WASHINGTON — It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic backdrop as President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy gets underway today: authoritarianism looming large over Ukraine, Taiwan — and the United States itself.
Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will kick off the proceedings this morning, hosting government officials, civil society advocates and business leaders from more than 110 countries, including Canada.
It comes with the world nervously watching two of the summit’s most glaring absences — Russia and China — flex their military muscles at two woefully undermatched neighbours.
Biden has threatened economic sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine, while Blinken has called a Chinese incursion into Taiwan a “potentially disastrous decision.”
Then, of course, there’s that other elephant in the Zoom room: what happened on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6.
For Americans, democracy is under siege at home, with former president Donald Trump widely expected to seek the job again in 2024 — regardless of whether he actually wins the election.
White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to offer details about what the president will say Thursday — whether he intends to talk about the open wounds left by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, or the stalled effort to protect voting rights.
They are “clearly things that the president feels are key, and important things that we need to address here in our country,” Jean-Pierre said.
The overarching goal, she added, is “to focus on what the president has called the challenge of our time: reversing the ongoing global democratic recession, and ensuring that democracies deliver for their people.”
Uzra Zeya, the State Department’s undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, made oblique reference to the U.S.’s own deep-seated political challenges during a media briefing earlier this week.
Zeya said the Biden administration is approaching the summit with “both humility and confidence.”
“Humility, in that we want to listen and learn and don’t shy away from our shortcomings,” she said.
“Confidence, in our constant striving for a more perfect union and our certainty that, working together, democracies can and will deliver for the world’s citizens, regardless of the raw deal that autocrats and authoritarians try to sell.”
Some critics have denounced what they consider an undemocratic model for the summit itself, for which the agenda and list of participants was drawn up behind closed doors. A group of Senate Democrats wrote to Biden last month to bemoan the lack of transparency.
“While too many ‘cooks in the kitchen’ is not ideal in conference organization — or, authoritarians would argue, in governing — one on democracy should tolerate the messiness of inclusion,” Alliance for Securing Democracy director Laura Thornton wrote in an op-ed that appeared Wednesday on the political website The Hill.
Blinken took part in a “Day 0” pre-game event Wednesday with a group of young activists from around the world who are actively promoting causes like human rights, freedom of expression, gender equality and free and fair elections.
Democracy “has its share of challenges, especially right now,” he said, acknowledging that one of the most pressing is the public perception of an outdated and inefficient system that has proven unable to meet the public’s needs.
“We do see, in this contest between autocracies and democracies, the argument being made by autocratic leaders that their systems deliver more effectively for people,” Blinken told the panel.
“I think that’s exactly the opposite of the truth, but it does suggest to all of us that we have a profound stake in demonstrating that democracies can actually deliver concrete results for people in real time — whether it’s for young people or anyone else, for that matter.”
The main objective of the summit, Zeya said, will be to lead by example and demonstrate the ways in which democracy does in fact work better than many people might be led to believe.
“This summit is not about taking sides. It’s not meant to be divisive or adversarial,” she said. “Data shows that free and democratic societies have healthier citizens, less violent conflict, and more prosperous communities. “
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9. 2021.