Coronavirus has accelerated the breakdown of democracy right across the world

Divisions between Western nations, and the cracks within them, as well as our fragile global economy, provide fertile ground for autocratic states

Anders Fogh Rasmussen
Friday 19 June 2020 08:15 BST
Government wins vote over plans to allow Huawei to be used in the UK's 5G mobile network

The UK has long been a dependable ally. But over the last five years, British foreign policy has tended towards autopilot, as the EU referendum and its fallout consumed all bandwidth and stymied original thinking in Whitehall.

In recent weeks the UK has begun to change that perception, with its support for Hong Kong, insistence on keeping Russia out of the G7, and its innovative proposal to create a group of leading democracies – the D10 – to add the strength of India, Australia and South Korea to the existing G7 group of industrialised democracies.

Westminster's intention for the D10 is to unite on a specific common interest: the threat posed by Chinese telecoms company Huawei. The democratic states would work together to find alternatives to Chinese providers in building our 5G networks.

It is an excellent idea to start with 5G because this is where the stakes are high. The 5G debate is not merely about whether the Chinese state can spy on our messages. Whoever dominates 5G, artificial intelligence and the next industrial revolution will get to set its norms and standards. If China wins that race, then the next generation’s global rulebook will be written by a Communist dictatorship. Against this backdrop, the UK government is right to reconsider Huawei in any part of the 5G network, a decision that will set an example to many allies.

However, while 5G is a good place for the D10 to start its work, it needs to be more ambitious.

And there is no better time to address the challenge to global democracy. Before Covid-19, the multilateral global system that we built after World War Two was under strain. Countries like Russia tore up the rulebook, while revisionists like China have sought to rewrite it and stack the deck of multilateralism in their favour. And America has been retreating from the world that it created, favouring isolationism in trade and foreign policy.

Covid-19 has accelerated that pace. It has been likened to a war, bringing profound social and political change in its wake. These divisions between Western nations, and the cracks within them, as well as our fragile global economy, provide fertile ground for autocratic states.

Autocratic tactics vary, from direct attacks such as those against Ukraine, to pressuring frontline democracies like Taiwan, spreading divisive fake news, hacking our servers or funding extremists. For China, the weapon of choice is strategic investment, buying a state’s proverbial Crown Jewels so that its government is deferential to Beijing’s bullying.

If this sounds like hyperbole, look at Greece. Shortly after China bought its port, Athens began blocking EU reprimands of Chinese human rights. After Covid-19 the need to prevent a Chinese shopping spree will be palpable.

The alliance of democracies is a concept I’ve promoted for some time to prevent the dismantling of the global democratic order. Without a united democratic front, the bad guys will continue to advance against democratic states. When democracies stand up for each other, the bad guys retreat. This is the lesson of the 1930s and 1940s, which we have been reminded of many times since, from the attacks on the World Trade Centre to the streets of Salisbury.

The D10 alliance would consist of established and aspiring democracies. It would create a global ecosystem for freedom and democratic revival through more open trade, investment, intelligence and data sharing, and direct support for emerging democracies. Furthermore, it could act as a caucus in the world’s multilateral institutions to present a united front against autocrats and dictators in the UN and other global bodies.

The UK is well placed to build this alliance, uniting its experience from the Commonwealth, and as a leading Nato member and UN Security Council veto power. Admittedly, it might have more sway as an EU member state; but pursuing the alliance of democracies offers the UK an opportunity with its EU relations as well. To date, the UK-EU discourse can diverge when it comes to financial services, fisheries and market access. But the UK and EU should also find common ground on the bigger picture of defending our common values.

A recent Democracy Perception Index Poll showed that people still believe in democracy, and want more of it from their governments. This desire for liberty is the strongest force in the world, but that force needs harnessing against advancing autocracies. By building on its D10 proposal, the UK can find a mechanism to unite democratic forces for freedom, and carve out a new niche for its post-Brexit foreign policy.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen was Nato Secretary General from 2009-2014 and Danish prime minister from 2001-2009. He is chairman of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation

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