Mar 30, 2023 - World

Who's in and who's out at Biden's democracy summit

Data: U.S. State Department; Map: Madison Dong/Axios Visuals

President Biden declared at this week's Summit for Democracy that the tide is turning in the global struggle between democracies and autocracies.

Driving the news: In drawing up invitations, though, Biden had to make some awkward calls as to which countries fall on which side.

  • The White House considered rescinding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation while he was doubling down on his controversial judicial reforms, Axios’ Barak Ravid reports. In the end, Netanyahu did make a virtual address after pausing the legislation.
  • So did Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one week after opposition leader Rahul Gandhi received a two-year prison sentence for remarking that “all thieves have Modi as their surname.”
  • Pakistan was invited despite its own democratic turmoil and weak civilian institutions, but declined, apparently in deference to China. Beijing slammed the summit as divisive and “more about group politics than democracy."
  • NATO ally Turkey wasn’t invited. Neither were several strategically important countries the administration has been courting in regions like Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Flashback: Biden set himself up for a headache when he raised the idea of a democracy summit on the 2020 campaign trail.

  • Calling the summit “a bad idea that won’t go away,” Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass tweeted this week: “Beyond the awkward 'whom to invite' issue, American democracy is hardly a model for others. Plus we need non-democracies to help us in the world, from sanctioning Russia to slowing climate change.”
  • Other summit critics have accused Biden of highlighting democracy selectively: yes when rallying votes to condemn Russia over Ukraine; not when resetting ties with Saudi Arabia.

Yes, but: Sensitive to the perception that the U.S. is holding itself up as a lone paragon of democracy, the administration invited Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia to co-host the mostly virtual event.

  • In a recent interview, USAID administrator Samantha Power told Axios that to push countries on democracy and human rights without acknowledging America’s own challenges would be “tone deaf in the extreme.”

No leader is going to fundamentally change their behavior just to earn an invitation to a virtual summit, but the gatherings could provide a useful platform for civil society, says Marti Flacks, director of the human rights initiative at CSIS.

  • The administration announced an initiative this week to ban commercial spyware and pledged $690 million for various democracy-related programs.
  • Some of that money will be used to help democratic reformers in countries like Zambia or Moldova deliver economically, Power told Axios. “We are now shifting to seeing the connection between economic results and political legitimacy."

The bottom line: While the pros and cons of holding these summits are much debated, Biden’s broader claim about the global democratic trajectory isn’t unfounded. In its annual report on the state of global democracy, Freedom House described 2022 as a possible “turning point.”

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