Is an Alliance of Democracies a Good Idea?

Updated: Mar 8


By Terence O'Brien


Bit by bit the outline of President Biden’s foreign policy is emerging, although much more is yet to come. One big idea is for a summit of democracies to confront ascendant authoritarian states in the world - most notably China. The British have voiced similar ideas. It is not clear which countries would actually figure on any invitation list for the summit. But there are certain considerations that should nonetheless influence New Zealand’s attitude.



For both China and the US foreign policy inevitably begins at home. China’s intractable domestic approach towards its Uighur minority, to its jurisdiction over Hong Kong, to curbs on individual freedoms combine to deny Beijing the international respect which its phenomenal progress over the last fifty years might otherwise be expected to reinforce. President Xi has after all asserted China will work to uphold the international system, and its involvement internationally with collective action to grapple with climate change, pollution, sustainable development, pandemics, arms control, propitious management of cyber space and much else, is indispensable, given the extent of China’s global economic influence. It is a central New Zealand interest that China plays a full and constructive part.


Likewise domestically in the US, systemic racial injustice in respect to black and indigenous communities, widening economic and social inequality, deep ideological discord within political life, severe mishandling of COVID 19 and its consequences, combine at this time, to diminish America’s reputation. Biden has rightly described US democracy as ‘fragile’. In several respects the provisions within the 200 year old US Constitution, such as the electoral college, appear not fit for purpose in a modern democracy. Moreover the pervasive influence of big money on American politics, is graphically illustrated by the astronomical $US14 billion spent on the 2020 elections.


There is of course relief in the world, including New Zealand, over the departure of President Donald Trump whose legacy may still outlive his feckless tenure which alarmed foreign governments and confounded traditional claims of American ‘exceptionalism’ and moral superiority. The point here is not to assert moral equivalence between the US and China. Yet the sense of widespread relief requires considered and objective judgement nonetheless about ideas like ‘a summit of democracies.’ On the face of it there is a strong, or stronger, case for concentration upon collective reform of existing multilateral institution to meet vital 21st century threats. That is of course, far easier said than done. But for smaller and conscientious world player like New Zealand, it is surely a preferable approach to one that is divisive in its character and intent.


The appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister confirms the Ardern government’s wager on soft power in international affairs in a time of complex great power rivalry. Mahuta has promised to bring an indigenous perspective to global affairs, but what that means in actual practice remains to be seen. New Zealand possesses the necessary soft power credentials to support an independent foreign policy and each country must of course define its national interest for itself. If after mature reflection, New Zealand, comes to a different conclusion from those of some partners about how best to foster its interests internationally, including with China, that is par for the course. Taking sides at this juncture as between the US and China should be avoided. If New Zealand judges however that involvement, if asked, with a US ‘summit of democracies’ is expedient, then a clear statement to the effect that as far as New Zealand is concerned this is not an anti China decision, would be evenhanded and judicious.

For over 50 years New Zealand has striven unobtrusively to cultivate political understanding in Beijing from which its external trade interests would benefit (a process beginning incidentally as perverse agricultural protectionism gripped North America and Europe). The result today is an epic David-Goliath relationship, the management of which requires meticulous care and precaution on New Zealand’s part. China is an intensely realist power. Sentimentality has no place in its international vocabulary. A viable relationship with a small unthreatening western democracy has nonetheless perhaps some value as a demonstration of modern Chinese diplomatic versatility. For New Zealand the dispositions of those neighbouring Asian countries that have variously lived, endured and prospered in China’s great shadow for centuries should also be influencing New Zealand perceptions. One geopolitical lesson from COVID 19 indeed points New Zealand rather in the direction of Asia than Europe and North America.


Terence O’Brien is a former New Zealand Diplomat and Senior Fellow & Founding Director, at VUW Centre for Strategic Studies.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.

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