The COVID-19 outbreak has created a number of global crises simultaneously -- in health, economy and politics. Without swift and ambitious actions these crises risk morphing into an existential crisis for free and democratic societies.

The pandemic has increased the urgency for a global alliance of democracies to counter the rising autocracies. As the leading Asian democracy with unparalleled political goodwill in both Washington and Brussels, Japan will play a pivotal role in making such an alliance possible.

Even before COVID-19 struck, the world's autocrats were emboldened by the perceived U.S. withdrawal from its global leadership role, by the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, a strained transatlantic alliance, and a rise of anti-system politicians.


COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of history and caused countries to retrench into short-term self-interest. The EU faced major challenges to its unity as member states responded to COVID with national responses that gave little consideration to their neighbors. The United States expressed its intention to leave the World Health Organization, while China continued to refuse Taiwan access to its annual assembly despite being a model of how to respond to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, through necessity, freedom in our own societies has been curtailed, with economic and political power centralized to the state.

The situation may seem grim, but it is always darkest before the dawn. We have an opportunity for an ambitious new vision for multilateral cooperation, where the democracies of the world find new forms of collaboration and mutual reinforcement to counter the rising autocracies and write the global rulebook for the post-COVID global order.

We already see early signs of a new alliance of democracies forming. China's actions have helped to make Americans and more recently Europeans less naive about Beijing's intentions. For decades, the democratic West's approach has been to engage China, in the hope that it would make the rising superpower conform to our norms and standards, and become more open, liberal and democratic as its middle class grew.

But the opposite has happened under President Xi Jinping's nationalist agenda. Beijing's actions during the COVID outbreak, its efforts to isolate Taiwan, the disinformation campaigns that have cost lives, its attempts to divide allies and build dependency through unreciprocated strategic investment in sensitive sectors, and the Hong Kong security law have delivered Europe a much-needed wakeup call.

The United States has recently called for a global alliance to stand up against China. I believe we can be more confident: the world needs a global alliance to stand up for democracy. Here is where Japan can take a critical global role.

Transatlantic relations are strained. Atlantic trade wars, caustic presidential tweets, and shaky commitments to NATO on both sides of the Atlantic have undermined trust. Yet both the United States and Europe can easily agree on the importance of Japan. President Donald Trump has a strong personal relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while the EU sees Japan as its closest and most dependable ally in the Asia-Pacific. The EU's recently concluded trade agreement, political partnership and a deal to allow for free flow of data were more than signs of common interests for Europe: they represented a global declaration of unity across continents.

This Japan-Europe-U.S. triumvirate can form the basis of this new alliance of democracies, uniting the Atlantic and Pacific. It should not be a cumbersome bureaucratic structure like the United Nations, but a group focused around both common values and interests. It could start with a few crucial subject areas such as technology, health, and trade and investment.

Supplied photo shows Anders Fogh Rasmussen. (Photo courtesy of Rasmussen Global) (Kyodo) 


Perhaps the most pressing topic is technology, where the world stands at a crossroads. Data will be to the 21st century as oil was to the 20th century. In the 19th century, global power belonged to those who controlled the seas. In the 21st, it will belong to those who rule over our digital highways. It cannot be China.

Fragmentation of the democratic West risks allowing China to win this race, and to set the global standards for the deployment of new technology from 5G to artificial intelligence. If this is allowed to happen, our world and its standards will be molded by a Communist dictatorship. Yet the United States and Europe have very limited cooperation, with U.S. tech firms viewed with suspicion and Europe seeking to reproduce old American initiatives like cloud computing rather than focusing its efforts on working with likeminded partners to deliver the next big breakthroughs.

Here again, Japan is crucial. The United Kingdom has proposed a D-10 -- adding the power of India, Australia and South Korea to the current G-7 nations of Europe, North America and Japan. Its main purpose would be to develop common alternatives to Chinese 5G providers. Let's build on that proposal.

For example, the EU and Japan recently concluded a "data adequacy decision" recognizing that Japan's data protection standards are equivalent to Europe's high standard. We now transfer data as though Japan were an EU member. Under Japan's recent G-20 presidency, Abe proposed an ambitious idea to take those standards global to allow free flow of data "with trust." We should work toward such a system within the D-10 so that our innovators in the democratic world have access to the abundance of data they need to win the race and write the new global rulebook.

The imperative for such an agreement has only increased in recent weeks as the EU's court struck down Safe Harbor, the agreement for transferring data between Europe and the United States. The window for an ambitious deal is there if our leaders wish to seize it.

In time, such an alliance can be widely expanded to look at other areas where multilateralism is failing -- including reform of the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization; supporting emerging democracies with an economic proposition that is more attractive than China's debt-trap diplomacy; and greater cooperation in regions like the Arctic or in trying to restart multilateral trade talks that were a real possibility only 15 years ago.

The past few months have seen the retreat of freedom and democracy around the world. Now we have an opportunity to promote their rapid advance, with Japan's help. It will take initiative and leadership, but we can restore confidence in our open and free societies, and strengthen the spine of the free world against those who seek to divide and conquer. Let's seize the opportunity.

(Anders Fogh Rasmussen is a former Danish prime minister who served as secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization between 2009 and 2014. He is the founder of Rasmussen Global, a political consultancy firm headquartered in Copenhagen and Brussels.)

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