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Do We Need a Global Alliance of Democracies?

ARTICLES - 7 January 2021

The convening of a "Summit for Democracy," to help move forward the traditional US goal of strengthening the alliances between democracies, will be one of the centerpieces of the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda. Michel Duclos, Special Advisor for Geopolitics, and Bruno Tertrais, Special Advisor for Strategic Affairs, examine France and Europe’s potential responses to this initiative, including its place within the context of Brexit. 

On 12 June 2000, representatives of some one hundred countries met in Warsaw, under the co-chairmanship of the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Polish Foreign Minister Borislav Geremek, in order to discuss the formation of a "Community of Democracies". However, the French Foreign Secretary Hubert Védrine did not sign the final declaration. The disagreement wasn’t about any French opposition to democracy of course; instead, it was the approach that didn’t quite strike a chord. The French believed that through organizing like this amongst themselves, self-proclaimed democratic governments risked alienating states that operated under other political systems, including several countries that may have been gradually moving towards democracy.

At the time, this argument was reminiscent of the rejection of "bloc policy" that had been central to French foreign policy from the early 1960s up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also reflected a multilateralist vision, which tended to favor dialogue between states regardless of whether or not they shared the same system of governance.

However, the idea of strengthening alliances between democracies and the "Summit for Democracy" has since continued to find support among US experts across the political spectrum and is currently being promoted with particular zeal by Democrats. This includes many in Joe Biden’s close orbit, such as Anthony Blinken, his proposed Secretary of State, who suggested the idea in a January 2019 article co-written with Robert Kagan for the Brookings Institute. Additionally, it was a prominent theme in an article that Biden wrote for Foreign Affairs in early 2020. 

Whereas an alliance of democracies aims to counter the global rise of authoritarianism, the concept of a D10 is more specifically aimed at a desire to contain China.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan task force of mainly American international affairs experts, has recently released a report entitled Linking Values and Strategy: How Democracies Can Offset Autocratic Advances. The report is co-signed by individuals who will be deeply involved in the Biden administration, such as future National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Biden’s proposed National Director of Intelligence, Avril Haines, and Michèle Flournoy, who was long thought to be a frontrunner for the role of Defense Secretary. 

Alongside the proposal for an alliance of democracies, the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, has been working since 2014 on its own proposal of a grouping of the ten main democracies, a "D10", through track 1.5 meetings (unofficial meetings between administrations and experts). This idea is now also being taken up by the British. In practice, this would consist of the G7 nations plus Australia, India and South Korea (the Atlantic Council’s proposal envisioned the EU instead of India). 

Whereas an alliance of democracies aims to counter the global rise of authoritarianism, the concept of a D10 is more specifically aimed at a desire to contain China. This aim has increased proposals for new groupings-"formats" in diplomatic parlance-that aim to go beyond a G7 that is increasingly seen as obsolete, as well as structuring an Indo-Pacific zone which is now emerging as a major strategic area. 

A summit of democracies or a summit for democracy? 

It seems certain that the Biden administration will indeed organize a summit to promote democracy-the transition team is already working on it. As a candidate, Biden referred to hosting such a summit "during my first year in office". And reading his Foreign Affairs article, we see his belief in both taking an international approach vastly different from Trump’s and re-establishing American leadership on new terms. While Biden is quick to point out that democracy needs to be reconstructed at home first, standing up for democracy is also a way to remobilize the "free world"- under American leadership - against an enemy that is no longer communism, but authoritarianism.

According to experts attached to the teams that Biden has working on the issue, some meticulous fine-tuning is likely necessary for the project to succeed. 

The first question that arises is: what would be the purpose of a new alliance "of" democracies or an alliance "for" democracy? Biden’s article in Foreign Affairs maintains a certain ambiguity between a defensive objective-regenerating democracy where it already exists-and a more offensive objective, which is to play off the opponents of democracy. Obama’s former Vice President wrote that "During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding and forge a common agenda". The purpose thus appears to be primarily oriented towards the existing "free world." However, Biden then proceeds to state that "…the United States will prioritize results by galvanizing significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad". Biden’s plans thus include the promotion of human rights not only within existing democratic nations but in all nations.

Other suggestions, such as those in the aforementioned report by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, go significantly further in an "offensive" direction. This includes the objective of forming a new "league of democracies" that would cover military issues and the fight against terrorism, as well as joint efforts to gain advantages in technology, which is now increasingly important in determining the international balance of power.

Collaborating on a US democracy initiative can help to build trust with the new administration. 

From this first question, many others arise. Which countries should be invited-and what should be the criteria? Should Ukraine be invited, while Hungary and Poland are excluded? What about India, Brazil, and Mexico? What topics would be on the agenda, and what would be the intended results? Finally, should it be a single summit, or should it be a process that involves a series of meetings? On this point, Biden’s article indicates a preference for a series of meetings. Drawing inspiration from the Nuclear Security Summits convened by the Obama administration between 2010 and 2016, the former Vice President suggests that the countries involved would participate on the basis of concrete commitments, the fulfillment of which would be assessed from one meeting to the next. It is not certain, however, that the subject of democracy, which is significantly broader than that of nuclear safety, would lend itself to this kind of approach.
In any case, there are a number of options open to the new US administration along a spectrum ranging from the idea of "summits for democracy" - a relatively broad forum concerned with addressing the internal crises of democratic institutions - all the way along to the concept of a smaller and potentially more divisive group, an "alliance of democracies", with a clearly anti-authoritarian and particularly anti-China agenda.

Where does that put Europe and France? 

Let's be clear: the temptation for systematic leadership on democracies is consubstantial with America as we knew it before 2016. However, this does not mean it is in France’s interest to reject any initiatives proposed by the future Biden administration. A negative, neo-Gaullist approach on our part would not be useful in tackling the foreign policy issues of today.

The context of the emerging 2020s obviously differs from that of the 2000s. We now face undeniable internal and external threats to democratic institutions themselves, with the United States itself currently experiencing an existential crisis. It is said that their elites are moving further and further away from Europe, but a phenomenon-perhaps temporary - can also be seen: the need to regain a certain "companionship" with the continent that is the source of American civilization. Moreover, Europeans cannot grumble about a returning America after the bitter complaints surrounding its withdrawal under Trump. Collaborating on a US democracy initiative can help to build trust with the new administration. 

As far as France is concerned, two particular elements should push us in this direction. Firstly, the reported sense amongst those close to the future administration is that the concept of a summit "for" democracy is the one currently gaining momentum. If The French want to give themselves the maximum chance of influencing this debate, they must agree to a summit of this kind in principle. This would best enable them to get the message across that such an initiative cannot promote coercion, nor constitute an openly anti-Chinese alliance, nor divide the Atlantic Alliance or the European Union. Nor should it be seen as an alternative to the "Alliance for Multilateralism" launched by Germany and France. 

The second element is the fact that Europeans, and more particularly the French, have experience and expertise to offer. For example, two of the specific cooperation themes envisaged by Joe Biden in the Foreign Affairs article concerned the fight against corruption and the overall responsibility of digital platforms. These two themes correspond to struggles that were first taken up by Europeans long ago (e.g., the fight against tax havens or, more recently, the conditionality linked to the rule of law within the EU) and especially by the French in the second case, as demonstrated by the Christchurch and Paris Appeals. On similar issues vital to restoring confidence in democracy, such as the fight against inequality or the battle against misinformation, Europeans have demonstrable experience, even if there is still much room for improvement. 

As for implementation, the intention of the new US administration is to introduce representatives of civil society-NGOs, businesses, other non-state actors - to the invited countries’ delegations, as has become common practice since the method was first introduced within the UN framework. In this area, the French can bring perhaps unequaled expertise: they showed their know-how at COP 21 in 2015, which they have also deployed in a different form with the Paris Peace Forum. Moreover, during their last G7 presidencies, including at Biarritz in 2019, they have opened up to other countries such as India, as well as to African and Latin American states. However, preventing Biden’s initiative from being seen as yet another reconstitution of the "league of white men" remains a challenge.

A reorganization of the network of partnerships between allied and friendly countries could take place in the years to come.

In summary, France should begin by accepting that the "summit for democracy" is a train that is about to leave the station. They cannot stop it, nor would it be in their interest to do so, but they can put themselves in a position, through a constructive attitude manifested sufficiently in advance, to help steer the direction it is going to take. The degree of France’s participation should depend upon the process agenda.

The advantages of having multiple formats

The American initiative gives us the opportunity to examine the existing architecture of groups comprised of allied and friendly countries. France undoubtedly has an interest in extending and strengthening these: maintaining the G7, accepting G7+ type formats (if not a "D10" proper) dedicated to geo-economic considerations, the "controlled" durability of the E3 format and continuing our focus on structuring groups related to the Indo-Pacific. 

One of Biden’s first international meetings will be the G7, chaired in June 2021 by the United Kingdom. It goes without saying that Prime Minister Johnson will seek to prepare an agenda that is likely to appeal to the Americans, including a "pro-democracy" dimension. Moreover, it will be no surprise if London attempts to exploit the summit in order to promote the idea of "Global Britain", potentially through seeking to undermine the position of the European Union. 

The British have invited Australia, South Korea and India to the meeting. Is it likely, therefore, that the June summit will be the moment when the G7 becomes the D10? We are not there yet. Among other obstacles, there is the fact that greater cooperation and agreements involving India, South Korea and Japan are not evident at this point, and therefore the elegance of the "D10" appellation would not hide the group’s straitjacket for long. 

From a French perspective, laying down a clear position here is also in our best interest: maintaining the G7 in its current format remains useful, if not indispensable. Although its relative economic weight has diminished, the G7 has, in fact, regained political legitimacy since Russia ceased to be a member. It provides an important platform for the European Union. It is the only caucus that allows the major Western nations to consult with each other on a regular basis, and the topics of discussion have long gone beyond simply economics and finance. We can talk about the environment, artificial intelligence or nuclear non-proliferation. In absolute terms, it would be advisable to return as much as possible to the participants by readopting an informal style that centers on the intimacy of personal meetings between leaders.

This does not preclude third countries being invited to certain parts of the Summit. This formula, which has been practiced for a long time, can offer a platform for federative initiatives that go beyond the permanent membership to the group. In this spirit, we can imagine that the G7 under the British presidency would allow for upstream consultation, along with India, South Korea and Australia, on what Biden envisages with his "summit for democracy." It could possibly even offer an opportunity to reflect with the new US administration on what could be an informal structure or network-a sort of separate group located somewhere between the G7 and G20-to manage the geo-economic dimensions of the challenge from China. This may well be a sensitive issue, so should it not be discussed in advance, alongside Germany, with a United Kingdom whose status has changed as a result of its departure from the EU?

In the first half of 2021, a number of "format" issues-to use the diplomats’ favorite expression-will indeed collide: not only the US democracy initiative and the G7/D10 issue, but also the EU/UK foreign policy relationship and the institutional architecture of the Indo-Pacific area - an issue we will return to later. 

Let’s start with a paradox: it is likely that having left the European Union, the British are all the more interested in the survival of another "club", the "E3" (Germany, France and the United Kingdom), which was a priori jeopardized by Brexit. The French approach should be to favor the maintenance of the E3, to "keep the British on board" as they say, but with clear conditions. In particular, we must expect from London that the post-Brexit UK will not disrupt the emergence of the EU and the Member States as America’s natural first-tier partners in the geo-economic strategy to be put in place with respect to China. EU-US summits will therefore need to be revitalized in order to give the European Council and a more "geopolitical" Commission every opportunity to be leading players in the coordination of economic and technological policies vis-à-vis Beijing. 

It should additionally be noted that post-Brexit Britain will try to maximize its investment in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the military field. However, a main goal of the Americans, congruent with the theme of defending democracy, is to establish a link between their European and Asian allies: "Why shouldn’t Germany and France work with India and Japan on strategic issues?," wrote Blinken and Kagan in their article. 

In this context, a basic fact that will remain is the gradual strengthening of the Asian "Quad" (Australia, United States, India and Japan). Should France, assuming that its partners are ready, consider the benefits of joining this club? No-for the time being, the disadvantages appear to outweigh the advantages.

[The G7] provides an important platform for the European Union. It is the only caucus that allows the major Western nations to consult with each other on a regular basis.

It would give the impression that it was joining an anti-Chinese crusade. It could spoil the chances of strengthening the partnership between Europeans in the region, when some of them (Germany, the Netherlands) seem ready to become more involved. We also undoubtedly have an interest in consolidating our own agreements (the triangular strategic relationship with India and Australia in particular) while being ready, on a case-by-case basis, to become involved in broader regional consultations.

However, France could accept a potential invitation, under the aegis of Washington, from the main strategic players, both western (Australia, United States, France, United Kingdom) and in Asia (South Korea, India, Japan). Another solution-which again should be discussed beforehand with both the Germans and the British-would be to encourage at least occasional consultation between the Indo-Pacific Quad and the E3. 

Gradually, based on the democracy initiative proposed by Biden, but also on the establishment of an security architecture in the Indo-Pacific area and the new status of the United Kingdom, a reorganization of the network of partnerships between allied and friendly countries could take place in the years to come. This can be seen as a defense against the temptation of a "global anti-China NATO" and a disguised return to "bloc politics." It is therefore up to the Europeans to ensure that flexible and intelligent formulas, which do not encourage a "cold war" spirit, are gradually put in place. 

 

Copyright : Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

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