Championing democracy: How America can blunt the rise of authoritarian powers

Gage Skidmore

President-elect Joe Biden will assume office with democracy in retreat both abroad and at home. For the past four years, President Donald Trump weakened our core democratic institutions and norms, coddled dictators, slandered our closest allies, and squandered our most influential geopolitical power: the inherent strength of America’s vision of freedom and liberty for all people. Joe Biden has pledged to rescue America’s foreign policy by restoring democratic core values as a centerpiece of his foreign policy strategy.

Biden specifically promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in order to strengthen democratic institutions, confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda. A values-based foreign policy and a summit championing democracy sounds good in theory. But, how will the Biden administration actually deliver results?

Convening a summit is just the first step in a process in re-valuing democracy. The main objective of the conference is to set a marker that America is back as a global leader and that democracy is foundational to our national security. Consequently, invitations to the summit should be inclusive and include not only other democratic nations and allies, but “backsliders,” and those countries with mere green shoots of democracy. Alongside governments, this summit should extend invitations to civil society, the media, upstart technology firms, youth, social impact investors, and other advocates. A democratic buzz can create a demand to counter rising authoritarianism.

What really matters, however, will be the after party.

Beginning with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the idea for an alliance of democracies has been discussed in capitals for more than two decades. Ironically, Albright’s polar opposite, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, also recently called for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies. Despite the speeches, neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have realized an alliance that drove national security outcomes.

Perhaps with good reason.

Critics argue that an alliance of democracies simply will not solve the world’s problems. Stabilizing Syria, containing Iran, and reducing North Korean nuclear threats require sustained engagement with authoritarian regimes. Similarly, mitigating pandemics or blunting the effects of climate change also require active cooperation from China, Russia, and other non-democratic actors. If a democratic alliance cannot solve fundamental problems, then it devolves into another vacuous multilateral organization.

But the critics are wrong.

Immediately after the Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration should launch a G20 equivalent for the leading democracies. In an exclusive “D20” club, the most-resourced and influential democracies would partner to counterbalance Chinese global expansionism and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, while also aligning to confront the greatest challenges of our generation. From a position of strength, undergirded by economic power and political influence, the D20 could take its first steps without consent of the authoritarian powers.

For instance, the D20 can bring its collective economic leverage to trade negotiations with China by unilaterally imposing bans or other costs on the trade of goods produced that do not meet fair labor standards, protect intellectual property, reduce carbon emissions, or meet environmental standards required in advanced democratic economies. On climate change, a D20 climate innovation fund, leveraging public and private capital could create and commercialize climate technologies that can dominate the future and chip away against Chinese market share. Finally, the D20 could align foreign assistance to blunt China’s resource extractive Belt and Road initiative throughout the developing world where the Chinese finance host country infrastructure at exploitative costs.

After a few key victories, the D20 will have established a virtuous upcycle and can then enhance leverage to support democratic activists in places like Belarus, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The D20 should stand against China for its Uighur internment camps and Russia for its cyber warfare against democratic states. Finally, the D20 can be a beacon for free people across the globe.

In 1949, the United States and Western Europe signed the North Atlantic Treaty as a collective defense against Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe. The ensuing alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), institutionalized democratic military power which helped defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War and defended America after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The democracies do not yet need to establish a global military alliance akin to NATO to check threats from rising authoritarian powers.

Nevertheless, democracy has been on its heels for the past four years. The Biden administration should go big, with a long-term strategic vision of democratic power.

An activist D20 would sharpen the distinction between political and economic models — and offer the world a choice between democratic, free market nation states versus the Chinese or Russian models of autocracy and nationalized economies. With U.S. leadership, this collective of democratic states could project influential power and shape the global future while protecting the homeland for generations.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.

Tags Alliance of Democracies Authoritarianism Belt and Road initiative China Democracy democracy promotion Donald Trump Foreign policy of the United States Joe Biden Madeleine Albright Mike Pompeo Russia Russian cyberattacks

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