The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ includes countries that hardly seem to qualify

Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, which has voiced displeasure at being excluded from President Biden’s democracy summit this week.
Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, which has voiced displeasure at being excluded from President Biden’s democracy summit this week. (John Thys/Pool/Reuters)

Pakistan, the State Department warns sharply, has more than a dozen serious human rights problems, from “extrajudicial killings” to “forced disappearance by the government or its agents” to “political prisoners” to “severe restrictions of religious freedom” to “trafficking in persons.”

But on Thursday, Pakistan will join about 110 other countries at a two-day “Summit for Democracy” convened by President Biden, with the goal of rallying the nations of the world against the forces of authoritarianism.

In creating an invite list that seems to divide the world into good guys and bad guys — despite a strong denial by the White House of any such intent — the administration has prompted tensions and anger from various countries, while highlighting that the globe is hardly binary. Some of the invitees have undisputed democratic credentials, and some of those omitted are clearly authoritarian, but many countries fall into a murky area.

By the State Department’s own account, the governments of both Pakistan and the Philippines, another invitee, are responsible for “unlawful or arbitrary killings.” Not making the cut are Hungary, a member of the European Union, and Turkey, a NATO ally, both of which have seen their democratic safeguards crumble in recent years.

The White House has been less than clear about how it made such calls for the event, which is being overseen by Shanthi Kalathil, coordinator for democracy and human rights at the National Security Council.

Asked about the criteria, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, “Inclusion or an invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy — nor is exclusion a stamp of the opposite of that, of disapproval,”

Some of the excluded countries aren’t buying that, however; leaders of Hungary, for one, complain that they are being penalized for their closeness to former president Donald Trump.

Last week, Hungary, as the only E.U. member left out, tried to block E.U. official Ursula von der Leyen from speaking on behalf of the bloc at the summit. Von der Leyen is speaking regardless, but the E.U.’s formal statement at the event, which requires buy-in from all of its members, will be pared back.

The Hungarian Embassy in Washington said the Biden administration’s decision was “disrespectful.”

“Hungarian-American relations were at their peak during the Trump presidency, and it is clear from the list of the invited countries that the summit will be a domestic political event,” the embassy said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Therefore countries that were on friendly terms with the previous administration were not invited.”

A senior Biden administration official rejected that claim. “I can tell you that there was no consideration of U.S. domestic politics in terms of government partners,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid details about the summit.

This official added that the United States does not purport to be “the arbiter” of democratic legitimacy, which is born, rather, from “a country’s population.” And Psaki said the White House is not trying to pass judgment or proclaim superiority.

“You’re always trying to make yourself better, to lead better, to push other countries to be better, and this is an opportunity to do exactly that,” Psaki said. “I understand, of course, the interest in the invite list, but it’s not meant to be, again, a stamp of approval or disapproval — it’s just meant to have a diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion.”

But that is not how a lot of countries are viewing it. They see Biden, like a global Santa Claus, declaring that specific countries are naughty or nice, and will be treated accordingly.

And the patterns can be hard to discern. Trump did speak flatteringly of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has emerged as something of a model for some in the MAGA movement.

But Trump also spoke positively about Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte, both of whom have been invited to the summit — and of Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have not.

“I don’t think of this as the administration picking winners and losers as much as the administration trying to rally like-minded partners to fight the threat of authoritarianism, and also maybe trying to rally countries that are not doing well to do better,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan pro-democracy organization.

Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar and the president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, agreed. “My sense is this is not an initiative to create an exclusive club of democracy but to just celebrate this issue of democracy,” Mitchell said. “But you can’t help geopolitics being here.”

It may have been difficult to exclude Pakistan, for example, while inviting its arch-adversary, India, without creating a major diplomatic rift. And the administration wants Pakistan’s cooperation in dealing with the Taliban since the United States has pulled out of Afghanistan.

The three overarching themes of the summit are defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. Attendees are asked to make meaningful commitments to furthering democracy in their countries, with a follow-up summit planned for next year.

This year’s summit will be held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The White House is also inviting activist and business groups, and officials have been engaging nongovernmental organizations for roughly six months, the senior administration official said.

While the White House is in charge of organizing the summit — and navigating the various diplomatic land mines — it is leaning on the State Department to incorporate the civil society leaders.

Beyond Kalathil, other officials playing roles include Robert Berschinski, the National Security Council’s senior director for democracy and human rights, and Kourtney Pompi, a senior policy adviser at the State Department.

Biden is hardly the first U.S. president to work to promote democratic values, seeming to divide the world — intentionally or not — into actors good and rogue. Ronald Reagan had his “Evil Empire” (the Soviet bloc), and George W. Bush had his “Axis of Evil” (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) in the global fight against terrorism.

The summit has its origins in Biden’s rebuke of his predecessor during the presidential campaign. As a candidate in 2020, Biden outlined in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs the ways in which he said Trump had diminished the credibility and influence of the United States.

In an article titled “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Biden promised, if elected, to “take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.”

Two other notable, if unsurprising, omissions from the summit are China and Russia. In a November op-ed in the National Interest, the ambassadors to the United States from both countries excoriated the Biden administration, accusing it of a “Cold-War mentality” and warning that the summit “will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world, creating new ‘dividing lines.’ ”

The angry op-ed, Mitchell said, underscored that an invite to the summit — and the designation of being democracy-friendly — is viewed as significant globally.

“It shows how important it is for countries to appropriate that term ‘democracy,’ to be seen as democratic, even those that are clearly — even risibly — not democratic,” Mitchell said. “They twist themselves in knots.”

The exclusion of China, and the inclusion of Taiwan, has infuriated Beijing, an outcome the Biden administration anticipated. But some Asian allies, worried about how China might view their participation in the summit, are also uneasy.

“Not only is China very hostile towards it, but a lot of countries inside Asia, even democracies, are ambivalent,” said a senior U.S. administration official.

South Korea, for instance, has important economic and political ties to China and has sought to keep a low profile, declining to make a high-level speech at the event. Other invitees, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, also want to avoid getting caught in the middle of a geopolitical spat between Beijing and Washington.

Another challenge for the administration is that the United States itself is not a perfect example of a well-oiled democracy. Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report — which scores countries on a scale of 0 to 100 — gave the United States a score of 83, a marked decline from its score of 94 a decade ago. The deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, too, undermined American democracy in the eyes of many allies.

Even local or state-level events, such as a Republican-led overhaul of the electoral process in Wisconsin, have prompted alarm among democracy activists.

Laura Thornton, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, warned in a Washington Post op-ed Saturday that the United States would not tolerate behavior like Wisconsin’s in another country.

“If this occurred in any of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy,” wrote Thornton, who spent more than two decades overseas working on democracy and election issues. “U.S. diplomats would be writing furious cables, and decision makers would be threatening to cut off the flow of assistance.”

Yet in some ways, Biden’s efforts to wrestle with the issue domestically make the summit more critical, some experts said.

“Look, his narrative going in, especially on foreign policy, is ‘America is back, democracy matters, and the U.S. is committed to a values agenda,’ ” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But there’s been the criticism that the U.S. had not fully followed through on that promise under Biden.”

He added: “This is way for us to say, ‘Wait a second. It does matter. And we’re actually showing you how this works in terms of having a major summit.’ ”

Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.