WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Thursday opened the first White House Summit for Democracy by sounding an alarm about a global slide for democratic institutions and called for world leaders to "lock arms" and demonstrate democracies can deliver.
Biden called it a critical moment for fellow leaders to redouble efforts on bolstering democracies. In making the case for action, he noted his own battle to win passage of voting rights legislation at home and alluded to the United States' own challenges to its democratic institutions and traditions.
"This is an urgent matter," Biden said in remarks to open the two-day virtual summit. "The data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction."
The video gathering comes as Biden has repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and like-minded allies need to show the world that democracies are a far better vehicle for societies than autocracies.
That is a central tenet of Biden's foreign policy outlook — one that he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Donald Trump's "America First" approach. Biden in his remarks announced he was launching an initiative to spend up to $424 million for programming around the world that supports independent media, anti-corruption work and more.
But the gathering also drew backlash from the United States’ chief adversaries and other nations that were not invited to participate.
Ahead of the summit, the ambassadors to the U.S. from China and Russia wrote a joint essay describing the Biden administration as exhibiting a "Cold-War mentality" that will "stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world." The administration has also faced scrutiny over how it went about deciding which countries to invite. China and Russia were among those not receiving invitations.
FILE - President Joe Biden delivers remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2021, in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Other leaders took turns delivering their own remarks on the state of democracy — many prerecorded — often reflecting on the stress that rapidly evolving technology is having on their nations. They also bemoaned the increase of disinformation campaigns aimed at and undermining institutions and elections.
"The democratic conversation is changing," said Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. "New technologies and large tech companies are increasingly setting the stage for the democratic dialogue, sometimes with more emphasis on reach than on freedom of speech."
The summit comes as Biden is pressing Russia's Vladimir Putin to stand down after a massive buildup of troops on the Ukraine border, creating growing concern in Washington and European capitals that Russia may look to once again invade Ukraine. Biden on Wednesday said that he warned Putin in a video call of "severe consequences" if Russia invaded.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took part in Thursday’s summit and later spoke by phone with Biden, said on Twitter, "Democracy is not a given, it must be fought for.
Poland's Andrzej Duda also spoke out against Russia in his address, decrying Moscow and its support of Belarus. Poland and Western allies have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Hundreds of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, flocked to the Belarus-Poland border. Most were fleeing conflict or despair at home and were looking to reach Germany or other Western European countries.
Putin made no public comment on the summit Thursday as he took part in his own video call with members of the Kremlin council for human rights.
Poland "took on a commitment to be a support for democracy in Eastern Europe," Duda said. "It is a beautiful task, but it has its consequences. It has made us the target of the Kremlin propaganda."
The U.S. may be at its own pivot point.
Local elected officials are resigning at an alarming rate amid confrontations with angry voices at school board meetings, elections offices and town halls. States are passing laws to limit access to the ballot, making it more difficult for Americans to vote. And the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol has left many in one U.S. political party clinging to Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, eroding trust in the accuracy of the vote.
Biden has said passage of his ambitious domestic agenda — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law, as well as the roughly $2 trillion "Build Back Better Act" of social and climate change initiatives moving through the Senate — will demonstrate how democracy can improve people’s lives.
Some advocates also want Biden to focus on other ways to shore up democracy at home. One early test was coming Thursday as the House moves to approve the Protecting Our Democracy Act, the third in a trio of bills — alongside the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — largely backed by Democrats but stalled by Republicans in the Senate.
Vice President Kamala Harris, in closing remarks of the first day of the summit, called on Congress to pass the voting-rights legislation.
"Here in the United States, we know that our democracy is not immune from threats," Harris said. "Jan. 6 looms large in our collective conscience, and the anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy."
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said in its annual report that the number of countries experiencing democratic backsliding "has never been as high" as the past decade, with the U.S. added to the list alongside India and Brazil.
Chinese officials have offered a stream of public criticism about the summit. They have also expressed outrage over the administration inviting Taiwan to take part. China claims the self-governing island as part of its territory and objects to it having contacts on its own with foreign governments.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan declined to attend the conference. In a statement issued ahead of the meeting, the foreign ministry said, "We value our partnership with the U.S. which we wish to expand both bilaterally as well as in terms of regional and international cooperation."
Yet Pakistan’s own relationship with the U.S. has been fraught with suspicion on both sides. Islamabad has balked at Washington’s often-stated criticism that Pakistan has not been a reliable partner in the war on terror, accusing it of harboring the Taliban even as they fought the U.S.-led coalition. Pakistan says it has lost 70,000 people to the war on terror since 2001 and is ready to be a partner in peace but not in war.
Other uninvited countries have shown their displeasure. Hungary, the only European Union member not invited, tried unsuccessfully to block EU Commission's president from speaking on behalf of the bloc at the summit. During the 2020 campaign, Biden referred to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a "thug."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto dismissed the summit as a "domestic political-type of event" where countries whose leaders had a good relationship with Trump were not invited.
Associated Press writer Tracy Brown and video producer Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.