Budapest, Hungary – US President Joe Biden’s much-touted Summit for Democracy is one month away, and the guest list of foreign governments is already making waves.
Hungary not on guest list of US President Biden’s Democracy Summit
According to a tentative list obtained by Politico – but not yet made public – approximately 110 countries will be invited to the virtual summit scheduled for December 9 and 10. This includes all 27 EU member states with the exception of Hungary in a clear rebuke to the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The not-yet-official snub has been met with mixed reactions. While some have welcomed the Biden administration’s tougher approach towards Hungary’s democratic backsliding and cozy relations with Russia and China, others have argued that the decision to single out an EU and NATO ally will prove counterproductive in the long run and won’t do anything to address rule of law concerns.
After years of rapprochement under President Trump, relations between the US and Hungarian governments quickly took a turn for the worse over the past 12 months.
The new US administration readily called out what it sees as serious breaches to democratic standards in Hungary – with then-candidate Joe Biden likening Orban’s Hungary to “totalitarian regimes”. In response, Hungarian officials and government-friendly media outlets barely miss an opportunity to criticize the Biden administration, with Orban recently claiming the US would try to influence the upcoming legislative elections in favour of the opposition.
Pundits noted that countries that are either less democratic or experiencing similar rule of law backsliding as Hungary appear on the tentative guest list – including Poland, Pakistan, Mexico or the Philippines – suggesting more prosaic geostrategic considerations took precedence over the actual state of democracy in invited countries.
“A well-choreographed conference could provide a galvanizing event for the world’s democracies,” Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department official, wrote back in January after Biden revealed plans for the upcoming summit.
“But deciding who should be invited to such an event would be a staggering problem, and diplomatic fallout from snubbing countries that may be useful partners but don’t meet US democratic standards would cause headaches from now till the next presidential election,” he added, urging President Joe Biden to “deliver an unambiguous message to Europe’s foremost underminers of democratic norms – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and […] de-facto Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.”
“A lot of big questions”
Other non-invited countries in Europe and beyond include Serbia, Turkey, Belarus and Russia.
A 2020 presidential campaign pledge of the then-Democratic candidate, next month’s Summit for Democracy has been touted as a key pillar of President Biden’s wish “the revitalize democracy in the United States and around the world” and restore bruised relations with some of America’s allies.
It aims to “bring together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today”, according to a US State Department statement.
But with only one month to go, the agenda and focus of the summit remain vague, with commentators fearing the meeting will raise more questions than it provides answers.
“The symbolism of the gathering is important, but the actual change on the ground that the summit would generate remains to be seen,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are a lot of big questions on the table that the initial gathering won’t address, like what to do about weaker democracies that are showing regression.”
While White House preparations are well underway, the summit is already facing criticism regardless of who’s invited and who isn’t.
The decision to drop the in-person format in favour of a digital summit is seen by some as undermining its significance, while civil society organisations have already expressed their frustration towards the “marginal role” they will play during the gathering.