Washington has promised a year of action will follow the two-day gathering of over 100 leaders, but the event has been marred by questions over some invitees' democratic credentials and the absence of other nations who were not invited.
US President Joe Biden has gathered over 100 world leaders at a summit and made a plea to bolster democracies around the world, calling safeguarding rights and freedoms in the face of rising authoritarianism the "defining challenge" of the current era.
In Thursday's meeting, he called for world leaders to "lock arms" to strengthen democracies and demonstrate their worth in a changing world.
"This is an urgent matter," Biden said in remarks to open the two-day virtual summit. "The data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction."
The conference is a test of Biden's assertion, announced in his first foreign policy address in February, that he would return the United States to global leadership after the country's global standing took a beating under predecessor Donald Trump.
"Democracy doesn't happen by accident. And we have to renew it with each generation," he said. "In my view, this is the defining challenge of our time."
Summit sparks criticism
But the gathering also drew backlash from the US' chief adversaries and other nations that were not invited to participate.
The US faced scrutiny over how it went about deciding which countries to invite. China and Russia were among those not receiving invitations.
Ahead of the summit, the ambassadors to the US from China and Russia wrote a joint essay describing the Biden administration as exhibiting a "Cold War mentality" that will "stoke up ideological confrontation and a rift in the world."
Pakistan which was invited to the event decided to skip it, saying both Washington and Islamabad can discuss the issue "at an opportune time in the future."
Criteria of being 'democratic'
Questions have been raised on whether the summit can force meaningful change, particularly by leaders who are accused by human rights groups of harbouring authoritarian tendencies.
Annie Boyajian, director of advocacy at non-profit Freedom House, said the event had the potential to push struggling democracies to do better and to spur coordination between democratic governments.
"But, a full assessment won’t be possible until we know what commitments there are and how they are implemented in the year ahead," Boyajian said.
The State Department's top official for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, Uzra Zeya said civil society would help hold the countries, including the United States, accountable.
Zeya declined to say whether Washington would disinvite leaders who do not fulfill their pledges.
Human Rights Watch's Washington director Sarah Holewinski said making the invitation to the 2022 summit dependent on delivering on commitments was the only way to get nations to step up.
Otherwise, Holewinski said, some "will only pay lip service to human rights and make commitments they never intend to keep."
"They shouldn’t get invited back," she said.