WASHINGTON — Conflicts with rival superpowers loom, while the vitriol of American politics shows no sign of abating. That was the context Thursday as President Biden opened his two-day global Summit for Democracy, with both international and domestic institutions appearing as fragile as they have ever been since Biden arrived in Washington as a young legislator in the early 1970s.
“Democracy needs champions,” Biden said in his opening remarks, speaking to the leaders of 110 nations over a video link. Some of those attendees — Sweden, for example — are considered among the best-functioning democracies in the world. Others, like Israel, have struggled to maintain a functioning democracy in the face of corruption and other threats. And a few, including Poland, have taken the perilous slide back into authoritarianism.
“In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time,” Biden said as Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat with him at a U-shaped desk, which faced a screen on which the images of foreign leaders were tiled. A senior administration official told reporters ahead of the summit that next year the gathering would be held in person. The official added that this year the themes would be “defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption and advancing respect for human rights.”
Foreign crises have dominated Biden’s agenda in recent days. Earlier this week, the White House said it would enact a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics over China’s treatment of Uyghurs, a Muslim population that has been forced into labor camps and subjected to other brutal measures. And on Wednesday the president met virtually with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, warning him of consequences that would result from an invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
China and Russia were not invited to the democracy summit. Neither were Turkey or Hungary. The latter country’s strongman leader, Viktor Orbán, has enchanted some American conservatives with his nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric.
Defining democracy as “fragile” but “inherently resilient,” Biden pitched himself as the leader of a global renewal, even as Washington itself continues to attract political extremism. Time and again, the president has argued that passage of his ambitious — and expensive — domestic agenda is necessary to prove that even if democratic governments can be rancorous and divisive, they are nevertheless superior to authoritarian regimes like those in Moscow and Beijing.
“The United States is approaching the summit from a place of humility,” a senior administration official said on Thursday morning. The administration announced it would seek $424 million for “democratic renewal” programs abroad that would include strengthening independent media outlets, combating corruption and otherwise encouraging democracy, in part by promoting greater internet access.
At the same time, the Office of Management and Budget sent a notice in support of a House of Representatives measure known as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which seeks to prevent a president from abusing the broad, complex and sometimes vague powers of the Oval Office.
“Our constitutional structure is designed to preserve democracy and prevent authoritarianism,” the OMB notice said. “That promise is imperiled when a President places himself above the law, disregards the separation of powers, retaliates against legitimate whistleblowers, allows corruption to take hold, or enables foreign interference in our elections.”
The reference is plainly to Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who courted foreign strongmen like Putin while taking steps to subvert democracy at home, according to his critics. It has fallen to Biden to restore the pre-Trump order and, in his view, the image of American leadership that Trump tarnished.
“Democracy’s hard,” the president said. “We all know that.”