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How the UK becomes a global force for Democracy and Freedom

Article by Jonas Parello-Plesner

December 3, 2020

How the UK becomes a global force for Democracy and Freedom

The Government’s current Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy seeks to position the UK after Brexit and in the context of a Biden-administration taking office.


My suggestion to this new direction is for the UK to position itself as a global force on democratic values. It demands bold steps as seen with the UK’s handling of Hong Kong and secondly, it should be undertaken both through the proposed novel D-10 grouping and in a broader alliance of democracies, particularly on how to set the digital standards. Naturally, such an approach does demand consistency at home, so that UK’s own democratic practices underpin the global approach.


These last years, the UK’s bandwidth has been consumed by Brexit. Undoubtedly, the effects of the departure will linger for years to come. The author being a Dane, will miss the UK inside the EU. Yet there is no doubt that the referendum on leaving the EU was also a radical democratic exercise. And on that basis, it is now time to shape a new future for the UK. The focus on Brexit has clouded a discussion of the novel ways the UK can contribute globally. The EU has many merits, but quick and bold-decision making is not one of them. The UK is now unhindered to be able to take quicker actions on its own.


The UK’s swift actions following China’s implementation of the draconian National Security Law, which basically turned off the lights for Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms, stands out. By speaking truth to raw authoritarian power and calling out the Chinese breach of the Sino-British Joint declaration, the Johnson government took the needed moral high ground. And equally so by following it up with granting up to three million Hong Kong citizens with BNO-passports the right to prolonged residency in the UK and a path to full citizenship. The EU did not come out as forcefully. And the US forfeited its natural leading role on democracy promotion by President Trump’s overall transactional approach and in the case of Hong Kong. This example underlines the kind of role a ‘Global Britain’ should carve out for itself in the international system. Moreover, with a Biden-administration in Washington, there will be new-found demand for the UK playing such a role.


That is why the concept of the D-10 – basically expanding the G-7 with the democracies of India, Australia and South Korea, is very timely but so far has remained a slogan without concrete follow up. The UK’s upcoming chairmanship of the G-7 allows it, to put it into practice.


Meanwhile, President-Elect Biden also has a much stronger focus on democracy promotion and seeks to restore the US to a leading role among democracies. As part of his electoral platform, a Summit of Democracy is planned which will also include cooperation with civil society and with the technology sector, where our public democratic debate is increasingly, in particular during the pandemic, conducted online. Earlier, President-Elect Biden was also part of the efforts of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation chaired by former NATO Secretary General Rasmussen. Biden spoke at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in 2018. He was a driving force in establishing the associated Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity and its Election Pledge against election interference and disinformation. Biden signed as a presidential candidate. The next natural step would be to build an international alliance on election interference and more broadly on the rules of the road for our digital democracies. That could be one component for the D-10 to tackle.


During the four years of fruitless discussion under President Trump around Russian election interference, China expanded its capabilities to thwart civil liberties through ubiquitous surveillance and face recognition tools. The situation in Xinjiang is the pinnacle of this nefarious approach. And globally, Chinese-run tech companies have expanded. There is a tension here with unfettered free trade and investments flows. Chinese companies often bring along the authoritarian standards of the motherland.


The Huawei discussion about allowing that company to build the next 5-G generation of our wireless societies showed that democracies need to safeguard their critical infrastructure. After some initial flip-flopping, the UK took the correct and secure path on this by blocking Huawei. Both that is just a surface symptom of the bigger digital divide between the superpowers, China and the US. This battle for digital supremacy will not end with Trump’s departure from the White House. It is entrenched in the US administration and in Congress across the aisle. These days that is a rare occurrence.


And many more topics lure in this battle for digital supremacy from facial recognition, artificial intelligence, to quantum computing. The UK can play a role in settings such standards and mediating between the US and EU regulation. Working with Japan, who has already lead initiatives on securing data flows could be beneficial. Yet there are also growth opportunities for the UK in becoming a hub for such democratic digital standards. A new report shows that ‘safety tech’ businesses is on the rise soon making UK the safest place to be online with more than 70 companies in London, Leeds, Cambridge and Edinburgh holding a quarter of global market share.[1]


What is likely to change is that President Biden is expected to seek cooperation with allies to meet the challenge from China and other authoritarians in the technological realm. Trump’s brute tactics of announcing on Twitter, a sudden and uncoordinated ban on TikTok, will be a thing of the past. Instead allies, such as the UK, will likely be tasked by a new administration on how to help craft digital rules which ensure democratic standards around privacy and data collection are respected. In a certain way, this allies-first approach can become more demanding. Under Trump, allies would not always have to take a stance on Trump’s moves on China because he did not seek to coordinate or amplify them through allies. A Biden-administration will. Thus, the UK must be bold and pro-active on this agenda of a concerted democratic pushback on China’s digital authoritarianism. Looking at the many prominent members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China from the UK, it seems to indicate that, at least in Parliament, the moral backbone would be intact for such an approach even it could as a minimum lead to China threating the UK as it has done systemically with Australia, Canada, Sweden and other democracies over the years. Only by the UK working through a united front of democracies, will it be possible to dent China’s aggressiveness. As Tom Tugendhat MP, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested in an article that historically, the UK Royal Navy was a front runner on establishing the rules of the sea waves. Now a similar approach means pulling partners together to shape the modern equivalent- the digital realm.[2]


Such initiatives on behalf of the world’s democracies would also have a good underpinning. In the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, ’A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy’, an international survey by the British Council shows that a ‘substantial majority of respondents saw the UK as prioritising human rights and democracy in its foreign policy.[3] This was especially pronounced in responses from Commonwealth countries’. This indicates that the UK could also galvanise Commonwealth countries as a unique asset in developing cooperation among democracies.


As my former colleague Ben Judah eloquently put it, jumping from G-7 to D-10 under UK stewardship could become ‘a grand strategy for the democracies that will work to keep China in check, India close, and the US steady in the turbulent years to come.’[4] That is also what I suggest that ‘Global Britain’ should carve out a new role for itself.


Jonas Parello-Plesner is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation chaired and founded by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.


Image by FCO under (CC).


[1] New report reveals UK as world leader in online safety innovation, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and Caroline Dinenage MP, Government, May 2020,

[2] Tom Tugendhat, Britian must play a key role on an increasingly competitive world stage, Raction, October 2020,

[3] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy, Fourth Report of Session 2019-21, House of Commons, October 2020,

[4] Erik Brattberg and Ben Judah, Forget the G-7, Build the D-10, Foreign Policy, June 2020,

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