Democracy is more prominent on the emerging transatlantic agenda than it was with previous incoming U.S. presidential administrations. This is because U.S. President Joe Biden has proposed holding a summit for democracy; it is also a reflection of the threats to democracy that have accumulated in recent years. Over the last year, many proposals have surfaced for different groupings or alliances of democracies, and such notions are likely to figure prominently in deliberations between the European Union (EU) and the United States in forthcoming months. However, if support for democracy is to form a part of the transatlantic agenda, both Brussels and Washington need to be cautious, be practical, and rethink existing approaches to democracy coalitions.
Democracy Support Unwound
Although democracy is supposedly a core pillar of the transatlantic relationship, in practice this component of EU-U.S. relations has withered over the last decade. The quality of democracy has worsened in both the United States and many parts of Europe. And the two actors’ cooperation on supporting democratic values around the world has receded to an unprecedented minimum.
It is well known that former U.S. president Donald Trump reached out to autocratic regimes with offers of strategic cooperation. Thanks to Congress, the core U.S. agencies and organizations of democracy assistance continued to enjoy relatively high levels of funding. In a small number of cases, like Cuba, Hong Kong, and Venezuela, the Trump administration adopted an assertive focus on democratic rights for instrumental strategic or ideological reasons. Still, in general, EU democracy-support actors have plowed a lonelier furrow as the traditional U.S. lead role in this area of policy has slipped disconcertingly away.
Yet, the state of play in the EU’s democracy policies is not especially stellar, either. As Trump was such startlingly bad news for liberal democracy, the less dramatic weaknesses in European commitments to global democracy have been subjected to less critical scrutiny in recent years. To seize the new moment of opportunity, the EU will need to upgrade its own approach to democracy support, not merely celebrate Trump’s defenestration.
When the EU and the United States have managed to maintain cooperation in recent years, it has most often been on certain order- or security-related aims, such as sanctions against Russia, and not on issues related to democratic values. Ritual talk of the transatlantic relationship being the key underpinning to international democracy has increasingly rung hollow, bereft of much tangible substance. The alliance may have functioned on a select number of strategic issues, but it has not really worked as a democratic alliance—that is, a partnership dedicated to protect and enhance pluralistic, liberal politics in operational ways.
A New Era of Democracy Protection?
Biden’s promise to hold a democracy summit has engendered much talk about his returning the United States to being a fully committed and principled supporter of democracy. In its recently published EU-U.S. agenda for global change, the EU commits to support this initiative and calls for transatlantic cooperation to fight authoritarianism.1
But even under the Biden administration, the United States cannot go back to leading the democracy agenda as many assumed it did before. It has neither the moral standing nor the same strategic heft as it did in previous decades to make a positive difference in favor of democracy around the world. International democracy support cannot continue as before given the way that U.S. democracy has misfired in recent years and was placed under such severe strain during the 2020 presidential election and the astonishing assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The point is often made now that supporting democracy cannot be an agenda advanced solely—or even primarily—by the transatlantic powers. Stronger coordination will be needed not only between the United States and the EU but also with other leading democracies if the global authoritarian surge is to be held in check. The EU needs to work with other democracies and show commitment with them, and then the United States can decide whether it wishes to join a wider and more credible multilateral approach to democracy.
While the EU has promised to support Biden’s summit, the union should focus far more on trying to bring to life a different architecture of democracy support that does not revolve so closely around the United States. This would indirectly provide a bridge to ease Washington’s own move into a new context of international democracy support. The United States could then more easily dock back onto the democracy agenda if it so chooses.
It cannot be stressed too much just how deeply the coronavirus pandemic has altered the balance between Western and other democracies. European and U.S. mismanagement of the pandemic has given much-better-performing Asian democracies a burgeoning confidence that they now stand as democracy’s exemplars. The likes of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan still face serious COVID-19-related problems but will feel that they are better positioned to be democracy’s global ambassadors in the post-coronavirus world than the United States or harshly battered European states. Global coordination on democracy should leave far greater space for these and other non-Western democracies to set the agenda. While this suggestion has been made on and off for a decade and is by now relatively uncontroversial, little has been done in concrete terms to take it forward, and most initiatives still come with a Western-set agenda.
Cooperation, Not a League
Crucially, a renewed focus on global democracy should not take the form of a transatlantic-led league or alliance of democracies. This idea is a hoary chestnut, periodically raised in the last two decades. That Biden’s plans and other proposals forwarded over the last year have revived such notions is unhelpful. Skeptics seize on the obvious risks and practical difficulties with the idea of a League of Democracies—like how to decide which states are included—to discredit the whole notion of coordinated international democracy support.
Rather, the focus should be on more case-by-case and practical coordination among a wider range and larger number of democracies on issues specifically related to democratic values. The problem in recent years has not been the lack of a formal alliance of democracies but the lack of political will on both sides of the Atlantic to strengthen such on-the-ground democracy support.
This undramatic practical focus would help redress a current distortion in thinking about democratic coordination. Calls and ideas abound when it comes to cooperation among democracies, but these rarely relate to cooperation about democracy as an end goal. Although nominally linked by their shared belief in open politics, groups of democracies do not work together in an operational sense on democracy itself—either to revive their own flagging political systems or to help democratic reformers in other parts of the world.
Several groupings of democracies have been mooted in relation to fifth-generation (5G) technology and other tech issues. The Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism does not deal with democracy—but only obliquely includes some activities on disinformation—and involves few democracies beyond the core West. The EU has struck new strategic partnerships with the likes of India and Japan in recent years, but these are security focused and have not advanced any practical cooperation on democracy support.
Biden’s proposed gathering of democracies does refer to the need to stand up for democracy where it is threatened. It is not clear, however, what, if any, operational democracy-support measures are likely to be forthcoming. For now, the new president’s main focus has been on getting democracies to bind together against China and other perceived threats to the Western-led liberal order, not on the day-to-day minutiae of democracy assistance as such. Similarly, the EU-U.S. agenda for global change covers security and technology cooperation in depth while calling for coordination on democracy only in brief, generic terms without any operational proposals.
At present, most suggestions are almost precisely the wrong way around: exclusive clubs of democracies, pushed by the United States or European countries, that work on security rather than democracy—as opposed to the much better route of low-key cooperation more tightly focused on democracy itself and shaped by the many ideas and efforts emerging outside the transatlantic community.
There is much consensus on the need to protect democracy, but much devil lies in the detail of what this injunction means in practice. Its proponents use the phrase in different ways. For some, it is about safeguarding Western democracy from outside threats. For others, it denotes democracies going on the offensive to push back against Chinese and Russian strategic influence—although in this endeavor, neither the United States nor the EU is likely to limit itself to working only with democratic partners. However, protecting democracy primarily needs a practical, operational focus on democracy itself: supporting democratic reformers around the world and devising better tactics to incentivize reformist dynamics.
There are, of course, many other urgent priorities for EU-U.S. cooperation. But in core ideational terms, the transatlantic alliance was always deemed to be—and framed as—an alliance of democracies for democracy. It has quite clearly failed to live up to that gleaming city-on-the-hill claim in the last several years. Rather than searching for lost times, the EU needs to nudge the international architecture of democracy into a new age and offer that as an incentive for the post-Trump United States to rejoin a liberal international project.
1 “Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council: A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change,” European Commission, December 2, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/joint-communication-eu-us-agenda_en.pdf.