WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Friday wrapped up his two-day democracy summit, an event that was more about starting a global conversation about how best to halt backsliding than producing immediate results or expanding democracy’s reach.
Biden and fellow leaders announced initiatives to stem autocracies from misusing big tech to stifle dissent, enhance election integrity, bolster independent media and other modest efforts that the president said would "seed fertile ground for democracies to bloom around the world.”
But the U.S. president also acknowledged the path ahead was difficult for democracies amid a rise of authoritarianism around the globe.
“We know how hard the work is that’s going to be ahead of us. but we also know that we are up to the challenge,” Biden said in remarks to close the virtual meeting.
All told, Biden pledged the U.S. would spend up to $424 million in the next year around the world to support independent media, anti-corruption work and more.
The administration sought to frame the virtual summit — a gathering Biden had made a priority during his first year in office — as a launching point for the more than 100 nations invited to collaborate at a difficult moment for democracies. Biden said he wants to reconvene a follow-up gathering in person next year.
Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the summit was a good “starting point" for a “year of action.”
"I hope the 110 leaders will rally around some basic principles for democratic societies, and the aim should be to strengthen our voice and our efforts to counter the advancing autocracies like China, Russia and other autocrats,” Rasmussen said.
The president 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. It is a central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy outlook — one he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” approach.
But his first year in office has been a period that he says has been marked by a “backward slide” for democracy around the globe.
In recent months, Sudan's prime minister was ousted in a military coup, Cuba tightened control of the internet after some of the biggest protests on the island in years, and Myanmar's military toppled the civilian government and imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Biden has repeatedly taken China and Russia to task for squelching the voices of democratic activists and committing human rights abuses. He avoided direct mention of both nations in interactions with leaders during the summit, but their presences loomed large.
The summit was held as the Biden administration has been pressing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to step back after a massive buildup of troops on the Ukraine border that has created growing concern in Washington and European capitals.
Biden earlier this week said he warned Putin of “severe consequences” if Russia invaded.
Both China and Russia fiercely criticized the summit, with their ambassadors writing a joint essay ahead of the gathering. They wrote the Biden administration's decision to hold the summit reflected a “Cold-War mentality” that would “stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world."
The United States, along with Australia, Denmark and Norway, on Friday announced the launch of a joint effort that aims to stem the misuse of technology by authoritarian powers to stifle dissent and seeks to help develop new tech innovations that support human rights.
The initiative, in part, calls for establishing a voluntary written code of conduct that's meant to guide government and tech companies on human rights criteria for export and licensing policy. Under the global charter for digital public goods, governments, civil society groups, software engineers and tech companies would declare principles for open source tech products.
“The United States will take greater responsibility for the digital tools we export,” U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power said. “All too often, technology originates in a hub of innovation like the United States and is exported to countries that use that technology to enable human rights abuses."
The White House also faced scrutiny for whom it invited to the summit. Only 5% of the population of the 111 countries represented live in countries where the right to free speech, right to protest and other core civic rights are fully respected, according to CIVICUS Monitor, a group that monitors civic freedoms.
Several countries — including India, Iraq, Pakistan, Poland and the Philippines — were given invitations despite concerns raised by civil society groups and the U.S. State Department about serious anti-democratic trends or human rights concerns in those nations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the invitations were not mean to be intended as a “stamp of approval” and the administration was seeking a “diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion.”
Biden said it was also a moment for the United States to look inward about shoring up its own democratic institutions, and called on U.S. lawmakers to pass voting rights legislation, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The legislation is largely backed by Democrats in Congress but stalled by Republicans in the Senate.
“What’s true around the world is also true in the United States,” Biden said. “The sacred right to vote, to vote freely, the right to have your vote counted is the threshold liberty for democracy.”
— Associated Press journalist Tracy Brown contributed reporting.