It’s time for an alliance of democracies
President Joe Biden recently assembled the leaders of more than 100 democracies worldwide for a virtual Summit for Democracy. Not surprisingly, the gathering drew the ire of China and Russia, whose ambassadors penned a joint op-ed castigating it a vestige of ”Cold War mentality” and calling on countries to stop using “value-based diplomacy” to provoke division and confrontation.
The summit was useful to begin conversations on how to confront the daunting challenges facing the free world. But it is not sufficient. The time has come to establish an Alliance of Democracies that would bring together the United States and its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and other willing democracies worldwide that share common interests and values and are prepared to act.
As Biden underscored in his introductory remarks, democracy is facing “alarming and sustained challenges,” including from autocrats, who seek to advance their own power and “export and expand their influence around the world”. China and Russia, in particular, have become more assertive in challenging key tenets of the rules-based global order, Democracies are on the defensive as they contend with these and other global threats. To succeed in this fundamental struggle between democracy and autocracy, democracies must strengthen cooperation.
An “Alliance of Democracies” would provide a highly visible platform for fostering solidarity in the face of common threats and challenges. The leading democracies in North America, Europe and the Indo-Pacific make up roughly three-quarters of global gross domestic product. In combination with the European Union, the transatlantic partnership provides nearly 80 percent of official developmental aid worldwide. And the 20 highest scoring countries in terms of soft-power influence are all democracies. These assets provide the United States and its allies with an enormous source of leverage in addressing global challenges.
But the Alliance of Democracies must be more than symbolic. Instead, its members must be prepared to take meaningful action to address the three defining challenges facing the democratic world. The first is the increasing assertiveness by China and Russia to make the world safer from autocracy. Moscow and Beijing are using diplomatic and economic coercion — including military threats, cyber operations, malign finance and other “wolf warrior diplomacy” tactics — to pressure smaller governments and global corporations to accommodate their interests.
In response, the alliance could facilitate coordinated sanctions and other measures to deter such behavior, and provide a mechanism to provide joint assistance to targeted democracies. It could also help make democracies less vulnerable to economic coercion, including, for example, by facilitating alternative supply chains for sensitive technologies and critical energy supplies.
The second is backsliding within established democracies. Whether through the acquiescence of their electorate or manipulation of electoral processes, populist leaders in many democracies have been using their authority to undermine democratic norms. The alliance can serve as a mechanism to hold states accountable for their democratic practices at home. Building on the loose pledge system for leaders’ interventions at the Summit for Democracy, countries could be asked to make specific commitments to advance democratic renewal at home as part of their alliance membership obligations.
The third is the rise of emerging and potentially disruptive technologies. Such technologies — including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genetic engineering and 5G — are developing rapidly and will significantly shape the future of geopolitics. While these innovations promise great benefits, they also carry serious risks, including security challenges. If China or other autocratic nations succeed in developing these technologies ahead of the democratic world, they could gain significant economic and military advantages. To counter this, the alliance should set common standards for advanced technologies that are consistent with liberal norms. The goal is to ensure that the democratic world and fundamental values prevail in the technological race.
Support for closer alignments among democracies is building. In hosting the Group of Seven (G7) summit earlier this year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to advance the idea of a D-10 club of democracies. Lawmakers in Britain and Canada have expressed support for new coalitions of democracies, and the “traffic light coalition” making up the new government in Germany called for the creation of an “Alliance of Democracies” in a recent policy paper. In the United States, proposals for closer cooperation among democracies have drawn bipartisan support among lawmakers in Congress.
That China and Russia have spoken out so vehemently about the Summit for Democracy indicates a level of concern as to where this initiative might lead. Nevertheless, it would not serve the interests of the United States or its allies to provoke a new Cold War dynamic that could lead to escalating tensions or even direct confrontation. The reality is, however, that competition between democratic and autocratic powers is now an established feature of the current global system. The key question is how democracies will choose to respond. To minimize the risks of polarization, leading democracies should embrace a two-tracked approach: engaging with Beijing and Moscow though the United Nations, G20, and other venues in areas where cooperation may be feasible, and, at the same time, working through an Alliance of Democracies to uphold shared values and interests.
Biden’s call to action with his Summit for Democracy could help propel the idea of an alliance forward. The administration’s plan for a follow up summit next December could provide the building block for a sustainable cooperative network of democracies. The administration has rightly framed the current era as a historic inflection point between autocracy and democracy. An Alliance of Democracies would provide a signature initiative that is directly responsive to this challenge — one that demonstrates leadership and can help align the democratic world in a common direction for will likely be a multi-decade era of strategic competition.
Ash Jain is director for democratic drder at the Atlantic Council.
Jonas Parello-Plesner is executive director of the Copenhagen-based Alliance of Democracies Foundation.
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