President Biden opened a virtual gathering Thursday of scores of democratic governments meant to showcase the benefits of democracy over authoritarianism, though the list of invitees is already straining the effort.

The two-day Summit for Democracy includes not only democratic Western allies, but also invited countries such as the Philippines and Pakistan, which both have been cited by the State Department for “significant human-rights issues,” including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and torture.

Not on the list are countries like Turkey, a NATO ally whose President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

has cracked down on political opponents, and Hungary, where Prime Minister

Viktor Orban

has been accused of undermining democratic institutions.

“Democracies are not all the same,” Mr. Biden said in opening the gathering. “We don’t agree on everything—all of us in this meeting today. But the choices we make together are going to define, in my view, the course of our shared future for generations to come.”

More than 100 governments were invited, administration officials said. Invitations went to “a regionally diverse set of democracies who we assessed whose progress and commitments would advance a more just and peaceful world,” said Uzra Zeya, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

The divisions, specialists in politics and security say, point to larger hurdles the U.S. faces as it tries to rally support in what the Biden administration sees as a global competition for influence with China and a more limited rivalry with Russia, neither of which was invited to the summit.

Mr. Biden has said that a “challenge of our time” is to prove that democracies can deliver for their people and that democratic countries use technology and treat their citizens differently from authoritarian ones. Administration officials have said that the U.S.’s numerous allies are a strength that China and Russia lack and want others to see Washington as a more reliable partner than Beijing.

“If carefully conducted, this summit could tighten relationships with key friends and demonstrate that shared values are an enduring competitive advantage for the United States,” said

Zack Cooper,

co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which develops strategies to help democracies fend off authoritarian efforts to undermine them.

“But if handled poorly, the summit could prove divisive, making it harder to build coalitions on security, economics, and technology issues,” said Mr. Cooper, who served in the Defense Department and White House during the George W. Bush administration.

As authoritarian regimes in China and Russia continue to make gains, President Biden faces a challenge of reigniting global democracy at his Summit for Democracy. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains how Biden will navigate these challenges at the virtual summit. Photo Illustration: Elise Dean

Mr. Biden told the gathering’s participants that democracy faces “sustained and alarming challenges.” He pointed to social divisions and political polarization among the problems. He urged the group to revitalize democratic governance.

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” Mr. Biden said. “We have to renew it with each generation and this is an urgent matter.”

Governments at the summit are expected to make commitments and back initiatives to “counter authoritarianism, combat corruption, and promote respect for human rights,” according to a State Department spokeswoman.

The Biden administration sees the gathering as setting up a “year of action” during which governments are expected to deliver on their pledges. For the U.S., those commitments will focus on media freedoms, election integrity, anticorruption measures, increasing civic capacity, and using technology to further democracy, Ms. Zeya said.

In his remarks, Mr. Biden pledged that the U.S. would lead by example and promised to protect “the sacred right of every person to make their voice heard in free, fair and secure elections.” He also announced an initiative for “democratic renewal” to expand U.S. efforts to bolster democratic governments around the world.

‘Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation and this is an urgent matter.’


— President Biden

Governments that deliver on their summit commitments will be invited to gather in person for a second summit to announce additional initiatives, the State Department spokeswoman said.

China and Russia have objected to the summit, with their ambassadors to Washington issuing a joint commentary calling the gathering a product of the U.S.’s “Cold-War mentality” that “will stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world.”

Further angering Beijing, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan, the democratic-ruled island that China claims as its territory.

India, a key partner in the U.S.’s efforts to counter China, is also set to participate in summit but earlier this week renewed military ties with Russia. During a meeting in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister

Narendra Modi

and Russian President

Vladimir Putin

confirmed that the countries would proceed with delivery of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system, despite U.S. threats of sanctions.

Lawmakers and outside experts have noted the omission of the countries of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—the focal point of the administration’s efforts to stem the flow of illegal migration to the U.S. While those countries have made progress toward democratic ideals, Ms. Zeya said, summit participants “have shown their readiness to come forward and make commitments.”

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White House press secretary

Jen Psaki

suggested that the participating governments are diverse and not too much should be read into who was invited and who wasn’t. “Inclusion or an invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy, nor is exclusion a stamp of the opposite of that, of disapproval,” she said at a White House briefing earlier this week.

Administration officials have said that many countries don’t want to choose between the U.S. and China, despite their competition for influence, and trying to make governments do so may be counterproductive.

On a November visit to sub-Saharan Africa, Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

said the Biden administration doesn’t intend to force countries to choose between the U.S. and China, Russia or any other prospective partner.

“The United States doesn’t want to limit your partnerships with other countries. We want to make your partnerships with us even stronger,” Mr. Blinken said in Nigeria last month. “We don’t want to make you choose. We want to give you choices.”

Write to Courtney McBride at courtney.mcbride@wsj.com

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