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Why Biden is hosting more than 100 countries to talk about democracy

President Biden spoke to participants in the Summit for Democracy from a soundstage that the White House has set up for such virtual events.
Chip Somodevilla
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Getty Images
President Biden spoke to participants in the Summit for Democracy from a soundstage that the White House has set up for such virtual events.

Updated December 9, 2021 at 5:42 PM ET

When Joe Biden rolled out his foreign policy platform for the 2020 presidential campaign, he made a big promise: if elected, he would gather the world's democracies at a major summit, where they would show solidarity against a rising tide of authoritarianism.

That promise became a reality on Thursday — sort of. The still-lingering, variant-driven COVID-19 pandemic meant President Biden's democracy summit became yet another virtual conference, sapped of the energy and impact of an in-person event.

Rather than dramatic images of world leaders grouped together in Washington, the summit began as so many other virtual White House events have: with Biden presiding over a super-Zoom of sorts, speaking to a screen filled with small squares of other leaders, from a desk on the soundstage the White House has set up in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for such remote occasions.

White House officials insist the on-screen gathering of representatives from more than 100 countries will still have value. Participating countries are expected to announce new commitments to fighting corruption, standing up for human rights, and pushing back against authoritarian movements.

He announced more than $420 million in aid

Biden announced more than $420 million in aid through programs aimed at fighting corruption, supporting women and marginalized groups running for office, supporting labor activists, and helping "reform-minded" governments with programs like health care and education.

However, the White House said only a third of that money has been approved by Congress. The rest is still subject to future funding requests being passed.

And in a sign that expectations for the gathering have perhaps shrunk since Biden made it a regular part of his campaign stump speech, a senior administration official told reporters that a big outcome of the summit would be — simply having conversations about democracy.

"One of the main points of the summit is simply to put this issue on the front burner, in terms of the global conversation amongst governments and civil society," the official said in a preview call.

President Biden delivered opening remarks to the summit. He'll speak again on Friday to wrap up the two-day event.
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President Biden delivered opening remarks to the summit. He'll speak again on Friday to wrap up the two-day event.

Biden warns autocrats are on the rise

Biden kicked off the two-day gathering with a dire warning that's become a theme of his administration's foreign policy: there's a growing existential struggle right now between democracies and authoritarians, and global momentum is on authoritarians' side lately.

"Democracy doesn't happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation," he told the summit. "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."

Amid dizzying globalization, autocrats have sold themselves as leaders who can achieve quick and decisive results, and sewn doubts about the stability and durability of elected governments, Biden said.

"Yes, democracy's hard. We all know that. It works best with consensus and cooperation. with people in parties that might have opposing views," Biden said, leaving out the obvious context that in the United States and elsewhere right now, opposing parties often have little interest in working together.

Biden is expected to speak again at the end of the summit on Friday.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was invited to the democracy summit. Asked about his inclusion, a Biden administration official said that "democracy is about more than just a single leader."
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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was invited to the democracy summit. Asked about his inclusion, a Biden administration official said that "democracy is about more than just a single leader."

There are some awkward guests at this summit

The summit happens to come during a week where Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. Russia was not invited to the summit.

China also didn't make the guest list — even though the country's ruling Communist Party is complaining that it's also a democracy — but Taiwan did. The White House says the engagement doesn't conflict with the "One China policy."

"We think that Taiwan can make meaningful commitments towards the summit's objectives of countering authoritarianism, fighting against corruption, and advancing respect for human rights at home and abroad," an administration official told reporters.

Another awkward guest: Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Asked about his inclusion, an administration official told reporters that "democracy is about more than just a single leader or a single party or a single moment in time" but rather "entire societies."

Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to try to stop Congress from certifying Biden's White House victory.
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AFP via Getty Images
Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 to try to stop Congress from certifying Biden's White House victory.

Democracy is under attack in the United States, too

The White House is also dealing with a much more pressing and existential hurdle than remote logistics and the guest list as it plans this summit, though: the fact that as the summit convenes, democracy seems to be more under more of a threat in the United States than at any time since the Civil War.

Steven Levitsky, a political scientist who co-wrote a 2018 bestseller on the issue that a Biden reportedly regularly referenced throughout his presidential campaign, says he has grown "more worried" about the fate of American democracy in the years since publishing How Democracies Die.

Former President Donald Trump's false denial that he lost last year's presidential election has taken hold among a majority of Republican voters. As next year's midterm elections draw closer, Trump has pushed to establish that lie as a central organizing principle for Republican candidates.

Republican legislatures across the country have responded to Trump's lies about 2020 by passing new voter restrictions and by giving partisans more power over certifying ballots and election results.

And, of course, a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, a global symbol of democracy, on Jan. 6, in an unsuccessful attempt to block the certification of the Electoral College votes electing Biden as president.

"Democratic parties — small-d democratic parties — have to be able to accept defeat. That's the first criteria for making a modern democracy work," Levitsky told NPR. "If a party that's big enough to win elections cannot lose elections — cannot accept losing elections — democracy is in trouble."

Early during his run for office, during a speech in New York City in 2019, Biden pledged to hold a summit on democracy if elected. This week, he'll make good on that promise.
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Getty Images
Early during his run for office, during a speech in New York City in 2019, Biden pledged to hold a summit on democracy if elected. This week, he'll make good on that promise.

Biden did not mention Jan. 6 attack, but Harris did

All this has led to many carefully worded statements from White House officials about how much authority the U.S. has to push other countries to promote democracy and free and fair elections. "We, of course, realize that no democracy is perfect, ourselves included," an administration official told reporters ahead of the summit. "The president has been forthright and clear about the challenges facing democracy here at home throughout his presidency."

Vice President Harris, who has made voting rights part of her policy portfolio, took the issue on directly. "January 6th looms large in our collective conscience. And the anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy," she said in an address to the summit.

Biden made only glancing references to these strains in American democracy in his opening remarks, and did not mention Jan. 6. Instead, Biden repeatedly tried to tie his domestic political agenda to his goal of proving democracies can deliver results to their voters. He talked up his pandemic rescue package, the recently signed infrastructure law and his Build Back Better platform of social programs and climate incentives, which has stalled in the Senate and has left his own party divided on its size and scope.

Biden also again backed electoral reform bills that are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans have filibustered them.

Speaking to NPR before Biden's remarks, Levitsky had hoped for a more direct speech from Biden, arguing the strains on the American system made the president's summit all the more important.

"Joe Biden can't give the standard 20th century U.S. stump speech in which we portray ourselves as a shining city on the hill, and other countries should use us as a model. We can't do that anymore," Levitsky said.

"What Biden could do, though, is say that we, too, are struggling for democracy, we are very much like small-d democrats across the world who are struggling to save democracy, to strengthen democracy, to reconsolidate democracy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.