I was a skeptic about President Biden’s 110-country “Summit for Democracy.” But after watching the unusually furious response to this meeting from China, Russia, Cuba and other dictatorships, I’m beginning to think it’s a good idea.
The two-day virtual summit, which begins Dec. 9, has struck a nerve among authoritarian regimes. For the first time in several years, it has put them on the defensive.
In a rare joint editorial in The National Interest magazine, the ambassadors of Russia and China to the United States said that “China and Russia firmly reject this move.”
They claimed that, “Democracy is not a prerogative of a certain country or a group of countries,” adding that, “It can be realized in multiple ways, and no model can fit all countries.” China’s State Council, the country’s top government institution, issued a statement last weekend entitled, “China: Democracy that works.”
Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted that Biden’s summit is “selective” and “a show of weakness by the United States.” He claimed that U.S. foreign policy is “discredited” and losing support at the United Nations.
Until recently, the world’s best-known dictatorships seemed to be ignoring Biden’s summit, perhaps thinking that several countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia would refuse to participate.
Several invited governments, such as Argentina, had reportedly hesitated to attend it because of fears that doing so would infuriate China and Russia. But ultimately, most decided to participate.
Eight Latin American and Caribbean countries were not invited to Biden’s meeting: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti. Venezuela will be represented by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
The summit will focus on strengthening democracy, countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. Participating countries are expected to sign several commitments and — in the follow-up summit a year from now — “take stock of the progress made and forge a common path ahead,” the White House says.
Granted, there are many valid questions about Biden’s summit, beginning with its guest list. Several democracy experts have criticized the U.S. decision to invite Pakistan, the Philippines and other hybrid democracies.
In recent column, I questioned whether Mexico and Argentina, whose presidents had earlier refused to condemn Nicaragua’s fraudulent Nov. 7 elections, should be allowed to sit at the same table with Switzerland and Denmark. (I suggested that Mexico and Argentina be invited, but be placed at the end of the schedule.)
Others criticize the decision not to invite El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, saying that this will push these countries closer to China and Russia, without doing anything to improve democracy.
Others lament the summit’s timing.
“Latin American countries are reeling from the pandemic and economic crises, and need China,” says Michael Shifter, head of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “I don’t know any leader in Latin America who is interested in joining an anti-China global crusade right now.”
That’s all very true. However, democracy is rapidly losing ground around the world and is seriously endangered in the United States by former President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of last year’s elections and to condemn the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Increasingly, more countries are veering toward leftist and rightist authoritarianism, according to the Freedom House 2021 ranking of democracies.. The report is appropriately entitled, “Democracy under siege.”
And threats against democracy are growing. Fake news from Russia is undermining Western democracies, and China’s technological advances in facial recognition, voice recognition and internet censorship are being adopted by new autocrats around the world. Many of them are seduced by China’s claim that its totalitarian regime is a “democracy that works.”
The Biden administration and the European Union have recently created a U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council, to try to prevent fake news, hacking and cyber-attacks. This effort must be expanded to other parts or the world, supporters of the Summit for Democracy say.
They may be right. Biden’s pro-democracy meeting may be flawed in many aspects, but unless democracies team up to protect themselves from China, Russia and their allies, techno-dictatorships will thrive, and basic freedoms will continue to be eroded across the world.
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