MIKIO SUGENO, Nikkei Washington bureau chief
WASHINGTON — The inaugural Summit for Democracy hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden marks an unprecedented attempt to bring together countries committed to values like liberty and human rights.
But the two-day gathering, attended by representatives from roughly 100 countries and regions, could also end up deepening the divide between democracies and authoritarian nations like China and Russia.
“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Biden said at the opening session of the online summit on Thursday. “We have to renew it with each generation. And this is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view. Because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction,” he said.
Biden reiterated his commitment to democracy in his closing remarks on Friday.
“We know how hard the work is going to be ahead of us. But we also know we are up to the challenge,” he said. “Because as this gathering has demonstrated, the democratic world is everywhere. Autocracies can never extinguish the ember of liberty that burns in the hearts of people around the world. It knows no borders.”
But with the pandemic accelerating gaping income disparities, citizens around the world have become disillusioned with their leaders unable to resolve pressing concerns and with democracy itself.
Misinformation spread through social media adds to public anger, weakening the foundation of democracy, which hinges on recognizing differences in opinions and uniting behind a fairly elected leadership.
Restoring people’s trust in democracy remains an enormous challenge.
Leaders from the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and other summit participants will meet again in a year to discuss their progress on protecting press freedoms, fighting corruption and curbing human rights abuses.
“We see this as not just a conference or a conversation,” a senior U.S. official said of the framework. “We see that leaders are not only announcing commitments, unilaterally and multilaterally, but we decide the summit as a process.”
Still, democracy is in serious jeopardy around the world.
The U.S. was downgraded to a “backsliding democracy” for the first time in a November report by Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, placing the country among those experiencing a “severe and deliberate” decline in democratic quality.
Twenty countries have moved toward authoritarianism from 2016 through 2021, roughly triple the number that moved toward democracy in that period, the report also said.
“Democracy is at risk,” it warned. “Its survival is endangered by a perfect storm of threats, both from within and from a rising tide of authoritarianism.”
The global race in vaccine diplomacy has only highlighted the waning draw of democracies.
In June, the Group of Seven members agreed to provide 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to low-income countries over the course of a year. But they remain far from achieving this goal, scrambling instead to secure enough booster shots at home amid the rise of new coronavirus variants.
The delay has allowed China, which is ruled by a one-party system and holds no open elections, to woo vulnerable countries worldwide. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in November to provide an additional 1 billion doses to Africa, where the vaccination rate remains low.
Biden aims to reaffirm democratic principles with U.S. allies and partners, creating a coalition to stem the global drift toward authoritarianism. But that attempt itself could lead to greater divisions in the international community.
“An evident product of its Cold War mentality, this will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines.'” the Chinese and Russian ambassadors to the U.S. predicted in a National Interest piece posted online in November. Neither of their countries was invited to the gathering.
“Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries, but a universal right of all peoples,” Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov wrote.
Reservations persist even among summit invitees. Indonesian President Joko Widodo told a behind-the-door meeting with other leaders that democracy is a universal value but should not undermine unique political aspirations in a diverse international community, Indonesian media report. The U.S. could potentially drive a wedge between the world’s democracies by pushing too hard for its own ideals and interests.
There is also strong doubts worldwide over whether the U.S. can truly serve as a torchbearer for democracy. The majority of Republicans still believe claims by former President Donald Trump of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential race. The Jan. 6 rioting at the Capitol remains fresh in people’s minds. With support waning at home, Biden’s bid to revive democracy risks plunging the world into deeper turmoil.