WASHINGTON, UNITED STATES — President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged unity among democracies in the face of Russia and China as he committed nearly $700 million to halt global democratic backsliding and forged an alliance against surveillance technology.
Biden invited 121 leaders for his second, largely virtual “Summit for Democracy,” including the prime ministers of close US partners Israel and India who both defended their records after charges of creeping authoritarianism.
First conceived by Biden as a way to restore US credibility after Donald Trump’s norm-shattering presidency and the attack on the US Capitol, the Summit for Democracy has taken a new urgency as Ukraine fights back a Russian invasion and as China goes on a diplomatic offensive.
The summit will work on “holding Russia accountable for its unjust and unprovoked war against Ukraine, showing that democracies are strong and resolved,” Biden said in brief opening remarks.
After criticism that the first summit was too US-focused, Biden tapped leaders on each continent — from South Korea, Zambia, Costa Rica and The Netherlands — as co-hosts.
“We must embark on a new journey to revive democracy, which is currently under attack,” said South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who announced his country would spearhead the third Summit of Democracies.
Biden, who will address the two-day summit more formally later Wednesday, will announce $690 million to promote democracy overseas, a US official said.
The US funding will back programs to stage free elections, advance independent media and strengthen action against corruption and follows a commitment of $424 million offered at the first summit.
The Biden administration will also announce a joint effort with around 10 partners to counter the misuse and proliferation of spyware — which the United States fears has become a growing tool of China as its technological clout increases.
The effort comes two days after Biden banned the US government from using commercial spyware programs and as Biden’s Republican rivals lead a controversial push in Congress to ban TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app.
Netanyahu, Modi hail democracy
Just Tuesday, Biden voiced alarm about Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed to weaken the judiciary, unleashing massive protests with critics accusing him of denigrating democracy.
Netanyahu, who put the measures on at least temporary hold in the face of a general strike, told the summit that the alliance with the United States was “unshakable” and called Biden “a friend of 40 years.”
Addressing foreign critics, Netanyahu promised that Israel “was, is and will always remain a proud, strong and vibrant democracy as a beacon of liberty and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East,” and said he wanted a compromise that protects civil liberties.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, courted by the United States as a bulwark against China, also extolled the virtues of democracy days after the opposition chief was expelled from parliament over a conviction for defaming the right-wing leader.
Modi called India the “mother of democracy” — a title more frequently taken by Greece — as he pointed to the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata’s call for leaders to exercise power through consultation.
“Democracy is not just a structure; it is also a spirit,” said Modi, whose government is also accused of a growing clampdown on media.
Biden declined to invite a number of leaders over concern on their records including Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces reelection in May after two decades in power, and, alone among European Union members, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an outspoken critic of liberal values.
Close US partners who failed to make the cut include Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand.
Democracy ‘under assault’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned bluntly that the world was undergoing a “dramatic upheaval” in which democratic values are “under assault,” pointing to rising attacks and restrictions on media and human rights defenders.
“Today, we see more and more despotism and less and less enlightenment,” Guterres told the summit.
“History has shown time and again that autocratic leadership is not the guarantor of stability; it is a catalyst of chaos and conflict.”
The United States has identified China as the sole long-term adversary to the US-led liberal international order and invited Taiwan to the summit, despite not recognizing the self-governing democracy.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the summit “hypes up confrontation” and will “stoke division in the name of democracy.”
Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, accused the United States of hypocrisy, pointing to the country’s problems of “racism, gun violence, corruption and social inequality.”
“We have seen the disastrous consequences of the attempts to forcibly export American democracy to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.”