The Risks of an “Alliance of Democracies”

Courtesy President Joe Biden

In his election campaign in 2019, Biden called for hosting a “Global Summit for Democracy” that “will bring together the world’s democracies” to defend against authoritarianism. In this vein, Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened his remarks at the G7 meeting of democracies, with a call for the G7 to defend “democratic values and open societies,” with targets clearly being China and Russia. In the runup to the G7 meetings this week, President Biden declared that the trip is about rallying the world’s democracies to demonstrate “the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” This initiative is important to show renewed US commitment to US allies, but it also presents risks.

Daily oppression around the world, from Belarus to Myanmar, demands US engagement. Indeed, democracy and the rule-of-law are under threat around the world, as indexes shockingly reveal. Freedom House showed a net loss of freedoms in forty-five countries (compared to where freedoms improved), punctuating a fifteen-year decline. The global average of The Economist Democracy Gap index fell to an all-time low in 2020 (since it began). The World Justice Project’s rule-of-law index similarly saw decay “in every region” and “in all corners of the world.”

The stakes are high, including in the United States where the Republican party remains defined by the first President to refuse to concede that he lost an election. As the US commitment to civil and political freedoms dropped, so did US credibility, negatively affecting perceptions of the US globally. Declines in democratic freedoms beset other OECD countries as well.

Strategically, cooperation among democracies is important to thwart threats to democracy at home. Russia interfered in the 2016 US election to sew discord and polarization, undermining US solidarity from within. China has been financing the spread of Chinese media and information campaigns everywhere. Democracies must share intelligence and expend resources to counter these efforts. They should coordinate responses, including sanctions where appropriate. In short, the Biden administration must work with democracies to advance US interests and democratic values.

A critical point, nonetheless, is missing. Creating a formal “alliance” and “summit of democracies” risks undercutting global problem-solving, can bolster nationalist authoritarians, and can smack of hypocrisy.

An ideological alliance against China and Russia can undermine cooperation to address common existential threats such as climate change. Even if vaccines roll out globally and the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, prospects of contagion — viral and financial — will still loom. Joining forces with democracies against China could have unintended negative effects, as it can provide political leverage to domestic forces here and abroad against taking necessary measures to mitigate climate change before it is too late.

The idea of a summit of democracies also can smack of hypocrisy. Domestically, the United States is riven by illiberal rhetoric, such as campaign chants of “lock them up,” while voter suppression initiatives and conspiracy theories proliferate, despite no evidence of voter fraud. Vast numbers of Americans downplay or deny the January 6 insurrection, which one party’s leadership harnesses in hope of retaking power.

Globally, the United States — and not China — became the revisionist power under the Trump administration. The US left the Paris Agreement on climate change, withdrew from the World Health Organization during the pandemic, banned the export of vaccines, neutered the dispute settlement system at the World Trade Organization, discarded arms control treaties, and tore up a multilateral agreement with Iran to stem Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

Countries should not be viewed as monolithic and static. There are divisions within them. Their policies change, as the indicators appallingly capture. Ideological rhetoric can backfire dangerously. On the one hand, it bolsters groupthink and deepens divisions between countries. On the other, it empowers nationalist groups, often with authoritarian impulses, within them. For example, neo-Maoist forces are on the rise in China, which earlier were kept in check.

Democratic and anti-democratic forces are transnational, and not clearly defined by borders. They forge implicit alliances. Groups in the United States and Europe welcome Russian interference in elections when it serves their ends.

Coordination among democracies therefore must be pragmatic, and not assume simplistic, state-centric binaries of “us” vs “them.” A pragmatic approach views movements transnationally, not just as national alliances. It works to reverse negative trends in democracy and rule-of-law practices “in all corners of the world.”

The Biden administration must uphold and support democratic and rule-of-law principles internationally and at home. But it should do so through leading by example, not simply by labels. It then can work more effectively through transnational networks and international institutions to address global challenges, which easy ideological tropes otherwise impede. Effectively addressing these challenges will, in turn, help counter authoritarian pressures, including at home.

Gregory Shaffer is Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Emerging Powers in the World Trading System: The Past and Future of International Economic Law, to be published by Cambridge University Press on July 27, 2021.

Gregory Shaffer is Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and President-Elect of the American Society of International Law (ASIL).