In some ways, President Joe Biden’s long-promised Summit for Democracy could not be better timed.
The virtual gathering, set for Thursday and Friday, comes as people from Cuba to Belarus have hit the streets in recent years to demand a say in their governance — or, at least, some accountability from their leaders. And it comes as Western leaders have grown increasingly wary of the tactics and intentions of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and alarmed about renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
But the summit also is being held as the very concept of democracy appears unusually vulnerable. This past year alone has seen a half-dozen coups, from Myanmar to Sudan. Even the United States’ own democracy faces threats, from partisan fighting that is undermining law-making to insurrectionists attacking the Capitol over the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Studies and polls suggest global dissatisfaction with democracy has surged in recent years and that few people across the world see U.S. democracy as a good model.
Those negatives, however, are just more reasons to hold the summit, advocates insist.
“It is precisely because there are so many challenges out there that a summit like this one is so timely and important,” said Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar who now leads the National Democratic Institute. “Convening global democratic leaders and others to reaffirm that democracy and democratic values remain the best answer to what ails us sends a message of solidarity, confidence, commitment and clarity.”
Aides to Biden say they are approaching the summit with humility. On the main website, the administration says the event will “showcase one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently.”
The decision to hold the summit, and invite more than 100 governments, has upset some left out — a testament to the global influence the United States continues to wield.
In a recent joint op-ed published in The National Interest, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United States slammed the summit as a product of America’s “Cold-War mentality” and warned that it “will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines.’”