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Another look at values-based multilateralism

Article by Thomas E. Garrett

December 16, 2020

Another look at values-based multilateralism

Every few years, Western leaders raise the idea of democracies working in ‘alliance’ or ‘concert’ on global challenges. The late US Senator John McCain, an esteemed supporter of transatlantic cooperation, included a ‘League of Democracies’ in his 2008 presidential campaign platform.[1] And President-Elect Joe Biden ran for office in 2020 with a written pledge to convene a ‘Summit of Democracy’ in his first term.[2]


When American President Donald Trump suggested including Russia in the G7 this year, the UK proposed instead a ‘D10’ gathering of democracies.[3] This suggestion of adding Australia, India, and the Republic of Korea to form a group of ten democratic nations turned attention again to relevance of values-based multilateral groups.


Close cooperation between democracies is especially urgent. For years, Russia and China have been seeking to export their authoritarian model of governance around the globe. Moscow’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereign borders and Beijing’s deployment of ‘warrior wolf’ diplomacy finds expression in undiplomatic behaviour and aggressive actions.[4] During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have argued that only complete state control over personal liberty and democratic freedoms can successfully solve problems like a global health crisis.


Their disregard of the global rules-based order serves as a stark reminder for UK diplomats and foreign policymakers of the need for strengthened ties with other democracies. Whether the democratic model of governance can prevail over its authoritarian rivals will have profound implications for the international order for the rest of the 21st Century.


For two decades, the UK has engaged with a multilateral coalition of democracies committed to defending the rule of law, human rights, and democratic values: The Community of Democracies.


Towards a Community of Democracies

20 years ago, the UK joined 106 other nations in Poland in what was then the largest gathering of countries identifying as electoral democracies. The gathering produced an historic 19-point statement called the Warsaw Declaration, named after its host city, that committed participants to the protection of human rights, the rule of law, and democracy; such explicit support for the essential values of democracy had seldom been so central in previous international agreements.[5]


The Warsaw Declaration is a ‘checklist’ for established democracies to ensure adherence to fundamental democratic principles while also providing transitioning political systems a ‘roadmap’ to democracy.


Principle One of the declaration states that the will of the people for its government is to be expressed through regular, free, and fair elections. The right of every person to equal access to education forms Principle Six. Principle Seven supports freedom of the press to collect, report, and disseminate information, news, and opinions subject only to legal restrictions in a democratic society. Other principles in the Warsaw Declaration address freedom of peaceful assembly, equal protection of the law for minorities, independent judiciaries, and the right of those elected to form a government.


But the Warsaw Declaration, and the Community of Democracies (CoD) that emerged from the gathering in Poland, almost didn’t happen. Some thought it wholly unnecessary.


In the three decades before the year 2000, electoral democracies had risen in number from 30 primarily Western-based governments to nearly 120 nations spread across every region on earth.


In foreign ministries around the world, diplomats asked, ‘Why do we need a summit about democracy?’ ‘Aren’t democracies ascendant, especially following the dissolution of the Soviet Union?’ Regional-based bureaus expressed concern a membership body of democracies would cause more problems than it was worth. Would there be friction as a result of creating a new ‘club’ of nations that invited some countries but excluded others? And would governments truly commit to democracy as an overriding principle if their specific interests failed to benefit?


Months of planning by meeting organisers, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, sought to address these concerns. In the end, the states in attendance represented a generously broad array of political systems, from the established parliamentary democracy of the UK, to the Russian Federation and Indonesia only two years after emerging from decades of one-person rule. The diversity of democracy, as represented in the three-day conference, was widely acknowledged. The generally held assumption was that participants might be at different places along the democratic path but the worldwide direction towards representative government was a linear process.


Publicly, Geremek tempered the celebratory atmosphere of the year 2000 by cautioning that ‘democracy doesn’t only move from triumph to triumph,’ but would face ongoing and new challenges.[6] Indeed, the notion of an inevitable path of democracy as the ideal global governance system has cracked. Today, Russia, Egypt, and other countries have turned away from democracy and even well-established democracies are struggling with serious governing challenges.


That the conference produced the Warsaw Declaration was an immense achievement. Despite the variety of states in attendance, participants agreed that certain unalienable principles had to be present for any political system to claim the label of democracy. For Foreign Minister Geremek, a noted intellectual and Solidarity activist, it was personally important to connect the name of the city he loved with a community of democracies, overcoming its previous association with Soviet totalitarianism (the Warsaw Pact).[7]


Role of the UK

If you Google the UK’s foreign policy statements over the past several years, the word ‘democracy’ shows up often. There is also official and regular acknowledgement by UK diplomats of the vital role of civil society in fostering and maintaining democracy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO- now Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office FCDO since September 2020) has been a consistent participant in the Community of Democracies Ministerial Conferences since its inception.


British policymakers recognise the role the group can play as part of its multilateral efforts. While the UK sees the value of universal membership-based bodies such as the UN and its agencies like the WHO, it also recognises the importance of a values-based coalition like the Community of Democracies to defend human rights and democracy.


“In a world where democratic values are under attack on many fronts, the countries which believe in those values must stand together and resist the forces that threaten them,” said then FCO Minister for Human Rights Baroness Anelay of St. John’s DBE in 2016 when the UK sought to expand its role with the Community of Democracies by applying for membership to its 28-member Governing Council.[8] Three months later, the UK application was unanimously approved, and it joined the council as a member state. The FCDO’s Human Rights and Democracy unit serves as the primary interlocutor between Whitehall and the Community of Democracies.


Former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt once said the UK should be part of an “invisible chain, linking the world’s democracies.”[9] An example of the UK’s engagement with the Community of Democracies is the work to advance democratic consolidation in transitioning countries such as The Gambia. This year, CoD partnered with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, another pro-democracy organisation supported by the FCO, in a virtual training program in Banjul for women’s empowerment. The FCO has joined its diplomats to Community of Democracy high-level delegations, and funded a CoD publication on ‘Best Practice in Community of Democracies’ Member States’ Engagement with and Protection of Civil Society.’


The UK has much to share with other democracies about its own experience. As Baroness Anelay has said, the UK and others must “work to perfect our own democracies—for there is always work to be done at home.”


During the UK’s six-month chairmanship of the Community of Democracies, an FCO-hosted Governing Council meeting in London in 2019 was briefed about how the process of devolution, for example in regard to Wales, is a route to increasing democratic participation. Lessons learned were shared by experts of the Constitution Group of the Cabinet Office. The Minister for the Constitution, Chloe Smith MP, spoke to the best practices and the work still to be done of ensuring all citizens eligible to vote were able to vote.


The FCO host illustrated another essential issue—democratic resiliency—with a presentation by the Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdullah Shahid, who discussed his country’s return to elected and constitutional government through peaceful means. Shahid was joined by the Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin MP, who spoke about the human rights aspect of UK foreign assistance.


A significant change to CoD practice was introduced by the UK host, that of adopting an Outcome Statement in twice-annual Governing Council meetings. Previous ‘declarations’ occurred in bi-annual Ministerial Conferences but at the 29th Governing Council the FCO guided a Statement on Media Freedom and Violence against Journalists to adoption by the Governing Council.[10] This Statement was designed to complement FCO work in other multilateral venues on the issue.


Renewed commitment

Of the many multilateral bodies in which the UK participates, the Community of Democracies is unique in significant ways. Unlike the Commonwealth, or NATO, or the G7, the membership of the intergovernmental body is not based upon economic, regional, linguistic, or historic criteria, but on the universal human rights and democratic values of the Warsaw Declaration. And, although composed of an intergovernmental coalition of like-minded nations, the Community of Democracies differs from related-bodies in its substantial inclusion of civil society in its operations.


A recent example of the mutually beneficial relationship between the UK and Community of Democracies is the Bucharest Anniversary Statement, which provides the member states’ view on the COVID-19 pandemic.[11] The statement articulates that the response to the global health crisis must not be worse than the virus itself; authoritarian regimes should not use the pandemic as an excuse to consolidate power, punish political enemies, and restrict basic human rights.


Rather, it recognises that “Times of crisis can also be an impetus for change. The mobilization of civil society, innovations to democratic processes, and demands for reformed institutions and increased accountability point to opportunities for positive developments emerging from the pandemic.


As a values-based organisation, the Community of Democracies provides additional opportunities for the newly-configured Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to continue to declare and defend its support of human rights and the rule of law. The Community of Democracies welcomes the UK’s involvement with its democratic allies to confront ongoing global challenges to democracy.


Thomas E. Garrett has worked in politics and advocacy for more than three decades. Elected Secretary General of the Community of Democracies in September 2017, he was re-appointed to a second three-year mandate as Secretary General in September 2020. Prior to the Community of Democracies, for 23 years he supported democratic transitions for the US-based International Republican Institute, in the field as chief of party in Ukraine, Mongolia and Indonesia and in the Washington, DC headquarters as director of Middle East programs and then vice president for global programs. Garrett holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international relations.


Image by FCDO under (CC).


[1] John McCain, An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom, November/December 2007,

[2]Joseph R. Biden, Why America Must Lead Again, March/April 2020,

[3] Tim Montgomerie, How a new alliance of democracies could counter Russia and China, September 2020,

[4] Zhiqun Zhu, Interpreting China’s ‘Warrior-Wolf’ Diplomacy, May 2020,

[5] The Warsaw Declaration, October 2016,

[6] John Lancaster, Democracy Assembly Convenes in Warsaw, June 2000,

[7] Madeleine Albright speech, Tribute to Bronislaw Geremek, September 2008,

[8] Rt. Honorable Baroness Anelay of St. Johns DBE, speech to the 22nd Meeting of the Governing Council of the Community of Democracies

[9] Rt.  Honorable Jeremy Hunt MP speech, October 2018,

[10] Outcome Statement on Media freedom and Violence against Journalists, January 2019,

[11] 20th Anniversary Bucharest Statement, June 2020,

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