We Need a Global Alliance to Defend Democracies

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 31 December 2020. © Richard Kemp

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to use the G7 summit that Britain is hosting in 2021 to launch the ‘D10’, intended as an alliance of democracies to counter China.

His proposal is for the G7 group of leading industrialised nations to be joined by Australia, South Korea and India. The focus would be on developing 5G telecommunications technology to reduce dependence on Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party as well as reliance on essential medical supplies from China.

President-elect Joe Biden put forward a somewhat similar initiative in 2019 and it is widely believed that he plans to convene a ‘Summit for Democracies’ in 2021. It appears his intention is broader than Mr Johnson’s both in scope and participation, and that it includes promoting liberal democratic values across the world.

This raises the spectre of abortive efforts at democracy-building in the Middle East and South Asia in the years after 9/11. It would be ill-judged and it fails to recognise a changed world in which allegiance to the US has been devalued as economic incentives from China to many countries, including democracies, have significantly grown. Confidence in US leadership has also been substantially undermined by interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which today are widely regarded as failures. Under a Biden administration, many will be mindful of the Obama-era sell-out of America’s Middle East allies while accommodating the hostile Iranian ayatollahs.

In other words, while the spread and development of Western-style democracy should of course be encouraged, something of more concrete utility to national self-interest than a liberal-left world view needs to be on offer. Instead of attempting an ideological programme to duplicate American democracy around the world, the US should work with the UK on a version of Mr Johnson’s action-oriented D10 proposal, but significantly expanded in scope.

This would recognise that, despite the optimistic indulgences by foreign policy experts and politicians over decades, China will not reform to allow normal coexistence within the world order but must instead be contained. As British Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter said in a speech this month:

‘What’s needed is a catalyst somewhat like George Kennan’s “long telegram” in which he observed that peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union in 1946 was unlikely to work. This led to the Truman Doctrine of containment which provided the basis of US and Western strategy throughout the Cold War.’

The Truman Doctrine transformed US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union from an alliance against fascism to the prevention of Soviet expansion across the globe. As President Truman said in a speech to Congress in 1947: ‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.’

A modern alliance to resist today’s ‘attempted subjugation and outside pressures’ should focus not only on China and the immediate challenges of 5G technology and supply chains, but also on the other major strategic threats to democratic states. There is no doubt that China constitutes by far the greatest challenge and is likely to do so for generations to come. The alliance, however, should also be aimed at Russia, which dedicates significant efforts to undermine US and allied foreign policy and society and to subvert Western democracies on top of its regional aggression in the Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Middle East and elsewhere. Relations between China and Russia have been steadily improving, with their interests converging in many areas, especially where they oppose the West. Some believe a formal strategic coalition between the two could emerge.

The alliance should also oppose the threat from North Korea with its growing nuclear capability, and Iran, which, although predominantly regionally-focused, sponsors terrorist attacks globally and has nuclear ambitions that pose a grave strategic danger.

Finally, the alliance should direct itself against the threat from global Sunni Islamic jihad, in terms of international terrorism from the likes of Al Qaida and Islamic State and also societal subversion by the Muslim Brotherhood and associated radical entities.

The object should not be another talking shop to extol the virtues of democracy or to press for domestic social and political reform. Nor, as Mr Biden will be inclined, to lecture governments such as Hungary, Poland and Romania, each of which he chastised in a 2018 speech in Copenhagen. While he may find their internal policies unpalatable, they pose no threat to any other country.

Instead, an interests-based, rather than ideological, alliance of strategically like-minded democracies should be built, each with the economic power and will to counter the authoritarian entities that oppose the Free World. Such an alliance would aim to support others in defending themselves against the authoritarian and extremist entities, and encompass friendly countries that are not democracies and include nations likely to be out of favour with the administration, such as Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

Despite some common characteristics, this will be no re-run of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The complexities today are far greater. Globalisation, economic inter-dependence, cyber vulnerability, environmental concerns, the priority assigned to climate change and connectivity on so many other levels mean there is a continuing imperative to remain widely engaged with those who must at the same time be contained by this endeavour. In addition, the potency of asymmetric, unconventional and unattributable conflict is significantly greater today, particularly in the cyber realm.

The threats posed by each of the authoritarian and radical entities and levels of dependency upon them affect countries to substantially different degrees. Given this and the realities of varying domestic political perspectives, strategic cultures, economic dependencies and national foreign policy priorities, there should be no realistic expectation of universal congruence across a broad alliance. Indeed, the D10, whatever form it takes, should not be a formalised NATO-like structure with a charter, endless staffs, bureaucracies and the need for consensus to secure action.

Rather, it should be a flexible forum of nation-states playing their own roles in containing a common series of threats against them. The objective, and indeed the litmus test, of American leadership would be to persuade all or most members of the alliance to act in concert against all major challenges.

For such an alliance to be formed and sustained over the long term, however, it would be necessary to accept that in some situations there might be unanimity of action whereas in others a group of members might decide to act together. Such a pragmatic formula should prevent the paralysis that is often characteristic of more orthodox international bodies such as the UN Security Council, the EU and NATO, while generating the kind of international synergy against global threats that is needed today to enable rapid and concerted action as well as long-term strategic policy.

The alliance should work to push back the authoritarians and radicals across the economic, cultural, political, cyber and technological spectrums and deny them access to critical infrastructure and technology as well as opportunities for cultural subversion. The alliance should also act to deter their further advances. For example, China or Russia would be aware that any crisis they precipitated against one state could quickly expand, drawing in other alliance members, potentially developing into a major challenge to them and giving pause as to whether creating the threat would be worth the cost. A similar range of deterrence could also be effective against states such as Iran that are tempted to use terror proxies or sponsor radicals opposed to the West.

Instruments available to the alliance include diplomatic, trade and economic incentives and coercion as well as technological edge. Military conflict would not be the intention. On the contrary, as US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said only a few days ago of conflict with China and Russia: ‘they are wars that must not be fought, where the measure of success is not military victory but deterrence’. As General Milley knows better than most, however, deterrence through economic, diplomatic and technological means needs to be backed by the added muscle of strong and effective military force and the unmistakable political will to use it if necessary.

Logically, division of deterrent military effort would be made on a regional basis with an agreement on more flexible deployments when necessary. This would give European nations primary responsibility for countering Russia, as well as Chinese, Iranian and jihadist security threats in the region, freeing US forces to focus on the Indo-Pacific. However, Europe’s track record on its own security is far from encouraging, underlined by the refusal of most European countries even to meet their NATO defence spending commitments. An important function of the proposed alliance would be to encourage member states, and their allies against authoritarian and extremist entities, to both provide adequate defence resources and where necessary adapt and modernise forces to ensure credible deterrence.

Such an alliance would be faced with a Catch-22 problem, which did not exist to anything like the same degree in the Cold War. Wide-based moral conviction within member states is needed to underpin political will. Creeping cultural relativism has severely infected many Western democracies, especially in Europe, and today threatens to engulf even the US polity. This has been accompanied by a determination to enrich and empower adversaries by engaging in business with them with little patriotic or moral restraint.

The latest example is the EU’s trade pact with China, signed on 30 December. This is despite concerns raised by some politicians about forced labour, especially among the Uighur minority, human rights in Hong Kong and China’s role in the Coronavirus pandemic. An unusual intervention, urging policy coordination with the US by President-elect Biden, was ignored.

If a country lacks the confidence to stick up for its own values at home, how is it to robustly defend its virtues against those who wish to undermine them? This weakness in Western democracies has already allowed great strides across the world by China, Russia and jihadism and has helped create the situation that a D10 alliance is now urgently needed to repair.