President Joe Biden must acknowledge U.S. shortfalls on democracy, including the events surrounding the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, when he meets with world leaders this week to push for democratic reforms globally, former U.S. officials say.
Biden should denounce the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and acknowledge that the United States also has areas of weakness that must be strengthened, they say, in order to credibly lead the coalition of countries he is bringing together virtually with the intent of bolstering democracy around the world.
The two-day summit comes amid increased concern about a military buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border and a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics by the United States and other nations over human rights abuses.
While the focus of the summit will be on democratic reforms overseas, Biden must acknowledge that the United States still has work to do to advance equity, inclusion and democratic principles within its own borders, the former officials said.
“He’s going to have to own this stuff and not be preachy or arrogant,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Biden’s message at the virtual Summit for Democracy, which begins Thursday, on challenges facing America from voting access to political polarization will be closely watched around the world, experts say. Activists, business leaders and officials from more than 100 governments have been invited.
The assault by supporters of former President Donald Trump on the Capitol has worried political dissidents and some foreign governments who look to the United States for leadership and support, say former U.S. officials and pro-democracy activists.
If Biden does not lead with an acknowledgment of the problems America is facing at home, his stand against authoritarianism abroad will not be taken seriously, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and author of the book “Strongmen.”
“It’s very important for him to build confidence that the U.S. is going to resolutely turn back this attack on its own democracy,” she said.
For Biden to effectively unite democratic governments against Russia and China, he must emphasize that the events at the U.S. Capitol are not consistent with American ideals, experts say.
“That’s got to be the focus of the summit,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. “We’re not leading this because we’re perfect or that we don’t recognize the flaws at home, but rather because we see the challenges to democracy around the world, including at home, and that makes this an urgent task.”
U.S. allies support the principles of the summit, and hope it is effective, but they are concerned about authoritarian tendencies on the political hard right in the United States, experts said.
Biden is unlikely to be publicly confronted about the insurrection at the gathering, but it may come up privately, former U.S. officials say, and he must be prepared to articulate and defend his administration’s response to anti-democratic behavior at home.
DEEP CONCERN ABROAD
While Biden was not in office at the time of the riot at the Capitol, the Department of Justice is now pursuing criminal charges against those involved in it and has indicted a Trump associate defying a subpoena issued by Congress.
David Kramer, a senior fellow at Florida International University’s school of international and public affairs, said there is deep concern that challenges to the midterm elections next year and the presidential election in 2024 will undermine U.S. efforts to press for democratic elections in other countries.
“To the extent that we jeopardize our own institutions, and question the integrity of our own elections, we are playing right into the hands of the authoritarian leaders around the world,” said Kramer, a former U.S. assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor. “And so there is a lot of nervousness that we are doing the dirty work of the authoritarians for them to some degree.”
One of Biden’s key objectives as president is to restore faith in the U.S. government and prove that democracy still works, the White House has said.
Biden believes democracy is a work in progress, and even as he has pushed other nations to do better, he believes that the United States must do better also, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week during a press briefing.
“We are continuing to work hard, do better, ensure we are protecting our own democracy here at home,” Psaki said. “It is unquestionable that as people around the world, countries around the world looked at the events of January 6th, looked at what happened here in the United States, it was clear that when the president came into office, this was going to be front and center on his agenda, and it has been.”
Activists who have been pushing the Biden administration to come down harder on the insurrectionists and speak out more forcefully against Trump’s baseless election allegations, say the summit is an opportunity for Biden to put those issues into focus.
“All the international interventions we do are not going to amount to as much as we could do, if we actually restored the truth and the reality and the image of a well-functioning democracy here at home,” said Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy and former associate White House counsel under President Barack Obama.
Bassin said that Biden could show he is serious about reforms following the events of Jan. 6 by offering his full-throated endorsement of democracy protection legislation that Democrats are seeking to make law.
“President Biden can’t go into the summit expecting that the world simply closed its eyes to that, and is going to welcome America back to the table as the leader of the free world and the leader of free democracies, without the United States actually acknowledging where it has fallen short and what it is going to do to repair and correct for that,” Bassin said.
NO PERFECT DEMOCRACY
Biden is expected to point out that the democratic process can be messy, and in some instances less efficient, but even amid gridlock in Congress, his administration was able to extend pandemic assistance and shepherd through a bipartisan infrastructure law.
And he is likely to speak about voting rights legislation, U.S. officials said, and counter false claims that last year’s presidential election was illegitimate.
“We, of course, realize that no democracy is perfect, ourselves included,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call. “And we envision the summit as an extraordinary opportunity to galvanize attention and mobilize international action towards revitalizing democracy.”
The event could also be a turning point for Biden’s administration, said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist and president of liberal advocacy group NDN.
“The president’s had other priorities this year — let’s just be clear — that have taken up his time,” Rosenberg said.
But now that large parts of Biden’s domestic agenda are law, he has time to explain what he means when he says a great battle between democracy and autocracy is ahead in both a domestic and global sense, Rosenberg said.
“My hope is the administration uses this event to act as a trigger for them to make the promotion of democracy central to his politics next year,” he said.