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 Wednesday at the second White House-led Summit for Democracy, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off Tuesday morning.
The three-day, in-person and virtual event comes as 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.
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.
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 Monday, John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, said that 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, Kirby said only that Israel “has been invited.”
But the larger troubles remain for Biden, who asserted in his State of the Union address last month that the United States had reached “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 US officials acknowledge that the picture is nuanced at best.
On the positive side of the ledger, US officials and experts say, 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, 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.”
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 Biden has been a savior of democracy by winning the 2020 presidential election — defeating former president Donald Trump, a US leader with authoritarian tendencies — and by containing, for now, 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 Biden’s claim that autocracies have grown weaker faces a stark reality in some nations.
President Vladimir 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 US 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 Netanyahu narrowly managed to form his coalition — was creating a sense around the world that democracies could not deliver results for their people.
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 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.”