Biden’s Defense of Global Democracies Is Tested by Political Turmoil

WASHINGTON — A political crisis in Israel and setbacks to democracy in several other major countries closely allied with the United States are testing the Biden administration’s defense of democracy against a global trend toward the authoritarianism of nations like Russia and China.

President Biden will deliver remarks on Wednesday at the second White House-led Summit for Democracy, which Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken kicked off on Tuesday morning.

The three-day, in-person and virtual event comes as Mr. Biden has boasted, more than once, that since he became president “democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.”

Casting a cloud over the long-planned gathering is a move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government to weaken the power of Israel’s judiciary, a plan that his opponents call an existential threat to the country’s 75-year democratic tradition.

But that is only the most vivid sign of how autocratic practices are making inroads around the world.

Biden administration officials are also warily eyeing countries like Mexico, which has moved to gut its election oversight body; India, where a top opposition political leader was disqualified last week from holding a post in Parliament; and Brazil, where the electoral defeat last year of the autocratic president, Jair Bolsonaro, was followed by a riot in January that his supporters orchestrated at government offices in Brasília, the capital.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to postpone the proposed judicial changes under intense political pressure may slightly ease the awkwardness of Israel’s participation in the summit, where he is set to deliver prerecorded video remarks. Mexico, India and Brazil will also participate.

Mr. Netanyahu’s retreat came after private admonitions from Biden officials that he was endangering Israel’s cherished reputation as a true democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

In a briefing for reporters on Monday, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said that Mr. Biden had “strongly” urged Israel’s government to find a compromise to a judicial plan that has starkly divided society and ignited huge protests. Asked whether the White House might disinvite Israel from the summit, Mr. Kirby said only that Israel “has been invited.”

But the larger troubles remain for Mr. Biden, who asserted in his State of the Union address last month that the United States had reach “an inflection point” in history and that during his presidency had begun to reverse a worldwide autocratic march.

Democracy activists call that a debatable proposition, and U.S. officials acknowledge that the picture is nuanced at best.

On the positive side of the ledger, U.S. officials and experts say, Mr. Biden has rallied much of the democratic world into a powerful coalition against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a speech during his visit to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, last month marking the anniversary of the invasion, Mr. Biden repeated his assertion about the growing strength of democracies against autocracies and said that the war had forced the United States and its allies to “stand up for democracy.”

Mr. Biden has also rallied democratic nations to take firmer stands against Chinese influence around the world at a time when experts say Beijing is looking to export its model of governance.

And some argue that Mr. Biden has been a savior of democracy by winning the 2020 presidential election — defeating President Donald J. Trump, a U.S. leader with authoritarian tendencies — and by containing for now Mr. Trump’s efforts to reject the results of that election and myriad other democratic norms.

“Without suggesting that the fight has been won, or that Biden is doing everything right, I think we need to give him credit for helping to save American democracy and standing up to the great authoritarian powers,” said Tom Malinowski, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

But Mr. Biden’s claim that autocracies have grown weaker faces a stark reality in some nations.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia may find himself economically isolated and militarily challenged in Ukraine. But he still has strong political support in Russia and has even consolidated power through a crackdown on dissent that has driven hundreds of thousands of Russians from the country.

In Beijing, Xi Jinping was awarded a third five-year term this month not long after suppressing protests against his government’s coronavirus policies. In its latest official worldwide threat assessment, the U.S. intelligence community found that arms of the Chinese Communist Party “have become more aggressive with their influence campaigns” against the United States and other countries.

Biden officials conceived a democracy summit during the 2020 campaign to address a belief that autocratic influence had been spreading for years, destabilizing and undermining Western governments. They also worried about a growing perception that political chaos and legislative paralysis in places like Washington and London — or in Israel, which held five elections in three years before Mr. Netanyahu narrowly managed to form his coalition — was creating a sense around the world that democracies could not deliver results for their people.

Mr. Biden’s first Summit for Democracy, in December 2021, featured uplifting language from world leaders and group sessions on issues like media freedom and rule of law in which countries could trade best practices on strengthening their democracies and share advice on countering foreign efforts to manipulate politics and elections.

The summit this week will include about 120 countries and will be hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia in addition to the United States.

Recent democratic trends can be described as mixed at best. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index found last year that in 2021, the first year of Mr. Biden’s presidency, “global democracy continued its precipitous decline.” More recently, the same survey found that in 2022, democracy had “stagnated.”

Similarly, a report released this month by Freedom House, a nonprofit group that monitors democracy, human rights and civil liberties around the world, found that global freedom had slipped for the 17th year in a row, by its measurement. But the group also reported that the steady decline might have plateaued and that there were just slightly more countries showing a decrease in freedoms compared with those whose records were improving.

“This seems like a critical moment,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, an author of the Freedom House report. “The spread of decline is clearly slowing. It hasn’t stopped.”

That has been clear in some countries. Last month, Mexican lawmakers passed sweeping legislation hobbling the election oversight body that is widely credited with steering the country from decades of one-party rule. Critics say the country’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has shown some troubling autocratic tendencies.

In India, opponents of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, have complained for years that he is weakening the democratic tradition of the world’s second-largest country by population by cracking down on critics and religious minorities. The concerns reached a new level with the expulsion from Parliament of Rahul Ghandi, a prominent opponent of Mr. Modi’s, a day after a court found him guilty of criminal defamation for a line in a campaign speech in 2019 in which he likened Mr. Modi to two thieves with the same name.

And after supporters of Mr. Bolsonaro — who blamed electoral fraud for his narrow defeat in December — stormed government buildings in Brazil’s capital, Mr. Biden condemned “the assault on democracy.”

Democratic setbacks have also occurred in West Africa, where there have been coups in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years. In Nigeria, a country of 220 million people, experts say that the presidential election in February appeared suspect.

In Europe, thousands of people in the Republic of Georgia have taken to the streets to protest a measure that would curb what the government calls “foreign agents,” but which activists say is an effort to crack down on nongovernmental organizations and news media groups. The State Department called a March 7 parliamentary vote approving the measure “a dark day” for democracy in Georgia, which U.S. officials have tried to support against the influences of Russia, its neighbor.

The tumult over Israel’s democracy has been particularly shocking to U.S. officials and experts who have long seen the country as a paragon of democratic values and an especially bright example in a region long plagued by dictatorship.

And the summit this week will notably exclude two members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Hungary and Turkey, whose autocratic political systems have grown no less repressive during Mr. Biden’s tenure.

Still, some people who track democratic trends say they are optimistic.

“Perhaps the most striking indication of democracy’s forward movement over the last two years has been the election of President Biden, and the election of President Lula in Brazil,” said Sarah Margon, the director of foreign policy at Open Society-U.S.

Those events “sent a critical message to people who are looking to defeat autocrats or leaders with autocratic tendencies,” added Ms. Margon, whom Mr. Biden nominated last year to the State Department’s top position for human rights and democracy. (Her nomination expired after Republican opposition and was not renewed in January.)

But many world leaders profess to be unmoved by critiques from democracy advocates, especially from U.S. officials.

“If they want to have a debate on this issue, let’s do it,” Mr. López Obrador said last month. “I have evidence to prove there is more liberty and democracy in our country.”

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