‘Democracy is on the ballot’ was a common refrain by supporters of Joe Biden during the US presidential campaign, supporting the claim Donald Trump posed a grave threat to American democracy as well as promising to discard his affinity for autocrats and to restore democracy as a guiding light for America’s approach to the world.
Joe Biden will hardly be the first president to emphasize democracy in US foreign policy but he has the chance to do so in a fundamentally new way – by bringing together major democratic powers to focus on fixing problems in their own societies.
Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, policy experts have explored ideas for making cooperation among democracies a more integral part of US foreign policy. In the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright convened a group of 106 foreign ministers in Warsaw to launch the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental coalition that still exists.
However, although well intentioned, its sprawling membership which includes several countries with lacklustre democratic credentials has hampered its effectiveness. Guatemala and Hungary, both ranked just ‘partly free’ by Freedom House, sit on the Community of Democracies’ 31-member governing council, whereas Australia, France, and Germany do not.
During his campaign for the presidency in 2008, Senator John McCain took another swing at the concept and proposed creating a League of Democracies. He saw it as an outward-looking organization whose primary purpose would be to legitimize policies such as humanitarian intervention 'with or without Moscow’s or Beijing’s approval’.
Clearly this was an idea born of a specific historical experience, namely George W. Bush’s inability to secure UN Security Council authorization for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. As McCain and other neoconservatives saw it, the league would allow the US to pursue Bush’s Freedom Agenda even when opposed by authoritarian states.
But when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the idea of putting democracy at the heart of US foreign policy had become associated with neoconservatism and Bush’s failed policies. It faded from the scene as the world grappled with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the reins of economic recovery were taken by the G20, a big power club including authoritarian stalwarts such as China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
Now the comeback is on as democracies start rallying around the conviction they should be cooperating more closely amid concerns about China’s rising influence. In May, the UK government proposed the idea of a D10 group of democracies, to include the current G7 plus the three leading democracies from the Indo-Pacific – Australia, India, and South Korea.
Meanwhile on the campaign trail in the US, Joe Biden talked about convening a Summit for Democracy in the first year of his administration – a global convening to galvanize new commitments on fighting corruption and protecting human rights. The echoes from Albright’s Community of Democracies and McCain’s League of Democracies are unmistakable.
But what has changed is that those older ideas emerged when many believed that the West’s own political and economic development was complete, and all that remained was to reshape the rest of the world in its own image. Since around 2016, vulnerabilities have become increasingly apparent and foreign policy analysts have increasingly focused on external threats to democracies – especially the issue of foreign interference in national elections.
The idea of a coalition of democracies has re-emerged, but this time – rather than spreading democracy – it would aim to defend democracy against threats from authoritarian states. The D10 was proposed in part as a way for democracies to create alternatives to China on 5G and become more ‘resilient’ to threats from authoritarian states. But this externalizes an internal problem because the reality is that China and Russia are not the cause of dysfunction in democracies, they have simply exploited it.
This means the original neoconservative idea for a coalition should be turned on its head and reinvented for a time in which we are more modest and aware of the problems in our democracies. It makes sense for democracies to cooperate but, instead of focusing primarily on external threats, they should focus on the internal problems they jointly face as democracies.
These problems are what made them vulnerable to foreign interference in the first place and so, instead of defining itself as being ‘anti-China’ or ‘anti-Russia’, a coalition of democracies should instead be ‘pro-democracy’ – a group advancing ambitious initiatives that both strengthen democracy and revive confidence in the competence of democratic governments. It should be less about resilience and more about reform.
One particularly promising area for democracies to cooperate on is economic policy as many problems plaguing democracies stem – at least in part – from features of the global economy. Multinational corporations deprive home governments of tax revenues by exploiting tax havens, oligarchs and kleptocrats funnel money across borders to obscure its origins, while tech giants and other large corporations pit governments against each other and create a ‘race to the bottom’ on regulation and taxes.
The coalition of democracies should not be an integration project such as the European Union or the World Trade Organization that involve democracies pooling sovereignty. It should be a forum for sharing best practices and collaborating on initiatives to be pursued on a voluntary basis – in that sense it would be more akin to the G7 or G20 but, unlike either of those organizations, it would be regionally diverse and grounded in shared values.
Focusing a coalition on solving internal problems certainly does not mean abandoning the idea of spreading democracy to the rest of the world, but it does mean being more patient and realistic about it. Democracies can only be a model if they can show they function better than authoritarian states so the first step is to make them properly functional again – a coalition of democracies can help do that.
Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow, Europe Programme and Edward Fishman, Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Former Member, Policy Planning Staff, US Department of State.