The first is a broader construct, which essentially focuses on whether a country has a functional democracy or not. Functionality can be measured through some basic criteria, which relate to presence of key institutions, their working and relative autonomy. In other words, enough to distinguish from non-democratic systems.
But the liberal versus non-liberal frame is more specific. The Western alliance has been stitched on principles of liberal democracy post-second world war. This alliance led by the United States has on several occasions in the past justified action against democracies on the ground that it seeks to uphold liberal democratic values, while being conveniently accommodating of other non-democratic regimes.
So, one of the early conversations on the D-10 — essentially the G7 plus three (India, Korea and Australia) – during the Trump Administration itself was on whether India being member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the RIC, qualifies as a key lynchpin of a proposed partnership against China. This debate, however, became futile after Indian and Chinese troops clashed at Galwan.
The liberal democracy construct, though well-defined through years of military and economic collaboration, will restrict the coalition to Europe and a few. A wider understanding of democracy will help build a larger coalition.
That, of course, would mean accepting the imperfections of any functioning democracy. And the US itself is dealing with such challenges internally. The political distinction to make is that imperfections within working democracies cannot be equated with suppression by non-democratic, autocratic regimes.
Essentially, what’s happening in Hong Kong or to the Tibetans and Uyghurs will always be a matter of different order. To acquire credibility, though, such a coalition may have to, at some point, agree to a broad common understanding on basic principles of democratic behaviour.
Besides this key definition and framing issue, any such coalition will have to forge an understanding on two other pillars – economy and technology.
On the economic side, mere adherence to market principles can no longer be the sole qualifier. On that score, China will tick several boxes. It’s only when political trust along with transparency combines with fair market principles that a distinction can be arrived at. Fleshing that agenda out will be vital for a Biden administration.
It’s important to note here that the relationship rebuild with Europe faces its biggest challenge on the economic side, largely due to China. There will be influential stakeholders who will want Biden to score a win through a climate change deal with China and be less pressing on the more discomfiting political side of things.
The convergence of concerns among democracies will, in all probability, be the strongest on technology, particularly futuristic, high-end digital technology. This is one area where immediate security concerns could drive the agenda and provide the first low-hanging fruit for cooperation among democracies.
The proposed London Summit will probably give us some of the answers. From an Indian standpoint, though, it would be vital to have the political conversation with the US on democracy upfront. Because quite clearly, any coalition of democracies acquires credibility with India in it and that’s why the way Washington frames democracy will hold the key to how ambitious Biden can be with this initiative.