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Biden’s Summit for Democracy Will Include Some Not-So-Democratic Countries

Countries such as Poland, Mexico, and the Philippines have all undermined their own democratic credentials in recent years.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A vigil for the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in Beijing
A cutout of the Goddess of Democracy, a symbol of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement, stands out in a sea of protesters during a vigil to remember the movement in Hong Kong on June 4, 1999. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Invitations for U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy will go out this week to heads of state around the world, including the leaders of countries with questionable democratic pedigrees in recent years, Foreign Policy has learned. Poland, Mexico, and the Philippines are among the countries that Biden plans to invite to the summit, which he pledged to hold during his first year in office to counterbalance the pull of authoritarian states such as China and Russia. 

The question of which countries would be on the invite list has prompted months of speculation amid a global trend of democratic backsliding, including among some allies within the European Union and NATO, such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. 

“What we’re trying to do through the Summit for Democracy is to galvanize democratic renewal worldwide,” said a senior administration official, speaking on background on the condition of anonymity. “Because of that, we’re seeking a really inclusive, big-tent approach,” the official said.

Invitations for U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy will go out this week to heads of state around the world, including the leaders of countries with questionable democratic pedigrees in recent years, Foreign Policy has learned. Poland, Mexico, and the Philippines are among the countries that Biden plans to invite to the summit, which he pledged to hold during his first year in office to counterbalance the pull of authoritarian states such as China and Russia. 

The question of which countries would be on the invite list has prompted months of speculation amid a global trend of democratic backsliding, including among some allies within the European Union and NATO, such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. 

“What we’re trying to do through the Summit for Democracy is to galvanize democratic renewal worldwide,” said a senior administration official, speaking on background on the condition of anonymity. “Because of that, we’re seeking a really inclusive, big-tent approach,” the official said.

Over 100 leaders are expected to be invited to the summit, according to the official, which will take place virtually on Dec. 9 and 10. A geographically and economically diverse range of countries are included on the list, the official said, as the administration seeks to keep as many nations as possible in the democratic fold. South Korea, Japan, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Indonesia, and Uruguay are among those to be invited. The administration declined to share the full list.

But some of the choices are likely to stir controversy among democracy advocates. Poland has been steadily backsliding for years as the ruling Law and Justice party has sought to tighten its grip on the country’s judiciary, which has put it on a collision course with the EU. (The Washington-based nonprofit Freedom House still describes Poland as free.) Mexico’s populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has openly harkened back to the time of one-party rule in Mexico, and he has stoked widespread concerns that he is undermining the pillars of Mexican democracy. 

The Philippine invite comes weeks after journalist Maria Ressa was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for using “freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken aim at the country’s judiciary and been accommodating to China’s aggressive expansion in the region.

The virtual summit is expected to be followed by a “year of action,” the senior administration official said, which will include efforts to engage civil society and the private sector to keep the momentum going followed by an in-person summit next year as the COVID-19 pandemic fades.

Experts have been divided on the summit and the question of who to invite. Some have supported the idea of extending a hand to countries on the brink of backsliding in the hope of bringing them back into the fold, noting that a gathering of consolidated democracies would likely replicate other international forums and be dominated by Western and some Asian countries. Others have voiced skepticism that a summit will change the trajectory of the world’s emerging strongmen.

“We’re not seeking to define who is a democracy who is not a democracy,” the administration official said. “We recognize that a number of the invited governments are going to have some challenges. … We come to this summit as the U.S. also with humility. We understand we have had challenges, and we are seeking to address our own challenges.”

Democracy has been in decline every year since 2006, according to Freedom House. Last year saw an especially steep decline as authoritarian leaders seized upon the pandemic to crack down on civil liberties and freedom of expression, with only 82 countries rated as “free” in their most recent ranking. India, the world’s most populous democracy, was downgraded from free to partly free. 

The White House has previously said that the summit will focus on three main themes: defending against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption, and promoting respect of human rights. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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