Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Summit for Democracy
9:05 A.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (In progress.) Great. Thanks. Hi everybody. Good morning. Thanks for being with us. After many months of planning across the U.S. government and with partners around the world, we’re really excited to be on summit week.
So, as I hope everybody knows, on Thursday and Friday, through the Summit for Democracy, President Biden is going to convene a broad and diverse group of governmental and nongovernmental leaders from every region of the world to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.
The virtual summit is going to bring together over 100 governments representing diverse democratic experiences from around the world, as well as leading activists, journalists, private sector leaders, and other members of civil society.
And our intention with the summit is to provide leaders a forum to engage, listen, and speak honestly about the challenges and opportunities facing democratic governments and about how democracies can deliver for their citizens.
It will also serve as a platform for leaders to announce new commitments, reforms, and initiatives in accordance with the summit’s three thematic pillars, which are, first, strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism; second, fighting corruption; and third, promoting respect for human rights.
For our part, the U.S. government will announce at the summit new initiatives and commitments in areas such as bolstering free and independent media, fighting corruption, defending free and fair elections, strengthening democratic reformers, and harnessing technology for democratic renewal.
And over the past week, we’ve previewed some aspects of these announcements, including a new effort to work with likeminded partners to better protect dual-use technologies that can be used to violate human rights through export-control regimes. And also, as of yesterday, we launched the new, first-ever U.S. National Strategy on Countering Corruption.
The United States is approaching the summit from a place of humility. The Biden-Harris administration has made clear that efforts to bolster democracy globally begin by working diligently and transparently to strengthen its foundations at home. And you’ll see messaging from President Biden and other administration officials to that effect over the course of the summit.
We, of course, realize that no democracy is perfect, ourselves included. And we envision the summit as an extraordinary opportunity to galvanize attention and mobilize international action towards revitalizing democracy.
So I’ll stop there and hand over to my colleague to say a bit more.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. So, the summit is going to feature remarks from President Biden and other senior U.S. government officials. It’ll have plenary sessions with heads of state, and thematic sessions with governmental and nongovernmental leaders.
And in addition to the December 9th to 10th program, the Summit is also going to be enriched by over a dozen official side events involving a broad swath of advocates, journalists, and other members of civil society from around the world, as well as lawmakers and local government officials.
And just to give you a flavor of some of those side events — for instance, already, just this morning, there was a panel discussion on how democracy delivers development. It was hosted by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and featured members of Congress, the deputy CEO from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, as well as the Prime Minister of Niger, the President of Malawi, several high-ranking officials from different countries.
In terms of lawmakers, this morning, again — and actually going on right now — is a session that looks at parliaments’ role around the world to defend and safeguard human rights. It also looks at inclusive lawmaking, holding actors accountable, protecting mechanisms to address grievances — it being hosted and sponsored by the House Democracy Partnership.
And there are a number of lawmakers, different parliamentary members from around the world, who will be speaking at that to speak to the importance of parliaments — and, in fact, the robustness of all these different actors in contributing to democracy.
So, all these side events and the summit sessions are going to focus on themes that are central to the functioning of transparent, accountable governance, which also does include the role of the private sector and organized labor. We also have a side event on labor today, which is being hosted by Secretary Walsh.
And it’ll also — the sessions will also look at methods to protect journalists and access to a vibrant media environment, ways to advance historically marginalized communities, and the role of technology in democratic societies.
The 2021 summit is going to be followed by a year of consultation, coordination, and delivery. So, during this year of action, the United States intends to work collaboratively with participating governments and nongovernmental actors to showcase progress on collective commitments, and to help develop new pledges and initiatives that can be announced at a second Summit for Democracy roughly a year from now.
So, the United States does look forward to using the Summit process to work with and learn from democratic governments and stakeholders in developing additional ideas and plans of action. And we’re looking forward to demonstrating that democracies can meet and overcome the challenges of our age.
We do see the challenge of our time is to demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people and by addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world.
And the President convening the Summit for Democracy is really indicative of his commitment to renewing democracy at home and abroad.
We do recognize that democracies, by their nature, are constant works in progress. And so, we see the summit as an opportunity for participants to commit to meaningful new action that combats authoritarianism, defend against corruption, and promote respect for human rights at home and abroad.
We do think that America’s greatest strengths lie in our power for learning, self-improvement, and the power of our example. We know we’re not perfect — far from it — and we always have to strive to live up to our highest ideals and principles. And we see civil society and independent media as essential to accountability both at home as well as around the world.
So, just to reinforce what my colleague said at the beginning, we do intend to host this summit with humility. We see ourselves as a democracy not with all of the answers, but with openness and transparency about our efforts to overcome challenges at home while working with partners to support democracy and human rights abroad.
So, I’ll stop there and turn it back over to my colleague.
MODERATOR: Thanks. We can open it up for questions.
Q Hey, thank you so much for doing this call. Two questions. One, I wondered if you could just talk a little bit more about what type of concrete, you know, action or steps will come out of this? You talked about commitments. Is this more of a discussion? Or, I mean, how is this different than the other summits where this has been discussed? I mean, what concrete things do you anticipate coming out of this beyond, you know, oral or verbal commitments?
And two, I wanted to ask: How will the situation in Belarus be discussed? Obviously, some authoritarian leaders have begun to use or have continued to use migration flows for political gain — Belarus obviously being the most recent example. How will that be discussed? And is there any — you know, do you anticipate any type of, you know, ideas of how that could be confronted in the future to protect democracies?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Franco. Appreciate it. So, just — I’ll take your first question.
So, in terms of concrete actions that are going to come out of the summit — first of all, let me just say that the one of the main points of the summit is simply to put this issue on the front burner, in terms of the global conversation amongst governments and civil society.
So, we see a key aspect of the summit process — both what we’re hosting this week and then over the course of the year of action — as simply advancing a discussion and making sure that we’re having frank and candid conversations about the threats and challenges facing democracies and also the opportunities.
Beyond that, however, you will see, as we move forward in the week, a number of different multilateral initiatives and support for preexisting multilateral initiatives.
So, the U.S. government is going to make new announcements related to, for instance, bringing together groups of countries that will be working on electoral integrity together.
I mentioned earlier that, last week, we announced a new initiative with other governments around better use of export controls to ensure that dual-use technologies are not used to violate human rights.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of some of the announcements that President Biden will make later in the week, but I think you’ll see a number of new work channels that will be established and we’ll be able to follow up on over the course of the year of action.
Do you want to speak to the second question?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. So I can’t speak to which specific issues are going to come up or which specific countries, but I can say that we expect, during the summit itself, there will be discussions on, for instance, bolstering democratic resilience, on empowering human rights defenders, on the role of independent media and activists in helping to expand civic space.
We expect conversations on how to best protect democratic institutions, for instance — including but not limited to elections and the rule of law and resilient information space. I mean, all of these issues, I think, are going to be on the table.
And most importantly, I think what we’re really seeking to do with the summit is to robustly involve civil society. And we really think that this is a unique way to approach this kind of summit.
We will have civil society leaders participating all throughout the summit — including in the side events, again, that have already started today and some of which are going on at the moment.
And I think, you know, we’ll hear from a number of prominent civil society leaders who can speak to a number of these different issues that I’ve outlined.
Q Thank you so much for this call, everybody. I also have two questions. One, I would like to know if the administration has a reaction on the document that Bolsonaro’s administration sent to the summit accusing the mainstream media of spreading misinformation.
And also, we were having a conversation with Juan Gonzalez last week, and he said that some countries that were not invited might be democratic but they have some very concerning activities.
So I wonder if you guys see any concern on Brazil? Do you believe President Bolsonaro has credibility on topic of democracy since he’s constantly testing Brazil’s democratic institutions, attacking the media, judge from the Supreme Court, and now alleging fraud in the election that’s happening next year without evidence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for that. So, I can’t speak to the document you mentioned; I haven’t seen that. But I can say more generally that, from President Biden down, we’ve made clear that no democracy, including the United States, is perfect. And we recognize that the path towards democratic governance that delivers for all citizens isn’t linear. And we’ve been clear that all too many governments around the world are experiencing forms of democratic backsliding. I think you’re going to hear that as a key theme in the summit itself.
And in instances in which democratic governments have violated human rights or taken steps to curtail democratic institutions, the Biden administration has spoken up both publicly and privately.
That said, with respect to both governments that are invited to the summit — and some that aren’t — we are very conscious that democracy is about more than just a single leader or a single party or a single moment in time. It’s a process that involves many actors inside and outside of government at national and subnational and local levels.
And that’s why, as my colleague mentioned, part of the full agenda of the summit brings in not just national leaders, but also parliamentarians and municipal-level leaders.
We really want the summit to be about entire societies. And so, we made our invitation decisions with all of those factors in mind. And one of our objectives is to highlight the great work that’s being led in some countries, as I mentioned, by local leaders, while urging positive democratic reform at the national level.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can just add quickly to that, which is that I think an example of the diversity and breadth of the different democratic actors is captured in some of these events that I mentioned earlier.
And so — for instance, yesterday, there was an event on mayors and their important role in local governance. And we really see them as sort of the powerhouse of democracy at the local level.
So, in the summit side event on mayors delivering democracy daily, it did feature a number of mayors from around the world sharing experiences, lessons learned. There were mayors from all around the world, including Asia, the United States, Europe, countries in Africa. It really was quite a rich discussion.
And I think it really speaks to what my colleague was saying, which is, you know, democracy is about people, and it’s not just about one leader or a set of leaders. So, we really see it in this quite comprehensive way.
Q Thanks for taking my question. Several of the speakers have repeatedly talked about how the United States even isn’t perfect and that the President will talk about the United States’ own challenges with democracy. So how specific will he be about the United States’ own challenges and areas of self-improvement?
And also, could you talk about why the White House decided to move ahead with a virtual summit this year, rather than wait until this time next year to hold an in-person summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe I can — this is [senior administration official], and I can speak to the last part first. And then maybe my colleague might want to take the first part of the question.
But, you know, the President did commit to holding a summit for democracy during his first year. He does prioritize this; he thinks it’s important. You’ve heard him speak about democracy any number of times.
And this way, I think, we’re able to essentially use this virtual summit to kick off what we are calling a “year of action.” It essentially gives us more time to develop some of these initiatives, to develop commitments, to work together with all sorts of governments around the world to reinforce the themes of democratic renewal.
And if public health conditions do permit, in roughly a year, we think gathering in person will really help accelerate this effort.
So, I think it’s actually a good thing that we’re getting to do this virtual summit as a kickoff and then convene again.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. This is [senior administration official].
On the first question, the President has been forthright and clear about the challenges facing democracy here at home throughout his presidency. And I think you can expect him to do so as well at the summit.
I mean, you heard him speak about this at length — about voting rights and democracy at length at the 10th anniversary of the MLK Jr. Memorial, decrying the Big Lie and making the case for voting rights legislation.
The President has been absolutely clear that protecting Americans’ constitutional rights and the integrity of our elections from the systematic assault that folks — in particular, Republican legislators — have been engaged in across the country is a must and that this historic threat requires strong voting rights legislation. And you’ll hear that from the President again this week.
Q Thank you for taking my call. I have a follow-up on Franco’s question in terms of pledges and commitments. I assume they will not be legally binding. So what would be the mechanism to ensure accountability during the year of action?
My second question is on the focus of areas of cooperation with there — would it just be falling on the path of the three pillars that you’ve outlined? Or will there be specific regional focus — for example, you know, Myanmar; Belarus was mentioned; several coups in Africa this year; you know, human rights — obviously, Xinjiang comes to mind?
And my final question, a follow-up from Francesca: Do you expect this process or platform to continue beyond the administration? And do you have any way of ensuring continuity if, for example, a different administration takes over who may not be as focused on these issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, so I can take the first of those, and then I’ll hand over to my colleague.
In terms of accountability for the year of action, I think our approach here is to make sure that civil society is raising up the commitments that our partners and the U.S. government are making. We’ve undertaken a robust effort over the course of the last several months to engage activists and other members of civil society in the summit process. You’ll see them, as [senior administration official] mentioned earlier, featured heavily in the actual run of show of the summit.
And we are working with all of our government partners to ensure that they make their commitments public and that they work with activists and other members of civil society within their countries and globally to ensure that leaders follow through on the commitments they make.
So we, the U.S. government, will be talking with our partners about how they can follow up. To the point that was made earlier, we’ll be having — we’re planning a second summit so that leaders can reconvene and — expressly for the purpose of discussing how they follow through on their commitments.
And our hope is that through the entirety of this process, we can really have a dialogue between participating governments and civil society, and that civil society will hold all of us accountable.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And I might just add that, you know, we also hope and encourage countries to leverage existing mechanisms like the Open Government Partnership or the Universal Periodic Review process that have built-in monitoring elements.
Really, what we see the summit doing is reinforcing and elevating some of these existing structures, both through the commitment monitoring process, through civil society that is going to be a critical element of that, and then, hopefully, through the second summit.
Currently, we don’t have any firm plans to make this a permanent process, but we hope that the momentum that’s being galvanized by the summit will certainly outlast the first and second summits and, hopefully, produce a number of meaningful commitments and initiatives going forward.
Q Hello, everyone. I was interested in the invitation to Taiwan to participate, and a few quick questions on
that. One is: Does Taiwan have a speaking role during the summit? And what role will they play?
Was administration worried about upsetting China by inviting Taiwan? And what reaction do you have to China’s argument that was in a new paper released by its government saying that it is actually a form of democracy, that Beijing also has a form of democracy?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], if you want to take the first one on Taiwan, and I can speak to the latter issue.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can you actually jump in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Oh, sure.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. So, just briefly on Taiwan: We see Taiwan as a leading democracy. And it has a robust experience in advancing a more transparent, responsive, and vibrant democracy. And it’s a powerful example.
We also see it as a global leader in developing best practices for safeguarding against disinformation and then the use of emerging technology to make governance more transparent and responsive. So that’s how we see Taiwan’s participation.
We do stress that Taiwan has been and will be engaged in the summit in a manner consistent with U.S. “One China” policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiqués, and the Six Assurances.
So we think that Taiwan can make meaningful commitments towards the summit’s objectives of countering authoritarianism, fighting against corruption, and advancing respect for human rights at home and abroad. And so that’s why that’s Taiwan’s role.
Just with respect to the second question, I will say that the summit really is about setting forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies through collective action. You know, really, where autocracy is at its core brittle, democracies’ inherent capacity to renew and course correct enable flexibility, inclusion, and resilience in finding solutions to complex challenges.
So that’s why we see the summit’s goals as being about much more than any one government. The summit really aims to bring together a diverse group of participants to build a shared foundation for democratic renewal, and we think it’s a strong story to tell.
MODERATOR: I wanted to offer our speakers one last chance to offer any remarks before we close. We’re just at 9:30 now.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I might just close by saying that, you know, we really do see and the President sees the challenge of our time as demonstrating that democracies can deliver. And that’s by improving the lives of their people and addressing the greatest problems facing the wider world.
And so, the summit for democracy is really an important opportunity to demonstrate that, to come together, to learn together, to stand together. And it’s one that we’re looking forward to, and, you know, we hope that it will engender meaningful action moving forward.
MODERATOR: Thanks, [senior administration official]. And as a reminder, today’s call was on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.” The embargo has lifted.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. Otherwise, thank you for joining and have a great day, everyone.
9:31 A.M. EST