Democracy faces "sustained and alarming challenges" worldwide, US president Joe Biden said at the opening of the first White House virtual summit for Democracy on Thursday.
Biden urged the representatives from some 100 countries to reverse an ongoing recession of democracy that is playing out at a time of rising authoritarianism around the globe and extraordinary strains on foundational institutions in the US, including the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
The US president added that trends are "largely pointing in the wrong direction" and that democracy needs "champions".
"We stand at an inflection point in our history in my view," Biden said. "Will we allow the backward slide of rights and democracy to continue unchecked?"
The two-day event, held by video link because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.
"Make no mistake, we're at a moment of democratic reckoning," said Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.
"Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding," she revealed.
'Democracy problem at home'
The virtual summit has already drawn backlash from some of the US's adversaries and nations that weren't invited.
China and Russia, which Biden sees as champions of the autocracies camp, were pointedly left out, something they say is stoking an ideological rift.
"No country has the right to judge the world's vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick," wrote ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China in a joint essay last month, describing the Biden administration as exhibiting a Cold-War mentality.
Deciding which other countries should be excluded from the summit for human rights abuses or vote rigging was also fraught, they said.
For example, Pakistan and the Philippines were invited, while EU member Hungary's nationalist government was out.
Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro was invited, while the leader of NATO member Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was shunned.
The most awkward element to the summit, however, was the fact that Biden is struggling to restore faith in democracy at home, let alone on the other side of the world.
His Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, continues a shocking campaign to disrupt US political norms and overturn the 2020 election in which he was defeated by Biden.
With the help of sympathetic media outlets, including the powerful Fox News, Trump continues to spread lies about fraud to his tens of millions of supporters.
And with shockwaves from the January 6 storming of Congress by Trump supporters still reverberating, there are growing fears over the 2022 legislative elections and the 2024 presidential vote in which Trump may seek a comeback.