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Biden administration struggles to turn the Democracy Summit's goals into reality

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

This week, Biden administration officials will be talking a lot about democracy. This is their second year hosting a summit meant to rally countries around the world to defend democratic values in the face of rising authoritarianism. President Biden has called this the defining challenge of our time. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the administration has had a hard time turning those lofty goals into reality.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the world is at an inflection point. Autocrats, he says, are violating human rights and reaching beyond their borders.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Nothing illustrates the gravity of that threat more than Russia's brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine.

KELEMEN: So that's the topic he chose to kick off this year's democracy summit. He gathered foreign ministers in a virtual event, including Dmytro Kuleba of Ukraine.

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DMYTRO KULEBA: This year's summit is vital for democracy. It faces existential threats. Nowhere is this more acutely felt than in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: It made sense for the State Department to lead off this week on Ukraine, says Jon Temin of the Truman National Security Project, but he also worries that the Biden administration is silent on democratic backsliding elsewhere in Europe - in Turkey, Hungary and Poland.

JON TEMIN: It's because they're important partners in resisting Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And I can understand that. And any of these decisions are trade-offs between values and interests, and they're complicated.

KELEMEN: The U.S. often puts strategic interests ahead of U.S. values on the world stage, he says, and that's true of this administration despite its lofty rhetoric on the issue of democracy.

TEMIN: It's fine to do summits like this, and it's important to elevate democracy in the national discourse, in the international discourse, but you have to back it up with real policy that is in defense of democracy and that, at times, challenges autocrats. And that's the piece of the puzzle that I think is not as present in this administration as I would have hoped.

KELEMEN: This is the second Summit for Democracy, and this year, there will be events in Zambia, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and South Korea. Laura Thornton, who's with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, likes that idea. She says last year was too focused on speeches by leaders.

LAURA THORNTON: So it almost became like the U.S. government was bouncers at the nightclub of democracy - like, determining who could be in and who could be out - when I think, you know, most of us know that democracy exists. Democrats exist everywhere. Authoritarians exist everywhere. This should be about democracy.

KELEMEN: There still will be speeches from world leaders. President Biden hosts a virtual gathering Wednesday and is expected to announce new aid to support democracy activists around the world. Thornton says the U.S. could learn something from others too, especially when it comes to countering disinformation and improving election security.

THORNTON: The problem with democracy declines these days is it's not just the sort of the coups of our grandparents, it's people electing (laughter) illiberal leaders through the ballot. Like, they're getting elected because we demand it.

KELEMEN: This is a period of decline for democracy, she says, and she'd like to see the Biden administration focus on real, concrete ways to buck that trend rather than spending time organizing summits. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS (FEAT. ELZHI)") 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.