his inclusion, a Biden administration official said that "democracy is about more than just a single leader."
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Getty Images
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was invited to the democracy summit. Asked about his inclusion, a Biden administration official said that "democracy is about more than just a single leader."

There are some awkward guests at this summit

The summit happens to come during a week where Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. Russia was not invited to the summit.

China also didn't make the guest list — even though the country's ruling Communist Party is complaining that it's also a democracy — but Taiwan did. The White House says the engagement doesn't conflict with the "One China policy."

"We think that Taiwan can make meaningful commitments towards the summit's objectives of countering authoritarianism, fighting against corruption, and advancing respect for human rights at home and abroad," an administration official told reporters.

Another awkward guest: Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Asked about his inclusion, an administration official told reporters that "democracy is about more than just a single leader or a single party or a single moment in time" but rather "entire societies."

Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to try to stop Congress from certifying Biden's White House victory.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to try to stop Congress from certifying Biden's White House victory.

Democracy is under attack in the United States, too

The White House is also dealing with a much more pressing and existential hurdle than remote logistics and the guest list as it plans this summit, though: the fact that as the summit convenes, democracy seems to be more under more of a threat in the United States than at any time since the Civil War.

Steven Levitsky, a political scientist who co-wrote a 2018 bestseller on the issue that a Biden reportedly regularly referenced throughout his presidential campaign, says he has grown "more worried" about the fate of American democracy in the years since publishing How Democracies Die.

Former President Donald Trump's false denial that he lost last year's presidential election has taken hold among a majority of Republican voters. As next year's midterm elections draw closer, Trump has pushed to establish that lie as a central organizing principle for Republican candidates.

Republican legislatures across the country have responded to Trump's lies about 2020 by passing new voter restrictions and by giving partisans more power over certifying ballots and election results.

And, of course, a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, a global symbol of democracy, on Jan. 6, in an unsuccessful attempt to block the certification of the Electoral College votes electing Biden as president.

"Democratic parties — small-d democratic parties — have to be able to accept defeat. That's the first criteria for making a modern democracy work," Levitsky told NPR. "If a party that's big enough to win elections cannot lose elections — cannot accept losing elections — democracy is in trouble."

Early during his run for office, during a speech in New York City in 2019, Biden pledged to hold a summit on democracy if elected. This week, he'll make good on that promise.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Early during his run for office, during a speech in New York City in 2019, Biden pledged to hold a summit on democracy if elected. This week, he'll make good on that promise.

Biden is expected to say that no democracy is perfect

All this has led to many carefully-worded statements from White House officials about how much authority the U.S. has to push other countries to promote democracy and free and fair elections. "We, of course, realize that no democracy is perfect, ourselves included," an administration official told reporters ahead of the summit. "The president has been forthright and clear about the challenges facing democracy here at home throughout his presidency."

The fact that democracy seems in danger in the country that has been its global champion for more than a century doesn't undermine Biden's summit, Levitsky said. "I keep getting asked this question with the same framing by journalists," he said, arguing that problems in the United States underscore the critical importance of bringing together leader to talk about democracy.

"Joe Biden can't give the standard 20th century U.S. stump speech in which we portray ourselves as a shining city on the hill, and other countries should use us as a model. We can't do that anymore," Levitsky said.

"What Biden could do, though, is say that we, too, are struggling for democracy, we are very much like small-d democrats across the world who are struggling to save democracy, to strengthen democracy, to reconsolidate democracy."

Biden's remarks will come at the very beginning of the summit early Thursday.

Leaders will go into several sessions together. There will be smaller panels focused on topics like democratic resilience, and countering corruption, and a youth town hall. Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also are expected to represent the United States during the summit, which wraps up with a second Biden address on Friday afternoon.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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