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Biden’s Off to a Small Start in Rallying the World’s Democracies

Biden’s Off to a Small Start in Rallying the World’s Democracies

Tuesday, 3 August, 2021 - 04:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

Joe Biden has promised to make his presidency an era of democratic multilateralism. The world’s democracies, he argues, must come together to deal with a surging authoritarian challenge.


Yet the fate of two big-ticket policy initiatives is showing how hard it is to rally global democratic solidarity. This has led the administration to focus — so far — on a strategy that looks more like “minilateralism.”


The two initiatives in question are the Summit for Democracy and the D-10. On the campaign trail, Biden promised that in his first year in office, he would “bring together world’s democracies to … forge a common agenda” to combat corruption, counter authoritarian influence and support human rights.


The idea of D-10 also emerged in 2020, largely as a British initiative. Its purpose was to expand the existing Group of Seven into a larger body that would promote democratic cooperation on fostering research and development, setting standards, securing sensitive supply chains, and otherwise keeping much of the world from becoming a Chinese techno-bloc.


Connecting these initiatives was a view that democracies confront growing threats from illiberal influences at home and abroad, that these challenges are now manifesting themselves on a global scale, and that members of the free world must strengthen their individual resilience through collective action. The basic diagnosis is undoubtedly correct, but the implementation has already proved vexing.


The Summit for Democracy has quietly been postponed until 2022, if not later. The immediate cause is Covid-19, but the problems run much deeper.


A gathering of democracies immediately raises the thorny question of inclusion and membership. From India and Singapore to Ukraine and Turkey, there are lots of imperfectly democratic but strategically important regimes: Which ones merit an invitation and which don’t?


Such a summit also confronts the inherent dilemma of any major multilateral undertaking: The larger the membership, the harder it is to get consensus on anything important. In 2000, President Bill Clinton’s administration launched, with considerable fanfare, a global “community of democracies.” That group eventually claimed 106 members and never accomplished a single tangible thing.


The D-10 has also been shelved, for the moment. The prospective members (the G-7 plus Australia, India and South Korea) have widely varying appetites for anti-China cooperation. The US is ready for a prolonged technological rivalry; Germany and Italy are not.


Even the originator of the concept, the UK government, has occasionally seemed to backtrack from its sharper posture toward Beijing. The price of creating a D-10 might be a significant watering down of any such group’s effectiveness and ambition.


For the Biden administration, the upshot has been a reliance on existing coalitions and smaller groupings.


In technology, the White House has sought to build ad hoc partnerships around specific issues. The US has been working with a few select countries — Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan — to promote joint R&D in semiconductors and keep China a generation behind. A partnership between the US and the UK’s Vodafone Group PLC recently dissuaded Ethiopia from using Chinese equipment to build its 5G telecommunications network.


In combating China’s Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy, Washington simply repurposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. That Indo-Pacific forum includes Australia, India, Japan and the US; it has pledged to deliver one billion doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia. Biden has also chosen to work through established relationships (with the European Union, most notably) to strengthen procedures for screening Chinese investments in key sectors and companies.


These moves reflect a reasonable calculation that getting things done quickly requires working with groups that can be assembled quickly rather than waiting for a larger, ideal coalition to gel. And on some issues, the minilateral approach works well enough.


A D-10 isn’t needed for competition in semiconductors, for instance, because only a handful of countries dominate the manufacturing supply chain. The same goes for Covid vaccines: The Quad collectively possesses the array of capabilities — biotech expertise, money, production capabilities and logistics — required to meet a critical need. In these and other areas, starting small can produce a good-enough multilateralism.


The question is whether this approach will amount to something bigger over time. The logic of broad democratic multilateralism is still compelling, because democracies do face issues — transnational corruption, authoritarian economic coercion, disinformation and political meddling — that are not confined to any one region.


As democracies have become less geopolitically dominant over the past 20 years, the premium on their working together has risen. And while ad hoc coalitions can solve immediate problems, over a longer competition with China the democratic world would benefit from the routinized cooperation that established, formal institutions (like a D-10) could foster.


Biden’s theory appears to be that creating individual hubs of democratic cooperation now can encourage broader, more expansive undertakings in the future. If the early months of his presidency are any guide, that building process will be crucial — and more arduous than initially anticipated.


Bloomberg


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