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U.S. President Joe Biden looks at a video screen displaying the participants in the Summit for Democracy as he delivers opening remarks in the South Court Auditorium in Washington on Dec. 9.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting leaders of what he considers to be the world’s democracies Thursday and Friday at an online summit meant to shore up a political system that has lost ground to a rising tide of authoritarianism.

But the Summit for Democracy has exacerbated geopolitical divisions even before it begins, with China and Russia accusing Mr. Biden of Cold War thinking and of attempting to split the world once more into blocs. And the invitation list of 111 countries – replete with governments with dubious democratic credentials – has created fresh acrimony among those who stood with Washington during the Cold War, with NATO allies Turkey and Hungary angered by their exclusion from the virtual meeting.

The democratic world Mr. Biden is seeking to rally is under escalating pressure from some of the autocracies excluded from the summit. Ukraine, which is among the invitees, is facing the threat of a large-scale Russian invasion. Taiwan, another invitee, is dealing with Chinese displays of force and rhetoric about subduing the island, which Beijing sees as a renegade province. There have been new clashes in recent weeks between Armenia, deemed a democracy by Mr. Biden, and Azerbaijan, an autocracy that received Turkish support during a victorious 44-day war against its neighbour last year.

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Meanwhile, there are fresh concerns about the fragile peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a non-invitee wedged between Croatia and Montenegro, two countries invited to the summit. The leader of Bosnia’s ethnic Serbs – egged on by Russia – has alarmed many in Europe by announcing his intention to withdraw from the country’s institutions and effectively secede from the Bosnian state.

In the Middle East, only Israel and Iraq were invited, making clear that two decades of U.S. military intervention in the region, which began with talk of liberating people living under dictatorships, had failed to achieve that aim. Only a handful of countries in East Asia and Africa met the White House criteria for a democracy, including head-scratchers such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola that, like Iraq, are ranked as “not free” by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House.

Ukrainian soldiers walk past destroyed buildings on the front line in Marinka, Ukraine, on Dec. 8.Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

General Wayne Eyre, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, told The Globe and Mail during a visit to Kyiv last week that he saw the world as a more dangerous place than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago.

“It’s been called the return of history,” said Gen. Eyre, who served in the Balkans as a peacekeeper during the 1990s and in Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula. “You have long-standing historical fault lines … Some of the geopolitical challenges we’re seeing here have been around for centuries – and 30 years of history is not going to wash that away.”

With about 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s border, Gen. Eyre said the dangers of today’s world can sometimes seem far away to Canadians. But that insularity is eroding, he said, as geopolitical frictions grow and countries such as Russia and China make territorial claims, including some that lap with Canada’s own claims in the Arctic.

“Look at the deteriorating security situation around the globe,” Gen. Eyre said, predicting that Canada’s military would be called upon more and more in the years ahead. “The world is shrinking in terms of technological capabilities. We see some of the weapons systems that are being unrolled. Canada is nowhere near as safe or as insular as it once was.”

Russian military vehicles prepare to be loaded into a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Crimea on April 22.The Associated Press

Mr. Biden’s supporters see the Summit for Democracy as an attempt to reverse the drift toward illiberal government by re-establishing U.S. leadership. “President Biden sees this as a personal mission to halt the decline in democracy around the world,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former secretary-general of NATO who now heads the Alliance for Democracy, a non-profit group that promotes representative government. “This one summit will not halt the advancing autocrats, but it can mark the beginning of our pushback and a turning point in the decline of the free world.”

A presummit gathering on Wednesday will feature speakers such as this year’s joint Nobel Peace Prize winners, journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia. The session on media freedom and sustainability will see Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly deliver the closing remarks.

The main summit will open Thursday with a speech by Mr. Biden, followed by sessions focused on “bolstering democratic resilience” after the pandemic, as well as combatting corruption. Friday will see a focus on countering authoritarianism, with keynote speakers such as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the democratic opposition to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is among the invited leaders but was not listed as a speaker at any of the sessions. Most leaders are expected to deliver prerecorded video messages during the main summit.

Ahead of the online gathering, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions this week targeting individuals and entities in Iran, Syria and Uganda that it accused of “serious human rights abuse that undermines democracy.”

But after the rise of Donald Trump, and the violent riots that followed his election loss to Mr, Biden, the United States is no longer considered the beacon of democracy it was during the Cold War. When Hungary – where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has throttled civil society and independent media during his 11 years in power – was excluded from the online summit, it reacted not by pleading for an invitation but by mocking the state of American democracy.

“Hungary does not have the same serious democratic problems as the United States,” said Gergely Gulyas, head of Mr. Orban’s office. “If we can help and America thinks it needs our advice, we are available. In Hungary, we are not at a point where nearly a third of the electorate thinks that the democratic election has been rigged.”

State media in China and Russia have been similarly scathing. China’s hawkish Global Times tabloid ran an editorial accusing the U.S. of using a “lopsided interpretation of democracy” to “unilaterally divide the world into two camps.” And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S. of creating “new dividing lines and split countries into good ones, in their view, and bad ones.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Serbia was not invited. It did attend.

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