WASHINGTON – Just days before President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, a virtual meeting of more than 100 countries that opens Thursday, China’s foreign ministry released a scathing report on America’s democratic system.
“The gunfire and farce on Capitol Hill have fully revealed what lies behind the gorgeous exterior of an American-style democracy,” the Chinese report said, citing the January 6 riot. In a country where “money is everything,” the report says, “entrenched political paralysis” makes governance impossible.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in late November uttered the same contemptuous tone. “The United States claims its right to decide who is worthy of being called a democracy and who is not,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, according to the state-run TASS news agency. “It definitely looks cynical. I would say it looks pathetic given the state of democracy and human rights in the United States and the West in general. ”
The reaction of authoritarian governments that were not invited to the summit to uphold democratic values is not surprising.
But even US officials admit that American democracy suffers from, among other things, political polarization, racial injustice and division, restrictions on voting rights, and internal extremism. Some activists are urging Biden to focus more on issues at home before focusing on overseas.
“You can’t try to export and defend democracy around the world if you can’t defend it domestically,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder and CEO of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a progressive nonprofit group based in Atlanta. “You can’t be a global firefighter when your house is on fire.”
This tension will loom over a two-day virtual gathering of leaders from model democracies like Germany, Japan and Sweden to mixed results like Georgia, Nigeria and Pakistan. The meeting, which will also bring together journalists, civil society activists and business leaders, should provide a forum for democracies to exchange ideas and criticism, US officials said. Participants will also commit themselves to political reform, corruption, human rights and other issues.
Understand the US Capitol riot
On January 6, 2021, a crowd of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.
“The US is clearly going through a difficult period right now,” said Michael J. Abramovitz, president of Freedom House, a non-partisan human rights and democracy group. The United States is ranked 50th in Freedom House’s annual global freedom index, he said. Last month, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm named the United States on its list of “democracy backs”.
Domestic shortcomings should not prevent the United States from promoting its core values, in which authoritarianism and populism have pervaded in recent years, Mr. Abramovitz said, “as long as it is done with humility.”
“Without the participation and leadership of the United States, the cause of democracy will not move forward,” he said. “Who else will do it?”
Mr Biden said the world is at a historic turning point in the struggle between democracy and autocracy. He also vowed to show that the US system is superior to more centralized models, such as China’s, which does not tolerate disagreement. Administration officials say they are up to the task, but have no illusions about their domestic problems.
“We are approaching this week with humility and confidence,” Uzra Zeya, deputy minister for civil security, democracy and human rights, told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday.
She added: “It is humility that we want to listen and learn and not shy away from our shortcomings; confidence in our constant pursuit of a better union; and our confidence that, working together, democracies can and will provide for the world’s citizens, regardless of the rough deals that autocrats and authoritarian regimes try to sell. ”
But others warned against shifting the focus overseas while problems fester at home. Federal authorities said violent domestic extremists continued to be encouraged by false claims about the 2020 elections. Former President Donald Trump is fighting in court to block the release of documents requested by the congressional committee to investigate the mafia attack on the Capitol. This year, Republicans have imposed restrictions on voting in 19 states.
While Mr Biden has called protecting voting rights an urgent priority, many of his supporters complain that Congress has failed to advance federal legislation to strengthen voting rights, standardize basic electoral rules, and prohibit fraud.
A White House newsletter published ahead of the summit described the passage of its bipartisan infrastructure plan as a prime example of a functioning democracy. But Mark H. Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League, said more action is needed to address internal threats to democracy. He called the summit a “missed opportunity.”
“You cannot separate what is happening in the world from what is happening in the United States,” said Mr. Morial.
The Biden administration could also use the summit to determine long-term plans for working with other countries facing similar threats to democracy, said Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Washington think tank at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For example, officials can strategize against extremist groups in the United States that are increasingly linking up overseas, she said.
Understand the January 6 Executive Privilege claim.
The key issue has not yet been explored. As a former president, Donald Trump’s right to keep information from his secret in the White House has become a central issue in the House of Representatives investigation into the January 6 Capitol riot. Amid Mr Trump’s attempt to keep private records secret and Stephen K. Bannon’s accusations of contempt of Congress, here is a violation of executive privileges:
“American democracy at home and global democracy abroad are in dire need of strategy and improvement because both countries are in a precipitous decline,” said Ms Kleinfeld. “But the summit is not a strategy. In fact, the summit was a distraction. “
Domestic issues aren’t the only potential source of embarrassment at the meeting, which is scheduled to feature Mr. Biden’s speeches, meetings with heads of state and more than a dozen events.
The administration also faced questions regarding the criteria for accepting invitations. Critics have questioned the inclusion of countries such as the Philippines, which the State Department has condemned for extrajudicial killings, and Pakistan, which the United States has accused of “enforced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture; and cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the government. “
Freedom House found that Georgia was influenced by oligarchs in its politics and media, and that Nigeria, the largest democracy in Africa, suffers from rampant corruption and permits the harassment and arrest of journalists.
“I wouldn’t throw a party like that,” Ms. Kleinfeld said of the “wide tent” of the invitees.
Hungary and Turkey, both NATO members, were not invited; there have not been a few other countries that identify as democracies but have records of repression. Singapore has also remained on the sidelines, although Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Vice President Kamala Harris have been there this year to advance their relationship with the United States as an ally in the South China Sea.
“The decision not to invite strong democracies like Singapore and Bhutan underscores that democracy is in the eye of the beholder,” said Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010.
Brazil, the largest – but increasingly authoritarian – democracy in Latin America, was also not invited; like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
Jen Psaki, a White House spokeswoman, said this week that the invitations should not be seen as “a sign of endorsement for their approach to democracy.”
“This is an opportunity, again, not to celebrate everything we have done for democracy, not for the United States, not for all these countries, and put an end to it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to keep striving for the best.”
Michael Vines made reporting.