US President Joe Biden will gather 111 world leaders in a virtual meeting dubbed the Summit for Democracy, in what Washington hopes will be a boost for global democracy threatened by an increase in authoritarian rulers.
US officials promise a year of action will follow the two-day conference but preparations have been overshadowed by questions over some invitees' democratic credentials, and complaints from uninvited countries.
Biden will deliver opening remarks on Thursday at 8:00 am (1300 GMT).
The State Department's top official for civilian security, democracy, and human rights Uzra Zeya said the event would bring together both established and emerging democracies and help them deliver for their people at "a moment of democratic reckoning."
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 to face down authoritarian forces led by China and Russia.
Both countries were not invited to this week's event, which coincides with questions about the strength of America's democracy. Biden is struggling to pass his agenda through a polarized Congress and after former President Donald Trump disputed the 2020 election result, leading to an assault on the US Capitol, the legislative seat, by his supporters on Jan. 6.
An invitation list published last month included countries whose leaders are accused by human rights groups of harboring authoritarian tendencies, like the Philippines, Poland and Brazil.
It also included Taiwan, stoking anger from China, which considers the democratically governed island part of its territory.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the invitation of Taiwan showed the United States was only using democracy as "cover and a tool for it to advance its geopolitical objectives, oppress other countries, divide the world and serve its own interests."
Washington has used the run-up to the summit to announce sanctions against officials in Iran, Syria and Uganda it accuses of oppressing their populations, and against people it accused of being tied to corruption and criminal gangs in Kosovo and Central America.
US officials hope to win support during the meetings for global initiatives such as use of technology to enhance privacy or circumvent censorship and for countries to make specific public commitments to improve their democracies before an in-person summit planned for late 2022.
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.
Zeya at the State Department 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.