The first task of democracies is to put their own house in order

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Last year’s G7 summit of leading industrialised democracies was planned to be held at Camp David in Maryland, but the pandemic forced its cancellation. As a result, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK were denied the pleasure of chewing the geopolitical fat with Donald Trump, who as the then serving US president would have hosted the event. One looks in vain for evidence that either Trump or the other six leaders regretted the missed occasion.

The setting for this year’s G7 summit is the English county of Cornwall, and the signs are that the June event will take place in a much-improved atmosphere. This is almost entirely down to the speed with which President Joe Biden has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to allies around the world and reversed Trump’s withdrawal of the US from key international agreements and institutions. As Biden told last month’s Munich security conference: “America is back.”

The relief in other G7 capitals at the US return to multilateralism is palpable. But the resumption of G7 summits — which have included EU representatives since 1977, two years after the format’s launch — will not quite be business as usual. For Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, plans to invite the leaders of Australia, India and South Korea to the Cornwall event, creating what he touts as a “Democratic 10” or D10 group of countries.

Johnson’s initiative is not to be confused with the Biden administration’s emerging plan for a “democracy summit”. The new president pledged in his election campaign to hold such an event during his first year in office. Nevertheless his proposal clearly has something in common with Johnson’s, insofar as each emphasises the need for democracies to stand together in a world characterised by rising authoritarianism and great power rivalry.

There is certainly a case for the US and its allies to sound the alarm about democracy. Freedom House, a non-partisan, US government-funded organisation, says that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year in which global freedom was in decline. Similarly, the World Justice Project, a Washington-based civil society initiative, estimates that the rule of law deteriorated or at best remained the same in 2019 in a majority of countries in every region of the world.

However, the Johnson and Biden initiatives will need careful preparation if they are not to end up as empty and divisive public relations exercises. One problem concerns the quality of democracy in Johnson’s putative D10, and in the larger club of friendly countries which the Biden administration may summon into being. Both initiatives also risk turning into anti-Chinese fronts, employed for the purpose of promoting hard-nosed geopolitical interests rather than democracy as such. That would muddle the purported aim of the two proposals and almost certainly give rise to disagreements inside the new clubs, especially among continental European G7 members that do not want to join an anti-China crusade.

The awkward truth about Johnson’s D10 is that it would contain several countries where standards of democracy and the rule of law have fallen short of late. Embarrassingly, one of those was the US itself under Trump. Another was the UK, where Johnson’s government unlawfully suspended parliament in 2019 and threatened last year to break international law as a way of ending an impasse with the EU over Brexit.

A third example is India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party. India used to be labelled the world’s largest democracy. But its drift from democratic norms under the BJP makes it harder to maintain a clear-cut distinction between India and more authoritarian systems.

As for Biden’s democracy summit, one difficult question is which countries to invite or exclude. Should Brazil and Ukraine be in because they are important to US geopolitical interests, despite their flawed records on democracy and the rule of law? What about Hungary or Georgia?

At a minimum, Biden should be frank about the retreat of US liberal democracy under Trump. He ought to make clear that, under his leadership, Washington is willing to listen and not simply preach to others on matters of freedom. Ideally, Biden and other leaders would not shrink from addressing the thorniest point of all — namely, that the threat to democracy comes not only from hostile authoritarian regimes abroad, but from freely elected leaders in our own countries who corrode liberal norms by appealing to an angry popular base, denigrating established institutions and chastising minorities.

Biden struck the right note in his Munich speech by stressing that he had no intention of exploiting the theme of democracy to rebuild the “rigid blocs of the cold war”. For all its suspicions of China and growing military co-operation with the US, India is a highly independent-minded country that would want no part of such a scheme.

But this points, too, to the limitations of Johnson’s D10 idea. It is debatable whether the 10 countries have enough in common to be fully united on democratic values or on strategy towards China. For this reason, the scheme looks mostly like Johnson’s attempt to put some flesh at long last on the Brexit-era slogan of a “global Britain” foreign policy. Whether that will impress other governments, in and outside Europe, is another matter.

tony.barber@ft.com

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