Scores of global democratic leaders gather for US President Biden's virtual summit but struggle to unite behind principles.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington.
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a virtual Summit for Democracy, which he is hosting from an auditorium on the White House campus in Washington. (Reuters)

US President Joe Biden has announced new funding to bolster democracies around the world at a meeting, although dozens of countries were holding back on a summit declaration laying out commitments to democratic principles.

Amid criticism his administration has made little progress in advancing human rights and democracy in its foreign policy, Biden on Wednesday announced a planned $690 million in funding to help fight corruption, support free and fair elections and advance technologies that support democratic governments.

"We're turning the tide here. As we often say, we're at an inflection point in history here, when the decisions we make today are going to affect the course of our world for the next several decades for certain," Biden said addressing the largely virtual Summit for Democracy, the second such event organised by the White House.

Although leaders of 120 nations were invited, a summit declaration — which included backing basic tenets of democracy like free and fair elections and calling out Russia for its invasion of Ukraine — was initially endorsed by only 73 countries.

Twelve of those dissociated themselves from parts of the text, including India, Israel and the Philippines, which all opted out of a part backing accountability for human rights abusers and acknowledging the importance of the International Criminal Court.

"To meet the rising challenges to democracy worldwide, we commit to strengthen democratic institutions and processes and build resilience," the declaration said.

A senior administration official said the declaration remained open and additional countries could still endorse it.

READ MORE: Pakistan says 'values' friendship with US but will skip democracy summit

Little progress made

Biden announced over $400 million for similar programmes in 2021 when he last held such an event.

Rights advocates say there is little evidence the countries joining the summit have made progress on improving their democracies, and that there is no formal mechanism to hold participants to the modest commitments made at an earlier meeting.

More recently, a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government to weaken the power of Israel's judiciary; Mexico's move to gut its election oversight body; and India's decision to disqualify a top opposition political leader have all cast a pall over Biden's repeated claims that democracies have become stronger.

Netanyahu, one of 85 world leaders who addressed the summit, voiced confidence that a political compromise could be reached on the judicial reforms, which he argued could be reconciled with civil liberties even as his opponents have accused him of seeking to curb judicial independence.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, courted by the United States as a bulwark against China, also extolled the virtues of democracy days after the opposition chief was expelled from parliament over a conviction for defaming the right-wing leader.

Modi called India the "mother of democracy" — a title more frequently taken by Greece — as he pointed to the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata's call for leaders to exercise power through consultation.

"Democracy is not just a structure; it is also a spirit," said Modi, whose government is also accused of a growing clampdown on media.

Close US partners who failed to make the cut include Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand.

READ MORE: Is America’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ really about democracy?

'Division in the name of democracy'

China — identified by Washington as the sole long-term adversary to the US-led liberal international order — and Russia both described the summit as hypocritical.

China said the summit "hypes up confrontation" and will "stoke division in the name of democracy."

The US hosted the last summit on its own. This time, it recruited four co-hosts — Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia — after ambassadors from China and Russia criticised the first summit and accused Biden of causing a global divide with a Cold War mentality.

Still, some countries would rather not get between Washington and Beijing, an increasingly important economic and military player.

Pakistan announced, as it did in 2021, that it had received an invitation but would skip the summit.

Xu Xueyuan, the charge d'affaires of China's embassy in Washington, on Wednesday called the summit "at odds with the spirit of democracy."

"The US draws an ideological line between countries, and through its narrative of 'democracy versus authoritarianism,' it has formed factions and caused divisions in the international community," she said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies