The G-7 Must Rescue the Liberal World Order
As the G-7 leaders gather this week in the Japanese city of Ise-Shima, the enlightened order their predecessors built is fraying badly.
Europe, Japan, and the United States are the leading stakeholders in the liberal international order, constructed after 1945 and consolidated after 1989. Together, the allies rebuilt a world ruined by war, defeated Soviet tyranny, sustained great-power peace in Asia, spurred a wave of democratic transitions, and catalyzed a global economic miracle. But as these nations prepare to gather for the G-7 summit this week in the Japanese city of Ise-Shima, the enlightened order their predecessors built is fraying badly.
China is deploying military force to redraw the strategic map of Asia. Russia is working to construct a new shadow empire in Eurasia. Parts of the Middle East have collapsed into anarchy. Nativism, populism, and protectionism are putting Western democracies under pressure, threatening the historic gains born of globalization.
In response to the steady erosion of the liberal order, the G-7 allies must revitalize their cooperation. The alternative is a more fragmented and contested world, in which the powers that shape global politics do not share the G-7’s core values. The need for trilateral cooperation among the principal market democracies in America, Asia, and Europe is urgent — both to strengthen rules-based order, and to create a more accommodative international context in which to renew the foundations of governance and growth at home.
The allies should begin by championing the indivisibility of the global security order. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has appealed powerfully for an international system governed by rule of law, democracy, and peaceful resolution of conflict. Leaders in China and Russia spurn such a vision and seek instead to advance revisionist territorial objectives through the threat and use of military force. In light of these threats, the United States is determined to remain the security provider of choice to both Asia and Europe. But America requires the active help, support, and co-leadership of its allies.
These allies include the European partners that President Barack Obama calls “free riders,” and a Japan whose new embrace of great-power responsibilities is welcome. Western leaders should more expressly support Japan’s ambition to serve as a regional security provider, in Asia and beyond. Japan is increasing its defense budget and realigning its forces so as to better uphold regional peace. It has revised domestic laws to enable its defense forces to cooperate with allies.
Japan is emerging as a military partner to friendly neighbors in South and Southeast Asia, boosting allied capabilities to maintain strategic balance. It is helping to train and equip maritime forces in Southeast Asia and launching new naval exercises with India. From an American perspective, more European allies should follow Japan’s example — rather than outsourcing security to Washington, they should actively expand their capability to provide security and stability in a dangerous world.
As G-7 chair, Japan will earn more robust support from Atlantic nations for its defense of a rules-based order in Asia, if Tokyo remains committed to the same principles in Europe. Although Abe aspires to construct a strategic partnership with Russia to balance China, he has nonetheless joined Western allies to impose sanctions on Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine. The pending renewal of sanctions against Russia this summer, given Russia’s refusal to honor the Minsk ceasefire agreement, will be a test of all the allies’ commitment to an international order governed by rules rather than the unilateral use of force — whether in the Donbass or the East China Sea.
Similarly, European leaders could take a stronger stand in favor of international law and peaceful resolution of conflict in Asia. The European Union originally adopted a policy of “principled neutrality” in the face of China’s revanchist claims in the East and South China Seas. More recently, the EU has condemned China’s territorial revisionism. At the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting last November, European leaders joined Japanese and other counterparts in underlining the importance of “refraining from the use or threat of force, of abstaining from unilateral actions and of resolving maritime disputes through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.” In March, the EU’s top foreign policy official called for peaceful resolution of conflict in the South China Sea and expressed “major concern” over China’s militarization of island disputes there.
Given the global dangers posed by great power revanchism, terrorism, and contested commons, it makes sense to institutionalize connectivity between the democratic alliance networks in Europe and Asia. One way to do this is through more robust NATO engagement with global partners, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea. These Asian allies put boots on the ground with NATO forces in Afghanistan. Closer cooperation could involve joint patrols of the global commons in the Indian Ocean, which link the Atlantic and Pacific domains; collaboration on missile and cyber threats that cut across regional dividing lines; military training and education programs that transcend regional boundaries; and joint planning for contingencies in Africa and the Middle East.
Abe has appealed to the North Atlantic Council for invigorated Japan-NATO cooperation. He sees Japan and NATO as “natural partners.” Tokyo could boost Europe’s defenses by joining NATO naval exercises in the Mediterranean or collaborating on Arctic security.
Japan has also tightened bilateral defense relations with Britian and France, demonstrating how America’s core Atlantic and Pacific partners view the mutual benefits of closer security ties, in an era when threats are no longer purely regional in scope. Germany would also be wise to further cultivate its bilateral ties with Japan, given the growth of a Berlin-Beijing “special relationship,” which is founded on close trade and investment ties but has implications for international security dynamics. A balanced approach for Berlin in Asia would include equally strong, if not stronger, ties to democratic governments in Tokyo, New Delhi, and elsewhere in the region.
A new trilateral alliance spanning the Atlantic and Pacific realms could help offset pressures on the global system, including those created by China’s projection of power and influence well beyond East Asia. Japan could deepen its ties to Central and Eastern Europe — the “arc of freedom and prosperity” envisioned by then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso a decade ago. This could be a useful counterpoint to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to increase its footprint in the region through infrastructure investments.
Europe, Japan, and the United States can also use their combined moral voice, as democracies representing nearly one billion people, to jointly challenge the Chinese government to be attentive to its people’s natural rights. In doing so, these democracies would ally themselves with Chinese citizens who seek greater freedoms, rather than with leaders who come and go. This is particularly urgent in light of the crackdown on free expression and association under President Xi Jinping.
Western and Japanese diplomats are speaking out. In January, the Canadian, EU, German, Japanese, and U.S. ambassadors to China signed a joint letter expressing unease about China’s new counterterrorism law, and punitive draft laws on cybersecurity and NGOs, arguing that these would “infringe on China’s obligation to protect human rights in accordance with international law.” In February, this same group expressed “growing concerns” over China’s crackdown on civil society leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, and labor leaders. In March, American, European, and Japanese representatives at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned China’s “problematic” and “deteriorating” human rights record.
Beijing is bound to take protests from the world’s leading powers more seriously in cobination rather than in isolation — and to treat Western and Asian democracies with increased respect for standing up for their values rather than abandoning them.
Part of any strategy to incentivize transparency and accountability inside China should be to shape its neighborhood in ways that promote high regional and global standards for democratic development. In that light, Europe, Japan, and the United States could coordinate more closely to promote free institutions, human rights, and the rule of law in transitional states like Myanmar, and engage more systematically with pivotal democracies like Indonesia to support the economic growth that reinforces political freedom.
Economic growth at home is the foundation for effective grand strategy abroad. Europe, Japan, and the United States are engaged in major trade initiatives that, if enacted, would provide positive growth shocks to the countries’ economies. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Japan-EU Free Trade Agreement. Of course, voters — especially in the United States — must support candidates who understand the link between domestic growth and international engagement, rather than erecting barriers that make everyone poorer.
Although the relative weight of the Europe, Japan, and the United States has diminished, they still generate half of global gross domestic product, enjoy a preponderance of military power, and dominate international institutions. They should not underestimate their combined ability to steer the coming era in a direction that continues to benefit their interests and values, while integrating friendly rising powers like India, in ways that channel China’s own ultimate choice to join the global liberal order rather than subverting it.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.
Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images