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Liberal Democracies Deserve a League of Our Own

The idea of an organization of representative, rule-of-law states has never been more appealing.
October 11, 2021
Liberal Democracies Deserve a League of Our Own
South Koreans wave U.S. and South Korea flags during a rally to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN foundation in front of City Hall on October 24, 2005 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The last time the United States entered a great power competition was 1947. The geographic divide between the West and the East was obvious, and so was the threat the Soviet Union posed to the West. But as the country enters a new era of great-power competition, the old dichotomy doesn’t apply—to the extent it ever really did. The new contest pits liberals against autocrats on every continent.

One of the most embattled outposts of liberalism, if not of the “Western” sort, is shouting distance from the Asian landmass. Taiwan happens to be one of the most threatened states in the world. Other countries facing existential threats are also members of the formerly Eastern bloc, namely the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Some of these “Eastern” countries now practice “Western” liberalism much better than many of their European friends.

This new era calls not just for new strategies and new ideas, but new institutions. The European Union, NATO, and America’s bilateral (not multilateral) alliances in the Indo-Pacific are insufficient to address a diffused global threat. The United Nations has been useful in non-security related areas, and the United States must continue to invest in it, but the U.N. Security Council is a failure, and the U.N. Human Rights Council, whose members include China, Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, and Venezuela, is embarrassing. The organization that was meant to legitimize U.S. foreign policy and preserve global peace has become an obstacle against freedom and an enabler of totalitarianism and genocide.

But it might be useful to take a step back to see whether a new institution could mitigate these problems—a new alliance that only includes liberals.

Globalization has, for the most part, been good for democracy, the rule of law, and economic growth. Ideas take mere moments to cross the globe. This interconnectedness has allowed for movements and trends to rise and fall simultaneously around the world, especially the liberal world. Black Lives Matter protests started in Minneapolis and traveled to London and Rome. Counter-disinformation campaigns are coordinated every day from Taipei to Washington, and from Tallinn to Paris.

But globalization has also been a boon for strongmen. Right-wing populism’s revival in America began in 2010 with the Tea Party and in Europe with Orbánism the same year. Following the example set by Donald Trump, embattled Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has rallied supporters against institutions trying to protect Brazilian democracy from his personal control. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric upon being ousted from office was indistinguishable from Trump’s.

Many of the world’s creeping authoritarians imitate—and often receive support from—the world’s twin champions of unfreedom, China and Russia. Those two countries are also deepening their economic and security ties, as well as those with Iran and other revisionist states. America does not have the luxury of picking the adversary it wants to defeat. The adversary is mad tyrants. They exist in several countries, but the potential for tyranny exists everywhere, and tyrants who already exist abet each other. The success of autocrats in one country emboldens them all, and focusing on one is a distraction from their common threat to the liberal order. They aren’t merely discrete hostile powers, but an axis of revisionists.

At a time when autocrats are deepening their cooperation against the liberal world order, is there any logical response other than forming a worldwide liberal bloc? Such an idea is not at all new. John McCain called it the “League of Democracies.” President Biden’s upcoming Democracy Summit is a good first step in this direction.

Alliance management has become more difficult for the United States since the end of the Cold War. America’s national security community is itself divided over what resources to allocate to the different threats it faces. The divide, understandably, also appears between America’s European and Asian allies. And even then, Europe is divided between those who are more threatened by Russia, and those who prefer more investment in the Indo-Pacific.

Viewed individually, these differences make sense, as different countries have different interests. The Israelis have been accommodating to both China and Russia because their immediate threat comes from Tehran. Many European countries, as well as the European Union, are unwilling to join the U.S.-led anti-China alliance without assurances regarding the threat from Russia—an assurance the administration is not extending to them. Perhaps the cloud that looms largest in U.S.-India relations—the two largest members of the Quad—is India’s arms purchase from Russia.

A League of Democracies will make alliance management easier for the United State by synchronizing and harmonizing in the interests of different U.S. allies. The struggle for the Biden administration so far has been choosing which allies to placate and which to anger. They chose the Germans over the Ukrainians on Nord Stream II and then the Aussies over the French on AUKUS. A liberal bloc will not end the headache that is alliance management, but it will mitigate it. Participation in an alliance of countries which together constitute more than half of the world’s GDP will require not furthering ties with totalitarians, so commercial incentives will change. Difficult foreign policy decisions will also be more legitimate before these countries’ voters because they are both aligned with the new economic incentives and have the weight of a moral international organization behind them. A liberal league will create new lines of communications among America’s allies. More communications means more headaches, to be sure, but it minimizes the opportunity for the worst diplomatic mistake: keeping an ally in the dark.

An organization of liberal democracies will create tactical headaches for U.S. diplomats to be sure. It will be difficult to convince Germany and Japan, the United Kingdom and France, and South Korea and Japan to align on any given issue. But it will provide a strategic advantage. It will encourage a mutual disengagement from the enemies of freedom and thereby disempower them. It will encourage partnership and mutual support among the free countries of the world, giving each options for support instead of Russia and China. It will also create mechanisms to combat transnational crime, strategic corruption, and disinformation, free from obstacles the enemies of freedom create in a forum like the U.N.

Perhaps most importantly, it will encourage liberalism by rewarding it. The United States has been perhaps unable, but certainly unwilling, to arrest the backsliding of allies like Poland, India, and Georgia into authoritarianism. In addition to the potential of such an organization’s pressure on these countries to reverse course, the punishment of exclusion and reward of inclusion alone will be an incentive to maintain democratic standards.

The moment for the League of Democracies has arrived. But such an organization, like any, needs leadership to emerge and to endure. Only the United States, with its economic power and military might, could bring them together. It is true that such an organization, like any international organization, will cause a lot of trouble. But the defense of democracy is worth it.

Biden promised to restore the spirit of democracy. This is how he can do it.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.