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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden sounded an alarm about a global slide among democratic institutions Thursday as he convened the first White House Summit for Democracy. He called for world leaders to “lock arms” to strengthen democracies and demonstrate their worth in a changing world.
Biden called it a critical moment for fellow leaders to redouble their efforts to bolster democracies. In making the case for action, he noted his own battle to win passage of voting rights legislation at home and alluded to challenges to America’s democratic institutions and traditions.
“This is an urgent matter,” Biden said in remarks to open the two-day virtual summit. “The data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.”
The video gathering comes as Biden has repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and like-minded allies need to show the world that democracies are a far better vehicle for societies than autocracies.
That is a central tenet of Biden’s foreign policy outlook — one that he vowed would be more outward looking than his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” approach. Biden in his remarks announced he was launching an initiative to spend up to $424 million for programming around the world that supports independent media, anti-corruption work and more.
The administration has faced scrutiny over how it went about deciding which countries to invite. China and Russia were among those not receiving invitations.
Other leaders took turns delivering their own remarks on the state of democracy — many prerecorded — often reflecting on the stress that rapidly evolving technology is having on their nations. They also bemoaned the increase of disinformation campaigns aimed at and undermining institutions and elections.
The summit comes as Biden is pressing Russia’s Vladimir Putin to stand down after a massive buildup of troops on the Ukraine border, creating growing concern in Washington and European capitals that Russia may look to once again invade Ukraine. Biden on Wednesday said that he warned Putin in a video call of “severe consequences” if Russia invaded.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who took part in Thursday’s summit and later spoke by phone with Biden, said on Twitter, “Democracy is not a given, it must be fought for.
Poland’s Andrzej Duda also spoke out against Russia in his address, decrying Moscow and its support of Belarus. Poland and Western allies have accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko of using migrants as pawns to destabilize the 27-nation European Union in retaliation for its sanctions on his authoritarian regime. Hundreds of migrants, mostly from the Middle East, flocked to the Belarus-Poland border. Most were fleeing conflict or despair at home and were looking to reach Germany or other Western European countries.
Putin made no public comment on the summit Thursday as he took part in his own video call with members of the Kremlin council for human rights.
Poland “took on a commitment to be a support for democracy in Eastern Europe,” Duda said. “It is a beautiful task, but it has its consequences. It has made us the target of the Kremlin propaganda.”
The U.S. may be at its own pivot point.
Local elected officials are resigning at an alarming rate amid confrontations with angry voices at school board meetings, elections offices and town halls. States are passing laws to limit access to the ballot, making it more difficult for Americans to vote. And the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol has left many in Donald Trump’s Republican party clinging to his false claims of a stolen election, eroding trust in the accuracy of the vote.
“Here in the United States we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy and strengthening our democratic institutions requires constant effort,” Biden said.
Biden has said passage of his ambitious domestic agenda — the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law, as well as the roughly $2 trillion “Build Back Better Act” of social and climate change initiatives moving through the Senate — will demonstrate how democracy can improve people’s lives.
Some advocates also want Biden to focus on other ways to shore up democracy at home.