Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan pro-democracy organization. David J. Kramer, a former president of Freedom House and assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, is a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs at Florida International University.

The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy, set to take place next month, comes as democracy appears to be steadily losing ground against authoritarianism. The United States cannot allow the summit to devolve into a flurry of empty rhetoric. Instead, it should use the occasion to commit fellow democracies to support for human rights defenders, journalists and democracy activists around the world.

In March, Freedom House published a report documenting 15 consecutive years of decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. Military coups or power grabs in Tunisia, Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Sudan have significantly set back progress in countries that had previously offered glimmers of hope for democratization. The people of Afghanistan find themselves once again under Taliban rule in the wake of the U.S. military’s departure.

Ethiopia, which was so recently praised for a nascent political opening, has become consumed by a civil war and reports of mass atrocities based on ethnicity. Meanwhile, entrenched autocratic regimes in Russia, China, Belarus and Cuba are carrying out ugly crackdowns on human rights defenders, journalists, grass-roots organizations and political opposition. To make matters worse, dictators such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Nicaraguan autocrat Daniel Ortega seem almost impervious to the condemnation — and even sanctions — of democratic nations.

Democracies have been too timid and defensive in the struggle against authoritarianism. The virtual summit on Dec. 9 and 10, to be followed next year by an in-person summit, presents an opportunity to take a more confident and assertive stance on countering authoritarian influence, fighting corruption and promoting human rights.

More than 100 countries have been invited to attend the summit, including some backsliding democracies such as Poland, India and the Philippines. Others that have more dramatically fallen away from democratic rule, such as Hungary, Turkey and Tunisia, will be excluded. Some even question whether the United States has the standing to host such a gathering given its own democratic erosion.

To ensure that attendees depart the virtual forum on Dec. 10 motivated and equipped to take on the growing authoritarian threat, the White House should ensure that at least three things happen at the summit:

First, representatives of civil society, independent media and social movements — especially from countries not invited to attend officially — should have a privileged opportunity to speak directly to attending governments. President Biden himself should host a meeting with human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists from around the world, drawing attention to the brave individuals who continue to insist on their rights against heavy odds in Hong Kong, Belarus, Cuba, Sudan and many other places.

Second, every attending country, led by the United States, should pledge support — financial as well as political — for the millions of courageous people around the world struggling against authoritarianism every day. They risk their freedom and even their lives to strive for the kinds of liberties and freedoms we often take for granted.

Attending nations should make fresh commitments to preserve independent journalism, strengthen anticorruption policies and bolster protections for human rights defenders, who are at increasing risk of authoritarian retribution not just in their own countries, but even after they flee into exile. U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power demonstrated what this might look like when she announced a new fund to support journalists facing frivolous lawsuits — often brought by cronies of authoritarian leaders — that are aimed at silencing them and thwarting accountability.

Third, the leaders gathered by the Biden administration should issue a joint declaration with two clear messages. The first is to reaffirm their commitment to democratic institutions, free and fair elections, protection of minority groups and respect for civil society. Equally important is a statement of determination to fight authoritarian power grabs — the coups, the arrests of human rights activists, the breakdown of the rule of law and independent media, the transnational efforts to target dissidents living in democracies and interference in our elections.

The Summit for Democracy cannot be merely symbolic or aspirational. It should not serve merely as a photo op for leaders, nor should it be a forum for empty speeches. The world desperately needs bold, tangible action from the community of democratic nations. Failure to deliver could mean the dismal trends of the past 15 years will continue, and the world will become much less free and much less safe for us all.