It is now widely accepted that the United States is in a great power competition with China, and that allies and partners are pivotal in this struggle. President Joe Biden ran on a platform emphasizing their elemental importance, and his administration has pledged to continue the Trump administration’s tough line on China. The question that now confronts Washington is how to realize the potential advantages afforded by this network.

That won’t be easy. It’s one thing to be linked with such a far-flung group that in aggregate constitutes enormous power; it is quite another thing to convert that potential into meaningful international political influence. Indeed, the intensity of the burden-sharing controversies in recent years—including with some of Washington’s strongest traditional allies like Germany—shows how difficult it is to turn the latent advantages of this network into real leverage, let alone action. And Europe’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing, concluded just before Biden’s inauguration, is only the most prominent example that his election has not wiped away many of the real divergences among Washington and its allies.

The Biden administration appears to have a theory of the case for how to turn the potential of this network into real leverage and action. This is a “global, values-based” model of alliances and partnerships. Biden himself laid out this approach in his February speech at the State Department and then even more clearly and pointedly at the Munich Security Conference later that month. In the latter speech, Biden contended that “we are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world … [between those who argue] that autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand that democracy is essential.” He invited “our fellow democracies … to join us in this vital work,” arguing that “our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values.” Emphasizing his “belief that – [with] every ounce of my being – that democracy will and must prevail,” he contended that, “if we work together with our democratic partners with strength and confidence, I know that we’ll meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.” And Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly referred to the key divide in international politics as a competition between “techno-democracies and techno-authoritarians”—an ideological divide in which “techno-democracies” would be arrayed together on one side.

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