Inside Biden's 'summit for democracy' amid pressure to make virtual meetings meaningful
Real progress will take more than speeches and video meetings.
By gathering leaders Thursday from 112 of the world's democracies -- some healthy, some challenged -- President Joe Biden has done the easy part of a campaign promise: He's held a summit for democracy within his first year in office.
But to actually make meaningful progress pushing back on the global "democratic recession," as his administration has warned of, will require far more than speeches, video meetings, and even a joint statement, which it's unclear his summit will yield.
"Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort," Biden said in opening remarks at the first "Summit for Democracy" Thursday morning.
In front of two video panels with 80 world leaders participating virtually, Biden declared democracy as "the defining challenge of our time," citing "outside pressure" from autocrats.
"They seek to advance their own power, explore and expand their influence around the world and justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today's challenges. That's how it's sold. By voices that seek to fanned the flames of social division and political polarization," he said.
The president has cast the fight between democracies and authoritarian governments like China and Russia's as pivotal to the 21st century -- and said his administration will prove that democratic governments can still deliver for their publics.
Activists around the world are pressing the administration, along with their own governments, to demonstrate that this week -- taking or announcing concrete steps like strengthening free and fair elections, countering corruption, bolstering a free press and combating disinformation, among other things.
While the guest list has drawn lots of attention, especially for some illiberal heads of government, it's what the attendees agree on that will really matter, according to many experts -- with some skeptical that there will be impactful commitments.
"The Biden administration is conceptually approaching it from the right lens in terms of looking inward and outward and being humble about the challenges that we're facing" in the U.S., according to Marti Flacks, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the think tank CSIS. But "in practice, translating that into concrete commitments and actions that resonate domestically is very challenging."
Those commitments will be tested over the next "year of action," according to the administration, with a second summit the White House plans to hold in-person next year to take stock.
"The interval period between these two events -- the virtual and hopefully the in-person -- really gives us, I think, a rare opportunity to translate into action commitments that are going to be put on the table," said Uzra Zeya, the top U.S. diplomat for democracy and human rights. "This is not a one-off event, but it's really an ongoing engagement process that we hope will culminate in an in-person summit with new platforms and coalitions working together meaningfully."
Democracy has been deteriorating consistently for the last 15 years, according to Freedom House, a Washington think tank that analyzes and rates governments. Its annual survey found this year that less than 20% of the global population lives in a country considered "free" in their analysis -- the lowest percentage since 1995.
That includes the U.S., but there are worrying signs that American democracy is slipping, including partisan attacks on elections, dark money in politics and racial disparities, according to Freedom House -- which ranks Belize, Mongolia and Romania's democracies as stronger.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Swedish think tank, has gone even further, issuing a report last month that said the U.S. has fallen "victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale."
Biden has leaned into that reality, urging the passage of voting rights legislation or historic investments in social programs. But more politically, he's also gone after supporters of former President Donald Trump, who continued to spread unfounded conspiracies about election fraud, with a senior administration official blaming "Republican legislators" in particular for a "systematic assault."
"The president has been forthright and clear about the challenges facing democracy here at home throughout his presidency, and I think you can expect him to do so as well at the summit," the official said Tuesday.
The administration has also announced a series of steps in advance of the meetings -- an indication of what kind of action it wants other countries to take. For example, the administration is collecting a group of countries that will commit to stop exporting and sharing technology that could be used to violate human rights, like artificial intelligence.
The Treasury Department is also moving to implement a policy that requires the disclosure of who controls shell companies and has proposed increased oversight of all-cash real estate deals -- both of which corrupt foreign officials and other bad actors often use to hide money in the U.S. made illicitly overseas.
The White House also unveiled the first-ever strategy to counter corruption, laying out steps to do so that if "matched with appropriate resources... has the power to fundamentally change the calculus for kleptocrats," according to Gary Kalman, director of the U.S. office of Transparency International, a German-based nonprofit advocacy group.
"In a world where corruption fuels authoritarianism, today's strategy provides a forward-looking blueprint for bolstering government integrity and advancing democracy," he added in a statement Monday.
But the strength of these public commitments will be heavily scrutinized. Already, there's been criticism that some countries crafted theirs without any input from civil society.
"Having worked with parties and NGOs around the world, I was inundated with emails and calls pleading for advice as to how they could influence their own country's democracy plan," Laura Thornton, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan U.S. advocacy group, wrote.
Biden will address the summit twice, with opening remarks Thursday and closing remarks Friday. The heads of the other 111 invited governments will make their own speeches, which are expected to include some announcements of how they're strengthening democracy in their country.
But some of those leaders have checkered records when it comes to doing so.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, for example, has weaponized a war on drugs and terrorism to crack down on dissent and journalists and to rule with violent impunity.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has sowed doubts about the country's presidential election next year and threatened to not accept the results, along with attacking the judiciary, political opponents and the free press.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan will speak, but it's the military that rules as "political arbiter -- more powerful than either the judiciary or the elected government -- and sets the constraints within which civilian politics play out," according to Freedom House.
The Biden administration has defended its invitation list by saying it included a "regionally diverse set" of "established and emerging" democracies, according to Zeya, who added, "The invitation to join us at the summit -- it's not a mark of approval, nor is non-invitation from the summit a sign of disapproval from the United States."
But if the administration invited them anyway because new "progress and commitments" from these countries "would advance a more just and peaceful world," as Zeya said, it's notable then that allies like Turkey and Hungary or neighbors in Central America's "Northern Triangle" were left off the list.
Certain countries with authoritarian leaders will instead have their opposition leaders participate, including Belarus's Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Venezuela's Juan Guaido, who the U.S. still recognizes as the country's interim leader.
The administration also invited civic leaders, lawmakers and parliamentarians, journalists, and activists outside of government to address the summit outside of the leader speeches with dozens of side events. So while Duterte will get to pontificate, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize and has been jailed and harassed by Duterte's government, also spoke Wednesday.
ABC News' Justin Gomez contributed to this report.