For months, President-elect Joe Biden has talked about the need to reinforce America’s traditional alliances in the West, strengthen liberal democracies around the world and confront autocrats and illiberal strongmen. Now, we’re seeing a glimpse of what those efforts may look like. Even though President Trump at times championed greater coordination among “like-minded” democracies, implicit in the new discussions is a rejection of his administration’s wrecking-ball approach to foreign affairs.
“The Trump term has proven that when the United States goes it alone and takes an ‘America First,’ unilateralist approach, the results aren’t better for the American people,” said Victoria Nuland, a former State department official in the Obama administration, during a Brookings Institution webinar this week.
“The Biden administration comes in feeling like the moment is existential vis-a-vis the challenge from the rising autocrats,” she added, pointing to the geopolitical opportunism of Beijing and Moscow under Trump’s watch. “Russia and China have had four years to deepen their hooks not only into our alliance system but into changing the global rules of the word.”
There are few takers outside China for a world order shaped by Beijing. In the Chinese capital, strategists insist that China isn’t that interested in reshaping the world order either. But Western officials more broadly recognize that the “Washington Consensus” — the international institutions and alliances that helped shape global politics for much of the 20th century — has also frayed in the aftermath of the Cold War. With Biden stepping into the White House, they see the prospect for reinvention.
“Thirty years ago advanced democracies were told that they’d reached the ‘end of history,’ and that the continued advance of freedom was inevitable,” wrote Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary general, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week in which he urged greater cooperation among democracies. “The opposite has been the case: Freedom has retreated as America retreated from its place as the global leader. We may not see a better opportunity again to recover from the West’s crippling disease of democratic self-doubt.”
Rasmussen nodded to the rubric raised by Johnson of the G-7 nations plus his three guests forming a new bloc of 10 major democracies. “The idea of a ‘D10’ grouping ideologically committed to combating the march of authoritarian states chimes with Joe Biden’s plan to hold a summit of democracies,” wrote the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour. “It is not clear if the idea of a D10 summit is seen as additional to the Biden summit or a substitute for the proposal.”
The “D-10” isn’t exactly a new concept. In 2008, while working in the State Department’s policy planning team, Ash Jain and colleague David Gordon first floated the idea of a bloc of democracies. As Jain put it in an interview with Today’s WorldView, they believed these countries needed to better coordinate their strategies in an age where liberal democracies were hardly ascendant. “Looking at this global landscape, we recognized that the notion of post-Cold War convergence among the major global powers, including Russia and China, was not going to become a reality anytime soon,” he said.
Jain now oversees the D-10 Strategy Forum at the Atlantic Council, which runs so-called “Track 1.5” meetings bringing together senior officials and analysts from these democracies. This week, it published a “global strategy” document, pooling expert insight from the D-10 nations, on an allied approach to China.
“Some pessimists look at China’s population size and economic growth rates and believe that the task is impossible,” wrote Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. in a foreword to the report. “But on the contrary, if we think in terms our alliances, the combined wealth of the Western democracies — U.S., Europe, Japan — will far exceed that of China well into the century.”
What such a grouping may actually achieve is unclear. Jain argues that it shouldn’t be seen as an anti-China axis, but rather a forum for the Biden administration and allies to coordinate strategy on a whole range of issues, from tech policy to climate change to what it may take to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran.
Some analysts suggest there are pitfalls in the bloc’s conception, pointing to Johnson’s inclusion of India. Although it is the world’s largest democracy, its ruling Hindu nationalist government has attracted criticism for its treatment of minorities. “A bloc of democracies sounds good in practice, but I think there are some major questions about who is invited to join and why, and how to ensure the bloc doesn’t just meet, discuss and agree that democracy is good and important, and then go home,” Rachel Rizzo, director of programs at the Truman Center, told Today’s WorldView. “I’d actually like to see greater pushback on authoritarian leaders through mechanisms that already exist,” she added, pointing both to NATO and the prospect of greater U.S.-E.U. collaboration.
The D-10 at the Atlantic Council does not include India at present (the 10th spot there goes to the European Union). Jain said that although “a commitment to democratic norms and shared values” ought to be at the heart of the D-10 concept, the surge of populism in the West has forced a number of countries already in this bloc to “face the issue of how to uphold these values.”
Skeptics contend that such idealism may still lack teeth. Trump’s animus toward China reflected in part a belief that preceding administrations had been naive in their approach, hoping the sheer weight of the rules and norms of the liberal international system would bring Beijing into the fold. “Biden will quickly recover the language of human rights and numerous commentators will applaud it as a toughening up of the American policy on China,” wrote Bruno Maçães, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “In practice, this toughening up will mean that Beijing will get a cold shoulder but little else.”