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100 world leaders will attend Biden's virtual summit on supporting democratic values


When Joe Biden was running for president, he made a campaign promise to gather world leaders for a summit to try to counter a rising tide of authoritarianism. Well, over the next couple of days, 100 leaders will attend his virtual summit for democracy. The Biden administration is hoping they'll come with promises to shore up democratic values in a troubled world. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On the eve of the summit, a top state department official who focuses on international law enforcement, Todd Robinson, was handing out awards to anti-corruption judges, investigators and activists from 12 countries.

TODD ROBINSON: Two of them were from places that I've actually served - Guatemala and Venezuela.

KELEMEN: Neither of those countries were invited to the summit, nor were Guatemala's neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador. Assistant Secretary Robinson told NPR that countries have to want to improve their record to come, and anti-corruption will be one of the main themes.

ROBINSON: There are commitments that we expect these like-minded governments to make in terms of either doing more to clean up their own house or helping others to clean up their house.

KELEMEN: This summit does have detractors who point to investigations that show how corrupt international politicians often hide their money in the U.S. The January 6 insurrection also undermined America's credibility on democracy. Michael Abramowitz, who runs the democracy watchdog called Freedom House, wants to make sure this summit is not just a photo-op.

MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ: We've had 15 consecutive years of rising authoritarianism and declining strength in democracy. I'm very fearful that we'll have another year. And the countries of the world need to work harder to help turn this trend around.

KELEMEN: In the last year alone, there have been coups and power grabs in several countries from Myanmar to Sudan. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan after the U.S. left. China has ramped up repression, as has Russia, which forced U.S. tech companies to take down apps run by a leading opposition figure.

ABRAMOWITZ: And that was really unfortunate. It was something that Apple and Google should not have done. And it's also something that the United States and other democracies need to be fighting against.

KELEMEN: The Freedom House president says this matters not just for idealistic reasons, but for national security.

ABRAMOWITZ: If China, Russia, these other countries continue to go in this direction, we're going to be losing reliable trading partners. We're going to be losing reliable people to tackle big global challenges like global warming.

KELEMEN: Abramowitz was glad to see the administration is not letting all U.S. allies in the door. Hungary and Turkey are among those not invited to the summit, but other backsliding democracies will be there. And undersecretary of state for democracy Uzra Zeya faced questions about that.


UZRA ZEYA: The invitation to join us at the summit, it's not a mark of approval, nor is non-invitation from the summit a sign of disapproval from the United States. We're ready to engage any and all governments who are prepared to work with us.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. approaches this with humility. That was echoed by Assistant Secretary Robinson, who began his diplomatic career when Ronald Reagan was president.

ROBINSON: How we've approached the promotion of democracy changes with every administration. This administration has been at the forefront of looking at the United States objectively and transparently and has been willing to say we're not perfect.

KELEMEN: The idea behind the summit, he says, is to agree on ways to support democratic actors with the goal of an in-person summit next year to take stock.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.