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World's democracies meet to show solidarity against a rising tide of authoritarianism

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden wants to promote democracy. So today, he's hosting a virtual summit with representatives from more than 100 countries; two-day event intended to examine a central challenge of our time. Democratic practices are under pressure in a lot of countries. The U.S. witnessed an effort to overturn the results of its last presidential election, and open societies worldwide face a challenge from China, which often uses the word democracy but means something very different by it. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is here to tell us more. Franco, good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why is this summit happening now?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, part of the reason is to fulfill a campaign promise. Biden committed to holding a democracy summit within his first year of office, so he's checking off that box. The idea was to do it in person, but the pandemic made that difficult, of course. But, you know, this is also a really important issue for Biden. He talks all the time about how democracy is under attack and how the U.S. and others need to show that they have a better model than countries like China and Russia. So there is some symbolism here. It's a chance to plant the flag and declare that this is important. I spoke with Charles Kupchan, who was a senior adviser on European affairs in the Obama administration. You know, he says the clock is ticking, the sooner the better, because steps need to be taken to address the increasing fragility of democracy in the world.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: This is an effort to go out into the world and to say, hey, Houston, we have a problem. Liberal democracy is not as solid as we thought it was.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and Biden himself says that history is watching. He argues that the world is at an inflection point in what he describes as a global struggle between democracy and autocracy.

INSKEEP: OK. If steps need to be taken to address the increasing fragility of democracy in the world, what steps are they going to take?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the focus is quite broad, and it's not really that specific. Senior officials did tell us that the summit will have three themes - strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, second is fighting corruption, and third is promoting respect for human rights. The White House says they're expecting leaders to use the summit to announce new commitments in these areas. But, you know, these are all noble and ambitious things, of course, but, you know, really, much of that can be written in a statement without taking more concrete action.

INSKEEP: It seems to me that one value of this, if there is value in it, is simply the symbolism of who gets invited, who gets to be part of the democratic club and who is proclaiming their democratic values by showing up. So I would guess the guest list, who's on it, who's not, is kind of important.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, very important. You know, obviously, countries like China and Russia were not included. And the president has spent a lot of time this week on Russia and its military buildup on the border with Ukraine. But Taiwan was invited, and that's a big deal because of the impacts it could have on relations with China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory. The ambassador of China to the United States wrote an op-ed, actually along with the ambassador of Russia, blasting the summit as being anti-democratic and saying that it represents a Cold War mentality. So it seems to definitely have gotten under their skin.

INSKEEP: There are some people who were invited that raise eyebrows. Jair Bolsonaro comes to mind, the president of Brazil. He's an elected president, so democratic in that way but not exactly known as a protector of democratic values.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, he's really a far-right, outsized personality in, frankly, the biggest economy in Latin America, and he is known for his authoritarian leadership style. So it is very curious. But officials - senior officials defended the guest list, and they said a democracy is more than just about its leaders and that no democracy is perfect.

INSKEEP: Which raises another question - how is President Biden intending to address the fact that there was an effort, including violence, to overturn the results of the last presidential election in the United States?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, we're coming up on the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, you know, an attempt to stop Congress from certifying democratic election results. You know, Biden himself says that democracy here is facing its biggest test since the Civil War. Officials say he will not shy away at this summit from talking about issues like the integrity of elections in the U.S. and voting rights protections.

INSKEEP: What do they do when the talking is done?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the conversations, you know, today and tomorrow are supposed to kick off a year of talks. The idea is that governments and civil society groups will continue to work on new initiatives and pledges and then get together in a year's time to unveil them at the next summit for democracy, which, you know, of course, they hope will actually be in person.

INSKEEP: Franco, it's been a while since I've seen you in person. I look forward to the next time that happens.

ORDOÑEZ: I do, too, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.