Pivot to Democracy: The Real Promise of the Quad


Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a special series published in collaboration with the Raisina Dialogue, which kicks off on Jan. 8 in New Delhi. Read the intro to the series here.

One year ago, the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi delivered the most iconic image to date of the “Quad”: admirals from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States on one stage. The four admirals — the Australian and Indian naval chiefs, the head of then-U.S. PACOM (renamed as INDOPACOM in May 2018), and the head of Japan’s joint staff — stood shoulder-to-shoulder soon after the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy call for renewed quadrilateral cooperation, and just weeks after the first Quad gathering since 2007. The image of four militaries in concert, as it were, took on outsized symbolism by showing the potential of four great democracies to secure the Indo-Pacific.

A flurry of articles highlighting the military potential the Quad represents followed. Given its less-than-alliance-level formation, however, and some of its members’ various hesitancies about regular military activities involving all four, a maritime and military-heavy emphasis may well be a vision too freighted with outsized expectations. More importantly, by over-militarizing the idea of the Quad, and limiting its scope to maritime security, analysts and policymakers will miss a strategic opportunity to focus on protecting what binds these four countries together in the first place: democracy. A broader agenda encompassing the range of civilian security and technology issues now coming to the fore will better fulfill the Quad’s promise.

That agenda should continue to include counterterrorism, and also work to counter violent extremism more broadly. It should also include cooperation on questions of emerging technology, as next-generation developments like 5G and autonomous vehicles present new potential threats to privacy and security. A civilian security Quad agenda should also take up — in dialogue with the tech sector — the malign ways once-utopian social media platforms can be used as vectors for hate, recognizing that better information about how bad actors have exploited such platforms in open democracies can help lead to better solutions. Finally, against a backdrop of state-sponsored influence operations and shadowy election meddling, the Quad countries should talk as well about this threat and share approaches on how to secure ourselves against it.

Emphasizing these urgent civilian security concerns should be a natural focus for the Quad in any case. For one, the Quad isn’t even called the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” anymore, according to the terms all four countries now use to discuss it. In fact, it is a consultation led by senior foreign ministry, not defense, officials. This broader framework does not preclude participation by defense officials, but it does allow for cooperation on a wider set of topics — and recent years have underscored how vulnerable open societies and economies can be. So the Quad countries should continue to care about upholding freedom of navigation and a rules-based international order. But they should also care equally about applying this order to emerging domestic security matters like ensuring that the openness of our societies, and the technologies we use, cannot be used to subvert them.

A focus on countering violent extremism and deeper coordination on counterterrorism on the homefront should be a top priority. Counterterrorism is already among the issues discussed in recent Quad consultations; the four countries should expand the agenda and make explicit the importance of deeper coordination on law enforcement and the specific challenges facing megacities as targets. An elevated emphasis on countering violent extremism, a pursuit that requires a community focus and awareness of how terrorists recruit online, should be as important. It goes without saying that such a focus will require deepening city-to-city best practices sharing, too — a form of diplomacy that continues to grow.

It will also be important to develop a track focused on emerging technologies, data, and security. The internet/digital economy has introduced new questions for regional and global governance, and ongoing diplomatic consultations on cyber issues have covered these. But take the issue of 5G mobile technology as an example: The United States, Australia, and now Japan have decided for information security — national security — reasons to prohibit Chinese 5G equipment from their domestic infrastructure. What about the rapid roll-out of electric vehicles in China, and the fact that the Chinese government requires data collection from these vehicles? Would electric vehicles sold outside the country send back vehicle data to the Chinese government? And where is the line between vehicle performance data and personal data, which leads to questions of surveillance? The same question could arise for the eventual global market for autonomous vehicles. These are just two examples that raise national security questions about consumer products, user data, and its applications.

In the world of social media, revelations continue to emerge about coordinated Russian efforts to exploit American social media users in order to shape political perceptions. Rising political polarization, the pace of viral information sharing, and users who do not stop to check the veracity of information: In the new social media world, “fake news” can shape real elections, and viral forwards have led to real-life violence. Subversion of the democratic process and exacerbation of social divisions represent a new front for democratic institutions, and major democracies must share information about the problem with each other as well as with the platforms themselves. The United States and India — the two largest open internet economies in the world — have had particular challenges on this front in recent years. With the growing concerns about how porous open democratic processes can be, analysis of the exploitation of social media should be a subject of consultation as important as longstanding cyber consultations on critical infrastructure protection. Work already underway through transatlantic projects like the Alliance for Securing Democracy and others suggests an extensive agenda that all four Indo-Pacific countries could pursue, such as through documentation on how such platforms have been exploited. This arena would benefit from a “Track 1.5” approach involving dialogue with think tanks and the private sector.

Finally, as has been highlighted most saliently in Australia recently, concerns about foreign influence operations extending beyond the social media space should be part of a Quad agenda focused on democracy, too. This would encompass non-transparent, more coercive influence operations, including economic, recently termedsharp power.” Direct Chinese influence operations in the electoral politics of Australia spurred lawmakers to action with new “foreign interference” legislation. In the United States, Congress, the media, and think tanks are paying increasing attention to this issue; the Hoover Institution just released a report calling for “constructive vigilance.” This should be an agenda item focused on the balance of maintaining openness and welcoming trade, commerce, and legal immigration, while preventing the misuse of our societies for coercive ends.

The Quad countries have an opportunity at this moment to find their purpose as a consultation of open democracies, and stake out an important civilian security agenda. The Quad should develop its own priority list for how best to elevate democracy and civilian security in its own consultative agenda, recognizing that some subjects may be more “ripe” for coordination at any given time than others. Doing so will send a strong message about its priority to the health of our societies and our democratic political systems. A pivot to focus on democracy would advance the real promise of the Quad.


Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World, named an FT Summer Politics book of 2018.

Image: U.S. State Department