This month marks the 70th anniversary of the birth of NATO, the most successful alliance in history. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will address a joint session of US Congress, an event that will allow American lawmakers to demonstrate that they still care about an alliance that President Donald Trump views as an anachronism. NATO’s supporters, however, should not be content to glory in past achievements. They should be thinking about how to adapt America’s alliances to a world in which the clash between liberalism and autocracy is worldwide.
The idea of globalising US alliances is not new. In 1961, John Kennedy called for a “grand and global alliance” uniting mankind against tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. During the George W. Bush years, there were calls to create a ‘global NATO’ or a ‘league of democracies’. These Bush-era proposals went nowhere, in part because NATO was still recovering from the wounds inflicted by the Iraq War, and because there was not an obvious threat that would unite the world’s democracies. Today, however, circumstances are different.
The world is fragmenting as authoritarian powers, principally China and Russia, work to undermine, revise and perhaps upend the liberal international order built by the US and its allies. Autocratic leaders in Moscow and Beijing understand that the dominance of liberal values poses an existential threat to their regimes, and that they will be more secure and geopolitically effective in a world where democracy has been weakened and autocracy is prevalent.
As China and Russia seek to expand their geopolitical power and influence, they are seeking to coerce and corrupt democratic political systems. They are also exporting the tools and examples of high-tech repression to fellow dictators around the world.
Russia has interfered in elections in Europe, the US and Latin America. China uses influence operations and economic coercion to bend democracies to its will from Oceania to Eastern Europe. Analysts can argue about whether this is a ‘new Cold War’. Yet it is undoubtedly a high-stakes struggle over both the balance of power and the balance of ideas. It demands that the world’s democracies band together to defend their geopolitical interests and their political institutions.
This should not – and probably will not – look like a formal military alliance encompassing the world’s democracies, or even America’s existing democratic allies. There are, after all, divisions within the democratic world. Some European countries are increasingly alarmed by China’s growing heft and predatory behaviour, others see Beijing primarily as a source of investment and trade, while still others are trying to strike a balance between these two viewpoints. And trying to formally unite America’s existing alliance structures in Europe and the Asia-Pacific risks simply undermining their cohesion.
If South Korea and Japan struggle to stand together against threats from North Korea and China, how well will a “global NATO” including those countries and dozens of additional democracies function? And if many citizens of Western Europe would now be ambivalent about fighting to defend Estonia, just try getting them to defend Taiwan or the Philippines.
Rather, the key to building a stronger network of democracies is to gradually develop better cooperation against common dangers. Given that so many democracies are struggling to defend themselves against information warfare, cyberattacks and electoral meddling, there is an opportunity for additional intelligence-sharing and exchange of best-practices in responding to these threats.
The Australian government, for instance, recently unearthed a vast trove of information about how China suborns corruption and influences key political actors. While Australia has presumably shared that information with its ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence partners and closest allies, understanding how Beijing subverts democratic political systems would surely benefit fellow democracies across Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Better still, would be greater coordination in responding – whether through naming and shaming, diplomatic penalties or economic sanctions -to authoritarian efforts to subvert democratic processes.
Democracies across the world also have growing experience with authoritarian economic coercion and aggression short of war; they can work together to build resilience and push back against these tactics. Finally, the more the democracies can join forces to support liberalising movements in authoritarian countries, and to pressure democratic governments that are backsliding into authoritarianism, the better they can preserve a global climate in which autocracies are isolated and marginalised. The goal is to build, over time, a common recognition that the world’s democracies truly are in it together, and to develop patterns of cooperation to beat back the authoritarian threat.
There has been some progress already. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or ‘Quad’) initiated in 2007 between the US, Australia, India and Japan is a democratic, multilateral group that is gradually doing more to preserve what the Trump administration calls the “free and open Indo-Pacific”. The UK and France have joined America, Australia, Japan and other Pacific powers in defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The new trade deal between the EU and Japan trade deal is an effort to unite democracies on both sides of Eurasia against authoritarian mercantilism as well as resurgent American protectionism. And as NATO focuses more on nonconventional threats such as cyberattacks and information warfare, there will be opportunities to cooperate with democracies beyond any official alliance.
Of course, these efforts would have greater impact if the world’s foremost democracy did not seem so ambivalent about leading the democratic world. The Trump administration deserves credit for re-energising the Quad and pushing the NATO allies to take the Chinese threat seriously. Yet the president deserves blame not simply for questioning the defence commitments that hold US alliances together, but also for denigrating democratic norms and procedures, fawning over powerful autocrats, and often treating issues of democracy promotion and human rights as mere distractions. The Trump administration calls this “principled realism.” But it’s no way to catalyse the global democratic response that today’s authoritarian challenge demands.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. © 2019, Bloomberg Opinion.