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The G7 and NATO won't cut it: Why a new alliance is needed

The G7 and NATO won't cut it: Why a new alliance is needed
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In recent years, calls for more coordinated action in the face of China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy have reached something of a crescendo.  

It is now not uncommon to hear diplomats and foreign ministers from Brussels to Tokyo asserting that unilateral responses to Beijing’s ever more muscular approach to international affairs are just not enough, and that what is needed now is a more harmonized international response. As the European Union’s top diplomat put it in 2020, in the face of China’s “more assertive – some even say aggressive” behavior, it is “important to have strong cooperation with like-minded democracies. The EU and U.S. should be at the heart of this effort, but we should also be working closely with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and others.”

While specific proposals to achieve this enhanced cooperation are few and far between, there is one idea that seems to be gaining some traction. That is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s idea that the existing G7 might be transformed into a grouping of the world’s “like-minded democracies” for the purpose of checking China’s more assertive behavior. 

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The existing G7, of course, is an informal bloc of the seven most advanced industrialized countries. It was created in 1975 to allow its leaders to discuss and exchange ideas on a broad range of issues, including the global economy, security and energy. Its membership includes France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Canada — the wealthiest and most advanced economies at the time of its founding. 

The proposed renovation – first floated by the Atlantic Council back in 2008, and likely to be proposed in earnest by Johnson at this year’s G7 summit in June – would involve an expansion of the group’s membership and a refocusing of its efforts. The resulting institution, tentatively dubbed the D-10, would not be an alliance like NATO. Nor would it even be an informal strategic forum like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, a loose coalition involving Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. Rather, as currently envisioned, the D10 would essentially be an informal mechanism for the world’s 10 most important democracies – the G7 states plus India, Japan and South Korea – to cooperatively manage the rules-based international order and to address some of the challenges to that order posed by today’s China. 

But would such a new multilateral forum really be fit for purpose? Would it really provide an effective mechanism for leveraging the democracies’ resources to address the China challenge?

Well, it depends. 

If the proposed D10 is little more than a tweaked G7 – the Boris Johnson vision – then the answer is no. Such an arrangement would be better than nothing, but only marginally so. Given the challenges China poses, an annual fly-in, fly-out forum with a slightly enlarged membership and a new focus on secondary or tertiary challenges like 5G networks and commercial supply chains would simply not be fit for purpose. 

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But if, as the Atlantic Council has recently proposed, a future D10 is more than simply an upgraded G7, then the answer becomes maybe. 

According to the Atlantic Council’s vision, a future D10 would be structured so that its members could cooperate to restrict Chinese engagement in economic sectors vital to national security, resist Chinese economic coercion, counter Chinese influence operations and hold China accountable for violations of international law and other efforts to undermine or exploit the international rules-based order.

But such an approach would not address the growing threat posed by today’s China (and Russia) and so would simply not be enough. What the democracies of the world really need is a D10+. That is, a formal “steering mechanism” – not merely an informal or semi-formal grouping – comprising the world’s leading democracies that would be able to coordinate the hard and soft power of its members. In addition to having diplomatic dimension, such an alliance would need to have a military component — something like the existing Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) that obliges Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom to consult each other immediately in the event of an armed attack on any of them. Like the signatories to the FPDA, they would also engage in information exchanges, intelligence-sharing joint military exercises and other forms of security-related cooperation and coordination. 

The goal would be to sustain the democracies and the vestigial liberal order against the coercive or manipulative actions of non-democratic powers by maintaining a global balance of power favorable to the world’s democracies.

This is not the same as arguing that we are entering into a new Cold War and thus need to create new Cold War institutions — a new NATO, as it were. The Cold War is the wrong metaphor. Neither Russian nor China are the Soviet Union, and NATO is the wrong template. Nor is it to accept uncritically the assumption that there exists – or has ever existed – a full-blown, unitary “liberal international order” that must be defended at all costs. Such an assumption is ahistorical — and the project of defending such an order is fraught with all kinds of conceptual and normative perils. 

Rather, it is to make the essentially realpolitik argument that we are in a new era of great power competition, one that shares considerable DNA with previous eras but that is distinctive in important ways. What is needed now is a new institution that not only coordinates policy but enhances the capacity of the world’s democracies for practical cooperation in various domains — including, but not limited to, the military. The G7 is a hopeless relic of a bygone era. The EU is a faltering regional organization. And the UN Security Council is polarized and paralyzed by great power rivalry. A new D10 might be a good start.

Ultimately, though, it will take something much more than the kind of renovation that the British prime minister is suggesting. If the current rules-based international order – as frayed as it is – is to be preserved and modernized, it will require an institutional steering mechanism that does more than just issue an anodyne communiqué once a year. It will require an institution truly fit for purpose. It will require a D10+.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.