Administration

Five things to watch for at Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’

More than 100 countries on Thursday will attend President Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” virtual conference, part of a push by the White House against Russia and China.

The effort is also intended to reinvigorate the image of the United States as a healthy democracy, something tarnished by the mob attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.  

Biden, who promised during his campaign to set up the event in his first year in office, is set to make remarks on both Thursday and Friday during the summit.

Here are five things to watch.  

The summit is a counter to China, Russia

The summit is a clear challenge to China and Russia, which have slammed Biden for holding an event they say will stoke “ideological confrontation,” according to an op-ed published last week by the ambassadors to the U.S. from the two countries.

Rose Jackson, director of the Atlantic Council’s Democracy and Tech Initiative, said the response shows Beijing and Moscow view the summit as a threat. 

“The fact that they’re centering the conversation as they are suggests it’s getting under their skin,” she said in a briefing with reporters.

Biden has taken an increasingly confrontational tone with both countries, warning of economic consequences during a video summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week if he invades Ukraine.

Separately, Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

Participants feature snubs, surprises

Taiwan, which China considers to be a breakaway republic, is invited to the summit.

The administration says it sees Taiwan as a leading democracy, a global leader in safeguarding against disinformation and a model for using emerging technology to make governance more transparent and responsive.  

“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. And so … that’s Taiwan’s role,” said the U.S. official, who emphasized the invite does not signal the U.S. is recognizing Taipei as independent of Beijing. 

A few other countries, such as Hungary and Turkey, were not invited to attend because of questions about the health of democracy within their borders.

“This is a summit, after all, around democracy and shared values and it makes sense to have the participants be limited to those who share in that kind of frame of mind,” said Ash Jain, director for democratic order with the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

“So backsliding democracies or authoritarian countries like Hungary, or Turkey that the administration excluded, I think it makes a lot of sense to hold the summit that includes democracies only.”

Election security tops agenda

The Biden administration is expected to announce an initiative to bring together groups of countries to work on electoral integrity.

The effort comes amid worries about election integrity in the United States.

“The president has been absolutely clear that protecting Americans’ constitutional rights and the integrity of our elections from the systematic assault that folks — in particular, Republican legislators — have been engaged in across the country is a must and that this historic threat requires strong voting rights legislation. And you’ll hear that from the president again this week,” a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

Biden will be under pressure to address issues of voting rights within the United States amid disappointment among activists at a lack of action by Congress.

“I think it’s absolutely essential that President Biden acknowledge America’s own imperfections to have credibility to address these problems,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

“If we were to attempt to airbrush our own performance and prod other countries to improve theirs, I think that our efforts would be pretty hollow.” 

Combating corruption will be at center stage

The president has put combating global corruption at the center of his foreign policy agenda.

On Monday, the administration released the first-ever Strategy on Countering Corruption, which is focused on preventing bad actors from using the U.S. and international financial systems to hide assets and launder money.

The administration also announced sanctions against dozens of individuals and entities it said are involved in transnational organized crime — a move aimed at disrupting corruption networks, as well as sanctions on 15 individuals and three countries it said are involved in human rights abuses, repression and undermining democracy. 

“Ahead of this week’s Summit for Democracy, Treasury is targeting over a dozen government officials across three countries in connection with serious human rights abuse that undermines democracy,” Office of Foreign Assets Control Director Andrea M. Gacki said in a statement. 

Where are the civil society leaders?

An official “sideline” event that took place on Wednesday centered around democratic renewal, and featured remarks from democratic activists and leaders from around the world, including those from civil society,  journalists, lawmakers and local government officials.

Outside observers are keeping an eye on how those voices will be included in a summit that also will feature the leaders of some countries seen as rolling back democratic freedoms.

Sessions during the summit will include looking at methods to protect journalists and access to a vibrant media environment, ways to advance historically marginalized communities, and the role of technology in democratic societies, officials said.

Officials declined to say if they would single out any specific countries as engaging in human rights violations and oppression of freedoms, but said to expect discussions on bolstering democratic resilience, empowering human rights defenders, and highlighting the role of independent media and activists.

Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council and former ambassador to Poland, also highlighted the importance of human rights defenders and political dissidents being given a platform during the main thrust of the summit.

“I’d like to see major dissidents speak to the summit — democratic dissidents, people that are risking their lives,” he said.

“The democratic dissidents in Russia are risking their lives. Listen to them, because sometimes it turns out, these people are right … whether that’s missing I can’t say. But good for the administration for trying something difficult rather than sticking with what’s safe.” 

This story was updated at 12:37 p.m.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of the event. It is the “Summit for Deomocracy.”

Tags China Election integrity Hungary jan. 6 riot Joe Biden Russia Taiwan Turkey Vladimir Putin

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