The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
Among the most glaring failures of the COVID-19 era has been the near total absence of effective international coordination to fight the novel coronavirus. The UN Security Council has been unable to muster anything beyond symbolic action, the World Health Organization has lost the support of the United States, and the G-20 has limited its economic response to temporarily suspending poor countries’ debt repayment obligations. But even before the coronavirus pandemic, the multilateral system that the United States helped build after World War II was struggling to solve the world’s most pressing problems. COVID-19 revealed that the emperor has no clothes—but in truth the emperor has been scantily clad for some time.
As the world’s economic center of gravity has shifted toward the Indo-Pacific, it has become impossible for institutions with global ambitions to credibly claim to lead without meaningful representation from that region. But the G-7, which emerged in the aftermath of the 1973 oil shock, still has just one member—Japan—outside the Euro-Atlantic. And the G-20, which was formed after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and showed value during the 2008 global financial meltdown, has proved too disparate in political outlook and capability to reliably solve international problems. The UN Security Council, meanwhile, has been hobbled by the resurgence of aggressive authoritarianism in China and Russia.
The world desperately needs a new institution that is both global in reach and unified in vision. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Donald Trump—both unlikely avatars of institutional innovation—have put forward proposals for such a body. And while Trump’s would set back multilateralism even further, Johnson’s holds real promise.
Johnson was the first to table an idea for a new institution. In May, he proposed forging an alliance of ten leading democracies—consisting of the G-7 countries plus Australia, India, and South Korea and dubbed the “D10”—to coordinate telecom policy and develop an alternative to China’s market leader Huawei, whose dominance in 5G technology has created widespread security concerns. Shortly thereafter, Trump canceled a G-7 meeting that was scheduled to take place in June and suggested a “G-11” summit in the fall instead. One-upping Johnson’s proposal, Trump’s new grouping would comprise the same countries as the D10 but also include Russia.
In making his announcement, Trump dismissed the G-7 as “outdated”—and on that charge, he was correct. But a G-11 is the wrong remedy. The most consequential action that the G-7 took in the last decade was to expel Russia after it annexed Crimea in 2014. Reversing that decision would do nothing to revive effective multilateralism.
The most charitable reading of Trump’s proposal is that bringing Russia into the fold could drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow—a variation on “Nixon goes to China” in a world increasingly concerned by China’s assertive behavior. As Trump has made clear, a major focus of his reelection campaign will be scapegoating China for his own failure to contain COVID-19 in the United States. Trump may see bringing together all of the world’s major powers except China into a single club as a good way to isolate Beijing.
Trump dismissed the G-7 as “outdated”—and on that charge, he was correct. But a G-11 is the wrong remedy.
But Moscow is unlikely to align itself in any meaningful way with Washington against Beijing. And even if it did, a G-11 grouping would be unwise. The plan’s fundamental flaw is that it defines U.S. goals as essentially negative—pitting the United States against China without saying what the United States is for. Claims that such an alliance favors freedom, or democracy, or human rights, would be undercut by the inclusion of Russia, which opposes all three. How could a club premised on excusing Russia for swallowing Crimea then turn around and condemn Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong? It is little wonder that Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom have all said they would veto any attempt to readmit Russia into the G-7.
As the other members of the G-7 have rallied in opposition to Trump’s plan, the U.S. administration has grasped at straws for an alternative formulation. Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he called for a Cold War–style ideological struggle against China. “Maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies,” he said without detailing any specifics. Whether Pompeo’s vague proposal differs from Trump’s G-11 is unclear. But the context of Pompeo’s speech—and Trump’s embrace of authoritarians abroad and antidemocratic tendencies at home—makes plain that the U.S. administration’s vision for such a body remains the same: nothing more than an anti-China bloc, with no unifying positive agenda.
By contrast, Johnson’s D10 is just the type of body the world needs: a group of capable, committed, and cohesive democracies that could muster political will and real resources. It takes the historic strengths of the G-7 and expands them by bringing in the most internationally minded major democracies in Asia. South Korea has led the world in COVID-19 containment and burnished its soft power by helping the rest of the world fight the virus. Australia has established itself as an influential “middle power” and recently adopted an ambitious new defense strategy. And India is Asia’s other emerging giant, and after its recent clash with China high in the Himalayas, it may elect to pursue closer ties with the United States.
Although the D10 has never met at the leader level, the Atlantic Council has since 2014 convened so-called Track 1.5 dialogues between analysts and policymakers from D10 countries, including members of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff, on which we both served during the administration of President Barack Obama. These conversations focused on big-picture issues and did not attempt to reach decisions on discrete policy matters. But the broad goals the participants articulated were strikingly aligned—from defending democratic societies against Chinese and Russian revanchism, to preserving an open and secure Internet, to investing in green infrastructure. A formalized D10 that combined this harmony—the most precious resource in international cooperation—with the means of relatively wealthy, capable states could act much more effectively on the world stage than any existing institution.
Johnson’s D10 is just the type of body the world needs.
A foreign policy of negation, by contrast, is doomed to fail. The United States may oppose the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but it will struggle to convince other countries to do likewise unless it proposes compelling alternatives. Washington can’t beat something with nothing. It needs to put forward an affirmative vision of what it stands for and make clear the benefits of aligning with the United States. The D10 can be the conduit for a positive agenda that reinvigorates U.S. leadership and multilateral cooperation.
An apparent irony of the great period of institution building after World War II is that the organization with the loftiest ambitions—the United Nations—ended up producing less impactful international cooperation than did narrowly tailored institutions such as NATO and the European Coal and Steel Community (the predecessor to the European Union). But this outcome should have been foreseeable: the larger the organization and the more varied its membership, the harder it is for its constituents to agree on policy. The most successful multilateral institutions have turned out to be those that are composed of like-minded countries and that focus (at least initially) on urgent and tangible projects.
The D10 fulfills both of these criteria. It would consist of ten democracies and take on a narrowly defined yet highly significant endeavor: jointly developing 5G networks that don’t rely on Chinese technology. This project would benefit all D10 countries, but none could accomplish it alone. It requires extensive intergovernmental cooperation, financial investment, and policy ingenuity. If the ten countries can execute this project successfully together, the institution through which they have done so could easily evolve to address a broader and more ambitious agenda.
For the D10 to achieve this promise, it will need to facilitate cooperation while still offering individual leaders room to maneuver. To that end, each member government should assign a small number of civil servants and diplomats to serve as the D10’s secretariat. These officials can ensure that the organization is consistently making progress while staying in sync with home capitals. When the leaders of the D10 countries convene—probably just once a year as a matter of course but more frequently in times of emergency—they should focus on the most difficult decisions. If they can’t come to an agreement on a particular action, a majority of D10 countries should be empowered to proceed without imposing binding obligations on dissenters.
This project would benefit all D10 countries, but none could accomplish it alone.
Such a structure would enable the D10 to tackle an expansive array of projects. In the security realm, the D10 could coordinate the enforcement of norms, such as freedom of navigation, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. It could establish collective defense frameworks against cyberattacks and other nonmilitary threats—for instance, members could agree on joint economic and political consequences that they would impose on any country that interferes in one of their democratic elections. The D10 would also be a natural forum for coordinating multilateral sanctions and setting and policing behavioral standards in cyberspace.
The D10 has similar potential in the economic realm. The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a devastating economic crisis likely to exacerbate poverty and inequality worldwide. The D10 could chart a path out of this abyss by helping to address wealth and income disparities within countries while also making supply chains more resilient. Many domestic economic problems that democratic societies face actually stem from features of the global economy: D10 members could help rectify them by working together to crack down on tax havens, illicit finance, and other kleptocratic practices that fuel inequality. They could also design alternative supply chains for critical products—such as pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, computer chips, and aircraft parts—that can come online rapidly in times of crisis.
Climate change, too, would be susceptible to concerted action on the part of the D10. The Yale University economist William Nordhaus has proposed a climate club in which countries would set an international target carbon price, enforced by uniform tariffs on countries whose carbon prices fall short. While such a club would be most effective if its reach was global, its best chance of getting started might be in the D10. Over time, the members of the D10 could invite other countries to join the climate club—and potentially even wield powerful “green sanctions” against corporations that undercut its efforts.
To ensure that its members continue to lead the world in science and technology, the D10 could pool resources to finance and develop cutting-edge innovations. Many of the technologies likely to play central roles in the twenty-first century, such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence, will require enormous research-and-development expenditures, data sets, and technical talent. The D10 countries can jointly fund projects, combining their resources to increase the likelihood that democracies will set the standards for these new technologies. Similar cooperation could help the D10 prepare for the next pandemic—for instance, by drawing lessons from COVID-19 in order to establish processes that accelerate clinical trials for lifesaving therapies and make pharmaceuticals easier to produce and distribute at scale in an emergency.
With the world teetering on the brink of disorder, effective multilateral cooperation is more necessary than ever yet feels further than ever from reach. The only way out of this cul-de-sac is to build a new road on which leading democracies can come together to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. The D10 can serve this purpose. It is no panacea but rather a pathway to the type of international cooperation that the world desperately needs.
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