How to Win Friends and Influence Autocrats: Toward a Democratic Security Initiative
On 11 October, Canada’s Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, made a high-profile call for friend-shoring. Freeland argued that the world’s democracies should come together to reconstruct global supply chains in a manner that is consistent with “our most deeply held principles.” She then went further, arguing for strengthening a much wider array of ties among democratic countries in order to limit their collective vulnerability to autocratic regimes. This expanded concept of friend-shoring would be used to counter a range of challenges, including economic and security competition with China, the weakening of democracy and the rise of autocracy, over-reliance on Russian energy, unreliable supply chains, and economic inequality, all while accelerating the green energy transition. According to Freeland, links with autocratic regimes should be limited, and “in-between” states should be encouraged to embrace the values of this new club of democracies. Her proposal is now being called “the Freeland doctrine.”
Minister Freeland is not alone in calling for deeper cooperation among democracies. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson advocated a “D10” grouping of democracies in 2020. In 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted his first Summit for Democracy, hoping to spur democratic renewal. The concept of a more expansive League or Concert of Democracies has circulated for more than a decade. Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has called for an economic version of NATO’s mutual defense clause. William Nordhaus’ proposed climate club is a greener version of this idea, advocating the imposition of financial penalties on climate free-riders.
Although there has been no shortage of proposals for heightened collaboration among democracies, little consensus has emerged over the institutional form and focus of such a grouping. Membership should be limited to like-minded, democratic countries, Minister Freeland maintains. Autocracies such as Russia and China, need not apply. The institutional scope would follow membership, focusing on the promotion of shared values.
The impulse to close ranks behind democratic lines has undeniable appeal. Yet, building a new club of democracies will be difficult, and risks generating counter-productive forms of polarization. Instead, we propose a Democratic Security Initiative that would take these risks into account and mitigate them, actively reinforcing democratic norms and institutions. Rather than a closed club based on democratic credentials, our proposal involves building bridges to states that are not quite democracies, while at the same time reducing strategic vulnerability. All while keeping lines of communication to autocratic regimes open in order to address global challenges such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.
The Problems with Friend-Shoring
Despite its appeal in the current geopolitical context, there are important risks associated with friend-shoring. By solidifying and institutionalizing the world’s democratic-autocratic divide, friend-shoring can deepen polarization. While a period of geopolitical competition is perhaps inevitable, we are not yet in a new Cold War. Interdependence problems such as climate change and pandemics generate shared interests that are of an entirely different scale than those experienced by the original cold warriors. Links between China and democratic countries are far more pervasive than they were with the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Increased polarization is also dangerous. With the modernization of nuclear arsenals, today’s security environment is less stable than during the latter part of the Cold War. Many of the guardrails used to manage tensions and the negotiating channels put in place to limit the development and use of weapons of mass destruction have been dismantled or are fraying. We should therefore avoid the casual assumption that the world somehow knows how to do Cold Wars and can safely manage great power rivalry. Rather than shoring up friendly states, an overly blunt version of friend-shoring would risk deepening global division and heightening security risks.
It is also unclear through what means friend-shoring might be implemented. Would it rely on carrots or sticks to reorient patterns of trade and investment? If such steps were economically efficient and politically achievable, what prevented states from instituting them already?
A sharpening of the democratic-autocratic divide also leaves less room for expanding ties with what Minister Freeland calls the “in-between countries”: those that are not autocratic, yet not fully democratic. Minister Freeland proposes that these countries should be incentivized to join the exclusive new club by embracing a high standard of democracy. The problem is that doubling down on democracy as the primary dividing line between who is in and who is out of the club does not really serve other interests, such as security or stabilizing the supply chains that friend-shoring is meant to address.
One takeaway from the war in Ukraine has been the hesitancy of many in-between countries — not to mention some major democracies — to condemn Russian aggression. In fact, the unity of the west against Russia has perversely created a situation where some countries, including autocracies such as Saudi Arabia, in-between states like Cuba, major democracies like India, or allies like Turkey, have used the war to increase their international leverage and play both sides. They have done this by buying cheap oil, securing a reduction of debt from Russia, moving into the spaces in oil markets created by sanctions, or, in the case of Turkey, holding-up Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.
Likewise, in leaders’ meetings at the G20 in Bali or the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt, it has been made abundantly clear that in-between countries have little desire to choose between the world’s democracies and China. There is no appetite to join up with either side in a Cold War 2.0. By deepening the geo-political divide, democracies risk driving a wedge between themselves and these countries.
As a result, courting in-between countries is likely to emerge as the key field of competition with autocracies. In his October 2022 speech to the Valdai club, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on these countries to oppose “domination” by the democratic west. China and Russia have, in recent years, expanded their ties in the global south, while democratic governments have failed to respond effectively. In the coming decade, ties outside the small — and shrinking — circle of genuine democracies should be strengthened and reinforced.
Friend-shoring also risks undermining the existing institutional architecture of international cooperation. Indeed, it sits in an uncomfortable and somewhat ambiguous relationship with the existing multilateral system. Minister Freeland’s speech makes only one reference to the World Trade Organization, and it is unclear how her plan can be squared with the principle of non-discrimination that has underpinned global trading relations for more than 70 years. Increased polarization would also have a damaging impact on the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, where liberal democracies need the support of others to shore up the building blocks of international order. Retreating into a closed club of democracies would achieve the opposite.
Toward a Democratic Security Initiative
While there are risks associated with friend-shoring, the global march of autocracy and democratic backsliding do demand a response. We are proposing the establishment of a cooperative forum among countries that commit themselves to the common pursuit of key democratic principles. The Proliferation Security Initiative, established in 2003, serves as a model for this type of arrangement. The initiative, which has evolved considerably since its origins during the “Global War on Terror,” now enables flexible, multi-sectoral cooperation among 107 countries to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. Similarly, the Democratic Security Initiative would be an informal institution, without bureaucracy or legally-binding obligations.
The initiative would bolster pro-democratic forces globally, combatting backsliding and building resilience. Rather than opting for economic instruments, the initiative would rely chiefly on political tools to tackle a chiefly political problem. It would reinforce democratic norms while fostering collaboration, including on capacity building for democracy in partnership with in-between countries. It would provide a platform for sharing best practices for the promotion and protection of democracy against emerging challenges such as disinformation.
Three main features of this proposal are of special importance. First, who is in the club matters. Participation would be defined by openness and inclusivity. The Proliferation Security Initiative provides a model, where participation is determined by unilateral endorsement by governments of a Statement of Interdiction Principles. Countries effectively self-select. Endorsement of a Statement of Democratic Principles setting out group objectives, for instance, could be the chief determinant of participation. The club would be more permeable to the in-between countries, using networked diplomacy to build interest-based coalitions and secure commitments in those areas that matter most to global democracy and security. A core group of democracies would invite and encourage in-between states to join the initiative by endorsing the principles. Those in-between states not yet in a position to sign on to the principles, but still wishing to participate in democracy capacity building, could act as observers. The aim would be to constantly expand and deepen the circle of democracies.
In doing so, this approach would limit polarization: the less stark the criteria for inclusion, the greater the impact. The proposed grouping would be used to build bridges, instead of erecting barriers. Indeed, rather than rewarding democratic excellence, the initiative would bolster countries in the pursuit of democracy. This open posture should not be limited to states. Most conceptions of friend-shoring, including that proposed by Minister Freeland, are highly statist in outlook. Yet, steps should be taken to ensure the inclusion of non-state and sub-national actors that further the aims of any such arrangement.
While such an approach would leave the door open to participation by states whose democratic credentials are currently in question, the possibility of securing commitments that these actors would in the future abide by a Statement of Democratic Principles is a gamble worth taking. As a matter of principle, this door should remain open to all.
Second, existing multilateral efforts should be reinforced. A Democratic Security Initiative would encourage states to bind themselves to established and new norms and commitments to democracy. While several existing fora engage in related work, most would benefit from consolidation within a firmer institutional framework. For example, the first U.S. Summit for Democracy held in December 2021 resulted in 750 commitments and a Year of Action to consolidate democracy. While some momentum has been built, it would be unlikely to survive a change in U.S. administration, since it is so closely tied to President Biden and entirely reliant on U.S. leadership.
Networked diplomacy around democratic commitments would serve as a docking station for collaboration in multilateral fora. Again, the Proliferation Security Initiative provides a model. Counter-proliferation efforts advanced within it support the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540. The initiative would reinforce UN-based activities in areas such as political rights, and the freedom of opinion and association. It could also promote respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These agreements serve as bulwarks against the global march of autocracy. In terms of the international trading regime, democratic collaboration would pursue alignment with World Trade Organization rules and market norms, such as non-discrimination and most favored nation treatment.
Third, what the club is about matters most. Instead of being primarily defined against a subset of international actors, our proposal is calibrated for achieving specific ends. These would be specified within the Statement of Democratic Principles that would define the scope of the initiative. Our proposal seeks to deliberately reinforce democracy at a moment of global need. In contrast, a more expansive, ill-defined application of the friend-shoring concept could be exploited by those with purely protectionist aims. Collaboration on economic security should be limited to what is required to reduce strategic vulnerabilities in areas that negatively impact democracy, such as energy, critical minerals, semiconductors, 5G infrastructure, elections, disinformation, or cyber.
States would focus on alignment on other global issues related to democracy as well. Collaboration on diverse issues, such as climate adaptation, debt relief, and food security, should be considered central to the joint effort since these problems have the potential to serve as impediments to long-term democratization. Such cooperation would be a draw for in-between states.
Clearly defining the scope of this new initiative would allow for what Kevin Rudd calls “managed strategic competition” with autocratic countries such as China and Russia. Here, a clear delineation of areas of difference can serve to crystallize expectations around areas of potential convergence in the minds of both competitors and democratic countries. Just as arms control arrangements and scientific cooperation served as vehicles for advancing détente during the Cold War, global problems can be used as the raw materials for progressively and deliberately improving channels of communication with autocracies. As the world moves deeper into the decisive decade on climate mitigation and faces a stubborn “ambition gap” in greenhouse gas reductions, we believe that this area is especially ripe for collaboration. A more expansive, ill-defined version of friend-shoring would bring less clarity and, potentially, contribute to the further expansion of areas of competition. By reinforcing multilateral cooperation, moreover, our proposed initiative also provides an institutional basis for such collaboration.
The need to counter growing autocracy poses real challenges for the international system and for the world’s beleaguered democracies. Yet giving in to a paradigm of zero-sum competition creates major risks. Our proposal would take these risks into account, opening the way to a more open, globally-engaged international posture. Such openness plays into the hand of democracies and tackles the most significant interdependence problems facing the international system.
Kerry Buck was Canada’s ambassador to NATO from 2015 to 2018. Prior to that, she held senior positions in the Canadian foreign ministry responsible for international security, the G7, Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America, and the Middle East.
Michael W. Manulak is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is author of “Change in Global Environmental Politics,” published in 2022 by Cambridge University Press. From 2015 until 2019, he served in Canada’s Department of National Defence, representing the government within the Proliferation Security Initiative and other non-proliferation fora.