The alliance of democracies: is it feasible? Is it sensible?

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

In his inaugural address President Joe Biden did not spend much time on foreign policy, but when he did, his main message was that the United States would “rebuild its alliances”. This has reignited the debate on both sides of the Atlantic about whether this is the right moment to build a global alliance of democracies.

This is not a new idea, however. At the time when NATO was being set up in the late 1940s many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic hoped that it would evolve beyond a mutual defence pact into a true transatlantic political community. Canada inserted Article 3 into the NATO treaty to provide for economic cooperation and Article 4 allowed for consultations on any security issue beyond the immediate (but transitory) threat from the Soviet Union. Yet NATO remained largely a defence pact. Europeans went off on a separate track to form their regional economic community, while the US saw NATO as a temporary arrangement to help Europe back on its feet militarily rather than as a permanent commitment. In the early 1950s they even pushed the Europeans to form their own defence community, the EDC, so that they could focus their efforts (and forces) on Asia and the war in Korea.

Yet the idea of an alliance of democracies, involving more than just defence cooperation, but also embracing economics, human rights, diplomacy and democracy promotion, never died. Despite the fact that Article 10 of the NATO treaty limits the alliance’s enlargement to European countries, think tanks in Washington produced a raft of reports advocating the enlargement of NATO to Israel, Australia, Japan and New Zealand. They were all deemed to be robust US-friendly democracies with much to contribute on counter-terrorism, cyber defence, missile defence, maritime forces and innovative technology. US presidents also sought to build new coalitions of democracies around military campaigns. After the 1991 Gulf War, George H. W. Bush proclaimed a ‘New World Order’ and later his son, George W. Bush, reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by declaring a ‘Global War on Terrorism’ and forcing the US’s partners to sign up by declaring: “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”.

The US-EU relationship has to be the central magnet pulling in all other like-minded governments around the globe

Of course, during the last four years of the Trump administration, the idea of an alliance of democracies dropped entirely off the radar. Trump’s ‘America First’ had no desire to work with allies, except to move US financial burdens on to their shoulders. There was no coordination on the COVID-19 pandemic or the procurement of vaccines. Trump refused to engage on climate change or hold China to its WTO commitments. He showed little receptivity to Europe’s security needs in the Sahel, Libya, the Horn of Africa or Syria. He withdrew from arms control treaties on which Europe’s security depends and pulled US troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq unilaterally, leaving European forces exposed.

The EU was even described as an ‘enemy’ – the Trump years saw an increase in transatlantic tariffs and trade barriers rather than their removal. Clearly, if a global alliance of democracies is to be remotely possible, the US-EU relationship has to be the central magnet pulling in all other like-minded governments around the globe.

Yet today change is in the air. This Friday, President Biden will participate in his first G7 meeting and speak at the Munich Security Conference. NATO defence ministers meeting this week in Brussels are hearing the new US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, recommit the US to closely consulting its transatlantic allies on Afghanistan, Iraq and the way forward on arms control with Russia. The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has come forward with his NATO 2030 project, which proposes that the 30 NATO allies use common funding to finance their operations, take up climate change as a security threat, consult more regularly on global challenges – with interior ministers also meeting in a NATO context – and discuss how to address the challenge from China. A NATO summit in June will show whether there is appetite on both sides of the Atlantic for this major expansion in the alliance’s remit.

In June there will be the annual G7 Summit in Cornwall. The UK, which holds the G7 Presidency in 2021, has invited India, Australia and South Korea to join this meeting and Boris Johnson has evoked the idea of a ‘D10’ group of democracies. The Biden administration has announced its intention to convene a high-level meeting of the democracies in the US, although where, when and with what agenda is still unclear. Nonetheless, some US commentators have suggested that the administration should focus first and foremost on fixing America’s democracy at home before it goes off on a democracy promotion drive overseas.

The transatlantic allies are each others’ oldest partners and contributors to mutual security

So far no major leader has spoken publicly about a new formal alliance or institution of democracies. Yet all these various meetings and pledges to work together do suggest that the world’s democracies are now resolved to push back against authoritarian states in a more systematic and united fashion. We will obviously have to wait and see what these various meetings actually produce beyond fine sounding communiques before we can determine if the hour of the alliance of democracies has finally arrived. If this idea is to be feasible, we can already identify what needs to happen to put substance behind these aspirations.

First, an alliance of democracies has to be built on the foundation of the North America-EU relationship. The UK, notwithstanding its liking of the US and aversion to the EU after Brexit, has to find its place in such an enterprise, simply because it cannot be achieved solely through a set of bilateral relationships that ignore the EU as an institution and foreign policy actor. The UK has to build its ‘Global Britain’ narrative as strengthening the liberal democratic order and the West in general, but that cannot happen by splitting the Anglo-Saxon democracies away from the EU. China and Russia would be the winners if it were so. The transatlantic allies are each others’ oldest partners and contributors to mutual security. So if they cannot deepen their cooperation, there is little prospect of making an alliance of democracies credible in the eyes of the rest of the world.

It is encouraging that NATO is moving past acrimony over defence budgets and burden sharing to expand its role, but the transatlantic axis of an alliance of democracies cannot be built on NATO alone. It needs deeper economic cooperation between the US and EU, alongside more coordinated action on global challenges like pandemics, climate change, the Middle East peace process, the approach to China and the Iran nuclear deal.

Data is the economic and social currency of the 21st century

There are already good ideas on the table. The European Commission and the EU External Action Service have drafted papers; just this past week the German Foreign Ministry has put a substantive list of ideas on the table. It seems improbable that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) can be revived even if Biden was a strong advocate of this project. Protectionist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic has put paid to that, without even considering European fears regarding US food standards and access to European pharmaceutical and health markets. No one has yet forgotten the problems that the EU-Canada trade agreement ran into in the regional parliament of Wallonia.

Yet there are many things that the US and the EU can do to re-energise their trading relations.

One is to call a halt to the current tariff war across the Atlantic when it comes to aircraft subsidies for Boeing and Airbus, even if they are allowed by WTO rulings. Other US tariffs on EU food and wine and luxury goods imports should be called off as well.

Moreover, there are signs that Washington and Brussels are willing to compromise on a tax regime for social media, digital sales and tech companies, under the auspices of the OECD. They can work on aligning regulations and standards for product licensing and mutual recognition of qualifications and visas for specialist workers and students. One key area is data sharing, which has made little progress during the Trump years due to EU privacy concerns and the GDPR. As data is the economic and social currency of the 21st century, the inability of the US and Europe to agree upon common standards for transmission, storage and distribution gives an opening for China to impose its own standards in areas such as 5G technology and AI exploitation, even within international bodies such as the UN International Telecommunications Union. Transatlantic discussions on data security can certainly help to reassure the US regarding the risks stemming from the recent EU-China Investment Agreement. Moving forward, a Trade and Technology Council could allow the US and EU to discuss launching joint ventures to develop their own supply chain security in areas where they have both been dependent on foreign suppliers, such as in semi-conductors and 5G telecommunications.

This is an opportunity for democracies to demonstrate their leverage when they unite

Second, an alliance of democracies has to build on an effective rules-based international order. In a piece of good news this week, a new Director General of the WTO has finally been appointed – the first woman and the first African. China is a member of the WTO, as is most of the rest of the world, but the WTO is based on western norms when it comes to the arbitration of disputes and common rules on trade and investment. Democracies have an interest in a more effective WTO; it handles trade in goods but has not adjusted to fixing rules for services and the digital economy, which are becoming a much greater factor in world trade and growth. Green technologies and green taxes, such as a border carbon tax, are also becoming leading issues. Democracies will want to work closely with the new DG, Dr Okonjo Iweala of Nigeria, to initiate these reforms – difficult as they will certainly be.

In third place, an alliance of democracies needs to demonstrate its relevance to the rest of the world by advancing on a key global issue. China’s active distribution of its Sinopharm and Sinovax vaccines to Europe and developing countries in the Middle East and Africa has probably beat the reconfigured West in grabbing the lead on the COVID-19 pandemic, but climate change is certainly still available.

Here, the expanded G7 in Cornwall can attempt to do something significant by discussing a global carbon tax standard and an emissions trading scheme that democracies would agree to initially implement among themselves. They could agree to share green R&D technology on preferential terms and announce a financial trust fund to help the developing countries make the transition to a green circular economy if they sign up to more ambitious carbon reduction targets. The COP26 in Glasgow this autumn is seen by many as the make-or-break moment in determining whether the global community will keep warming below 2°C over pre-industrial levels. The US is now onboard, having rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and appointed John Kerry as its climate envoy. The UK government and the EU are deeply invested in this challenge and have agreed more ambitious targets to decarbonise their economies by mid-century.

Certainly, there are some laggards among the democracies, such as Australia and India. Yet there is a need for Glasgow to be a success and result in more ambitious, specific and binding national commitments backed up by more equitable burden sharing. This is an opportunity for democracies to demonstrate their leverage when they unite.

The Asia-Pacific democracies, like their North American and European counterparts, have taken a more sceptical and wary view of China

Finally, there is the question of linking the transatlantic democracy agenda to the major democracies in the Asia-Pacific. What can be the common links and interests here? Certainly there is scope for cooperation on cyber threats; the massive SolarWinds intrusion in the US has shown just how great our vulnerabilities still are. Counter-terrorism, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, Afghanistan and reining in North Korea’s nuclear programmes are all areas where transcontinental cooperation has worked well in the past.

Freedom of navigation is another looming issue. Just a few days ago, a French submarine exercised its right of passage in the South China Sea. The new UK aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, will deploy there in October. Germany and France are both sending frigates to the Pacific this year for exercises and port visits. This brings us to the inescapable issue of China, which is often presented as the pretext and rationale for an alliance of democracies – even if there may be other useful things such an alliance could achieve. The Asia-Pacific democracies, like their North American and European counterparts, have taken a more sceptical and wary view of China. Australia in particular has experienced major frictions in its relationship with Beijing.

Yet China is a regional neighbour and an increasingly important trading partner. So the Asia-Pacific democracies will not go along with a Cold War ‘extreme competition’ and ‘confrontation and containment’ approach to China. We all know where that will lead.

The success of any incipient alliance of democracies will depend on the ability of the US to lay out a balanced strategy towards China. What can we expect? More competition and increased competitiveness, certainly. More pushback on human rights and violations of international norms, unquestionably. Dialogue too, on a whole host of issues where we need China’s help, including Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and nuclear arms control, and real cooperation on common concerns such as pandemics, climate change and piracy.

Another consideration concerns the backsliders within the Western club of democracies

Whether or not an alliance of democracies ever sees the light of day, it is good to see the global democracies talking and working together after the permafrost of the Trump years. Even if the lofty objective of a resurgence of liberal democracy is not realised, real progress on trade, strengthening multilateralism, solving regional conflicts and tackling climate change is always to be welcomed. But there are still many questions in the way of an alliance of democracies that might suggest we will not be seeing it anytime soon.

First, where would dialogue be institutionalised – at the G7+, NATO, the US or EU, or an annual summit event? None of these options seem ideal. Second, can Europe be a serious and reliable partner for the US in this venture if France and Germany, both of which are facing elections soon, remain so divided on European Strategic Autonomy and whether Europe should be a third force in the world or remain closely tied to the US? Third, would the US be willing to remove its trade restrictions from its allies?

Biden has announced his priority to protect American jobs and workers and a “foreign policy for the middle class”, which means protecting their economic interests. He has proved radical thus far in dismantling the Trump domestic legacy in terms of revising immigration rules, strengthening energy and environmental standards and pushing economic stimulus. But he has been much more cautious in unwinding US international sanctions. Will the US be prepared to make the necessary economic moves to incentivise the other potential members of the alliance?

Another consideration concerns the backsliders within the Western club of democracies, especially the illiberal democracies of Turkey, Poland and Hungary. If an alliance of democracies is incapable of upholding democratic standards within its own institutional ranks, it will have little legitimacy when it goes preaching the virtues of the rule of law, free elections and civil society and media freedoms abroad.

Can an alliance of democracies unite the fractured globe?

Moreover, trust in the US to remain on a democratic, constitutional course itself – an open question after the abuses and polarisation of the Trump years – will also be crucial in convincing allies to follow US overtures on democracy promotion initiatives. The more the allies believe that Trump or his successors at the head of populist-nationalist forces are likely to return to power in four years, the less likely they will be to embrace a US democracy promotion agenda, especially with regard to competing with China.

This brings us, in conclusion, to the $64,000 question behind all these democracy promotion initiatives. If a more united West, representing 60% of global GDP, faces up to the competition from China and proposes an attractive alternative model, the chance of China agreeing to abide by the rules of multilateral institutions and beneficial interdependence increases.

But what if China sees an alliance of democracies as a denial of its own rightful place and influence in world affairs and as an outright quest to restore Western dominance? Will it respond by forming alliances of its own, particularly with Russia?

Can an alliance of democracies unite the fractured globe or divide it further into Orwellian rival blocs?

That is the fundamental question that advocates of the alliance of democracies need to answer before proceeding further with this grand vision.

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