After the G-20, Should the U.S. Turn to an Alliance of Democracies?

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

U.S. President Barack Obama, front row center, smiles during a group photo of G-20 leaders outside of the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

The G-20 summit drew to a close this weekend in St. Petersburg shadowed by the same dark clouds that loomed when it started on Thursday. Deep divisions over whether to punish the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons dominated media coverage of the meeting, with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin both remaining intransigent.

Putin maintained his skepticism that the government of his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, could have been responsible for an Aug. 21 strike that killed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of Damascus. “We hear one another and understand the arguments, but we don’t agree. I don’t agree with his arguments, he doesn’t agree with mine,” said the Russian President of his American counterpart. Meanwhile, Obama and the leaders of 10 other countries attending the summit issued a joint statement on Friday, demanding a “strong response” to the Assad regime’s alleged violation of international norms. “The world cannot wait for endless failed processes that can only lead to increased suffering in Syria,” read the statement.

With little resolved in St. Petersburg, the question begs: Is the G-20 one of those “failed processes”?

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There was a time not so long ago when the G-20 was the proverbial cool new kid on the bloc. Formed at the turn of the millennium, the geopolitical grouping offered a departure from the country clubs of the 20th century — the G-7, the G-8, NATO, the U.N. Security Council — in which global policy remained the province of a handful of former 19th century imperial powers and the victors of World War II. Here was a body that represented great developing economies from every continent (including China, India, Brazil, South Africa), which reflected the world as it was now — not as it had been in 1945.

But, as seen in the jostling over Syria, the tense polarization of the Cold War remains. “Part of the challenge the U.S. faces when working through multilateral institutions such as the G-20 is the fact that Russia and China essentially have a different worldview,” says Ash Jain, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington and a former member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s policy-planning staff under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Policymakers in the West keen to uphold an international liberal order have long been frustrated by the immovability of Russia and China, wielders of U.N. Security Council vetoes that — based on their own historic views — are more protective of the sovereignty of individual states, no matter the alleged transgressions of their governments. “We need to recognize that we’re in a world where there are competing nodes of power, and so trying to get consensus for a range of issues is going to be difficult,” says Jain.

To resolve that challenge, Jain proposed a solution under the aegis of the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year: a new bloc, consisting of a number of “like-minded” democracies allied to the U.S. known as the D-10. Its imagined membership actually includes many of the countries that signed on to the U.S.-led joint statement on Syria at the G-20 — Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the U.K. — missing only Germany and an independent spot for the E.U. Had this grouping been a formalized entity, says Jain, “Obama would have had an alternative venue from which to derive more legitimacy for his preferred option” regarding Syria.

(MORE: Russian Ambassador to U.S.: Relations Are Not at Cold War Levels, Yet)

The D-10, in Jain’s formulation, would operate behind the scenes, without the ceremony and pomp of a G-20 summit. It would be a forum, says Jain, in which the U.S. could “consult with allies in both Asia and Europe — the most capable global powers who are aligned [with Washington] in terms of common values — to lay out strategies and produce plans.” In other words, it would be a 21st century springboard for American leadership in the world.

While Jain says he has received encouraging feedback from diplomats in various D-10 countries, the bloc is nowhere close to getting off the ground. Calls for this sort of ideological grouping are not wholly new and face the inevitable criticism that they may alienate important global players. In an earlier term in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the prospect of an “arc of freedom” knitting together Asian democracies in closer cooperation — but the gesture proved limp, with countries like India and Australia reluctant to antagonize China, a pivotal trading partner. None of the democracies that are members of the BRICS — a group of budding regional powers first imagined by a Goldman Sachs economist, now including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — signed on to the joint statement regarding Syria at the G-20. None of them, tellingly, are included in Jain’s roster of D-10 member states either.

Jain argues that the existence of the D-10 would not undermine the role of existing institutions like the G20 but, rather, would function in parallel. “It’s just unrealistic to expect those who are part of the G-20 to see these global challenges the same way that the U.S. and its closest allies see them,” says Jain. What his proposal reflects is a deep-seated frustration among Washington’s political elite that the scope for American action on the world stage has narrowed — and that the legitimacy the U.S. needs to pursue its policies overseas is proving harder to muster. On Sunday, news reports suggested U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could still take the issue of Syria back to that venerable old institution, the U.N. Security Council, a move the Obama Administration had not long ago seemed to dismiss. In the brave new world of 21st global realpolitik, there’s still no better option than the tried and tested.

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