A New US–UK Democratic Agenda Could Be on the Horizon

The election of Joe Biden may confront the UK government with significant risks but, on defending democracy, there is an immediate opportunity.

Expert comment Published 12 November 2020 Updated 4 December 2020 3 minute READ

The UK government will have to work hard to insert itself into the Biden team’s plans for a renewed transatlantic partnership as many of the new US administration’s priorities, such as sanctions towards Russia, trade relations with China, taxation, and regulation of US technology companies will be US–EU negotiations with the UK excluded.

A US–UK trade deal also now appears less likely in the near term, and any failure to reach a compromise with the EU on the status of Northern Ireland could have severe repercussions for relations with the US, given the warnings from the president-elect.

But opportunities certainly exist, as both governments want to see a successful climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, both want to bring Iran back into a negotiation over its nuclear programme, and both want to strengthen NATO especially in cybersecurity where the UK is a world leader.

And there is one area where – rhetorically at least – the Boris Johnson government appears to be uniquely well-aligned with a top priority for the incoming Biden administration.

Prioritizing the defence of democracy

Defending democracy has long been a clarion call from the US president-elect. In his speech to Chatham House in October 2018, Biden argued that the world ‘is at an inflection point – we have to prove that our democratic model can deliver, at home and abroad – and the transatlantic community must rally together to counter the authoritarian alternative’.

During his presidential campaign, Biden committed to host a Summit for Democracy in his first year in office, with the aim of participating governments pledging to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism and the spread of the surveillance state, and advance human rights in their own countries as well as abroad.

For their part, Johnson and his foreign secretary Dominic Raab have also made protecting democracy – along with human rights and the international rule of law – one of the top priorities for the UK government. And have backed up this rhetoric with concrete steps.

After the Chinese government imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong, the UK government offered a pathway to citizenship to 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for British National Overseas passports and cancelled the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

The government also inserted the so-called ‘Magnitsky provisions’ into the new UK Sanctions Act, immediately subjecting 49 individuals from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea to targeted sanctions. And the UK was one of the first to sanction officials in the Belarus government over the suppression of democracy campaigners following the disputed elections.

These steps can now serve as the foundation for a more modern, 21st century ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US – but to do so the government needs to help embed the protection of democratic values within a more institutional approach, and the UK’s chairmanship of the G7 group of democracies in 2021 can help with this.

Focus on the Summit for Democracy

Johnson said he will take this opportunity to galvanize a more cooperative international response to the pandemic and has also called for an expansion of the G7 to a ‘Democratic 10’ or ‘D10’ group of countries by bringing in Australia, India and South Korea.

His stated goal for this new group is to develop 5G technologies to prevent China dominating this critical element of 21st century digital infrastructure, but so far his proposal reads more like a public relations exercise than a carefully thought through initiative.

The proposal suffers by having a too narrow focus, bringing this new group together only on 5G cooperation, when the internal and external challenges to liberal democracies around the world are so much more far-reaching. And why then enlarge just to these three democracies, when only South Korea brings world-class 5G capabilities to the table?

Consideration should be given to other democracies in Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia, as inviting at least one from each region would give an expanded G7 much more relevance and credibility, especially as these are the regions where Chinese influence is increasing most rapidly.

There is also the challenge of integrating an idiosyncratic India into the intimate grouping envisaged as the D10, as India has a long record of avoiding being corralled into the ‘Western’ camp. Even the China issue might not be enough to change its habits, especially at a time when the Modi government is being criticized for its approach to its Muslim population and has chosen not to criticize China for repression of its own Muslim Uighur population.

Rather than launching the D10, the UK would do better to use its G7 chairmanship as a prelude to the US-led Summit for Democracy which promises to be more geographically inclusive, and gives Britain the opportunity to open conversations under its G7 presidency with a more diverse list of democracies than the current D10 proposal.

Biden’s summit also rightly promises to concentrate on the serious challenges democracies face at home. Britain could help define this agenda and host planning meetings between the NGOs and US tech giants that the Biden plan suggests bringing together as part of the process. Otherwise, Biden’s summit may prove to be a recipe for contentious debate rather than action.

At the very least, synchronizing US and British plans as soon as possible would avoid the risk of the two governments launching overlapping initiatives during 2021.

But if they can go further and integrate their democracy agendas around meaningful steps, the US and UK would show their special relationship reaches beyond the practical realms of military, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation. Instead, the pair would be working together again, as they did in the 1940s, to bring about the sort of liberal democratic world order that both countries want to see.