Project Fortress: A Blueprint for Defending the Free World

May 2022

If there’s a silver lining in the hell Vladimir Putin has unleashed, it’s the newfound—or more accurately, re-discovered—sense among democratic nations that they have the capacity when working together to wield enormous power. In the Free World’s multifaceted response to Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, a blueprint for a global alliance of democracies is emerging.

Biden’s Vision

A year before his inauguration, President Joseph Biden vowed to “organize and host a global Summit for Democracy.” His objectives: “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World,” to issue “a call to action for the private sector,” and to remind the Free World that “democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

Biden delivered on that promise by gathering together what he called “an alliance of democracies” in December 2021. As is so often the case with such events, the summit offered more style than substance, more words than actions. But those objectives Biden outlined can be glimpsed in the Free World’s response to Putin’s war.

Renewed spirit and shared purpose

“The democracies of the world,” Biden observed in Warsaw, “are revitalized with purpose and unity found in months that we’d once taken years to accomplish.”

Just consider how NATO, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia and other free nations disconnected Russian banks from the system that enables financial transfers across 200 countries; unleashed sanctions against Putin and his crony kleptocrats; and enacted export-control measures blocking Russia’s access to high-tech products. The Free World has closed airspace to Russian aircraft and seized Russian cargo ships and Russian yachts. This barrage of financial counterstrikes—what France’s finance minister calls “all-out economic and financial war on Russia”—isolated Russia, rendered the Russian stock market “un-investable,” sent the ruble plummeting, and pounded the Russian economy. Economists project Russia’s GDP will shrink more than 10 percent this year.

This is a dramatic example of the Free World in action—and the staggering power it can wield when its members work together. One gets a sense that this surprised the Free World as much as it surprised Putin.

A call to action for the private sector

Shamed into action by the images, words and refugees streaming out of Ukraine, more than 500 multinational firms and organizations have pulled out of Putin’s Russia, ceased operations in Putin’s Russia or expelled Putin’s Russia: the Council of Europe and OECD, the NHL and WWE, FIFA and F1, Shell and ExxonMobil, American Airlines and United Airlines, Pepsi and Coke, FedEx and UPS, VW and Mercedes, Ford and GM, Honda and Toyota, IBM and Apple, McDonald’s and Burger King, Visa and MasterCard.

Again, these firms may have been surprised by the latent power they possess.

Defending, strengthening and renewing the Free World

Danger on the doorstep has a way of focusing the mind—and reminding free peoples that freedom is not free.

With Putin’s designs on a reconstituted Russian Empire now undeniable, the democracies of Europe are finally realizing there’s no longer any room for free-riders in the Free World. Germany has announced plans nearly to double defense spending to 2 percent of GDP (something NATO has been begging Berlin to do since 2006); unveiled a massive $112.7-billion rearmament fund; and decided to modernize its aging air force with F-35s. Poland—thrust to the frontlines of Cold War II by Putin’s invasion—announced its defense budget will jump to 3 percent of GDP next year. Italy has outlined plans to lift its defense budget to NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP standard. The Baltic nations are increasing defense spending, with Latvia increasing defense spending by 13 percent this year. The Dutch government is pouring more resources into defense. Norway is making immediate emergency investments in defense. Romania is increasing defense spending by 23.7 percent for FY2023.

At their emergency summit in late March, NATO’s leaders began to outline where and how these new resources will be used: In addition to existing multinational battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, NATO is standing up four more in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. In short, from the Baltics to Bulgaria, NATO is building a wall to defend itself against Russia. And in Ukraine, NATO is helping a free people fight for their freedom. In the first week of war, NATO rushed 17,000 antitank weapons into Ukraine. Thousands of tons of additional arms have poured into Ukraine in the months since. And with the Battle of Kiev won, Ukraine continues its tenacious defense of democracy—and the weapons keep flowing.

The democracies of the Indo-Pacific, too, are coming to grips with the danger on their doorstep. With China’s military building up and pushing out, Japan has increased defense spending 10 consecutive years and is upconverting warships into aircraft carriers. South Korea has increased defense spending by 19 percent in five years and is building an aircraft carrier for its fleet of F-35s. Likewise, Australia is increasing defense spending by 40 percent and partnering with the U.S. and Britain to add nuclear-powered submarines to its arsenal. Taiwan just approved its largest-ever defense budget.

Zelensky’s Ideas

There’s more to President Volodymyr Zelensky than image and rhetoric. Zelensky has big, substantive ideas about democracies working together to build a more secure world.

For instance, he recently proposed the creation of a United for Peace association (U24), which he describes as “a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflict immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours, if necessary, even weapons, if necessary, sanctions, humanitarian support, political support, finances—everything you need to keep the peace and…save lives.”

In addition, Zelensky shared with NATO’s leaders a one-percent-for-security concept. “Give us 1 percent of all your planes, 1 percent of all your tanks, 1 percent [of]… multiple-rocket launch systems, anti-warship systems, air-defense systems…When we finally have it, it will give us and you 100-percent security.”

This is straight out of America’s Cold War playbook. President Harry Truman vowed to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” President Ronald Reagan declared that “support for freedom-fighters is self-defense.”

Ukraine illustrates how even an outmatched force—if committed and equipped with the right mix of weapons—can hold back a full-spectrum military power. Yet Russia’s rampage through Ukraine also reminds us that helping free nations harden their territory against invasion is preferable to scrambling to help them try to claw it back.

Toward that end of hardening democracies against attack, Zelensky’s one-percent-for-security and U24 concepts could be applied anywhere free nations are in the crosshairs of tyrant regimes. Indeed, Biden should invite Free World allies to join the United States in pooling their resources to help free nations protect themselves—and deter their enemies. To borrow Zelensky’s most famous line, “The fight is here”—in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia, in the Taiwan Strait and the Persian Gulf, in Africa and the Arctic, in space, cyberspace and the information space. Free peoples need tools to defend and secure their freedom. And the Free World has those tools: Democracies in the Americas, Indo-Pacific, Middle East and Europe enfold 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen calls “a thousand-ship navy.”


The idea of a democratic alliance has supporters around the world, across the political spectrum and throughout history.

“The world’s democracies should unite in an Alliance for Democracy to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression,” argues former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He envisions “an unshakeable and undefeatable alliance for peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has proposed enlarging the G-7 into the D-10—or “Democratic 10.” This partnership would enfold the G-7 plus Australia, South Korea and India—making it more global, more representative and more influential than its forerunner.

Here at home, Ivo Daalder (President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO) has advocated a “Concert of Democracies.” On the other side of the aisle, the late John McCain championed “a worldwide League of Democracies” to “advance our values and defend our shared interests.”

The roots of this idea stretch back more than a century. Although he is often criticized for being overly idealistic, President Woodrow Wilson realized that “A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill argued, “Freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them and show themselves possessed of a constabulary power before which barbaric and atavistic forces will stand in awe.”

President Ronald Reagan called for “an army of conscience” to confront tyranny. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”


Neither NATO not the United Nations is suited to play this role. The former, while committed to democratic values, is a regional organization—and is suddenly very busy confronting a very serious threat on its doorstep. The latter is a come-one-come-all open house—an organization where there’s no distinction between democracies and dictatorships, where the lawless are expected to respect the rule of law, where despotic Russia, totalitarian China, Stalinist North Korea and jihadist Iran are accorded the same position and power as liberal democracies. Thus, the UN always succumbs to lowest-common-denominator inertia—an affliction on full display in Ukraine.

“Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee?” Zelensky asks. “There is no security, although there is a Security Council.” And he pinpoints the reason: “We are dealing with a state that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill” and “undermines the whole architecture of global security.”

An Alliance of Democracies would not be stymied or sidetracked by tyrant regimes like Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China. Nor would it be constrained by lowest-common-denominator unanimity. “The UN bureaucracy, along with others who seek a peaceful world, worship consensus,” historian Robert Kaplan sighs. “But consensus can be the handmaiden of evil.” Whether caused by bureaucratic inertia or autocratic gamesmanship, the UN’s Pilate-like responses to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; repeat-offender lawlessness in Iraq, Iran and North Korea; chemical weapons in Syria; recidivist aggression in Russia; and criminal negligence in China underscore Kaplan’s point.

Instead of the constraints of unanimity, an Alliance of Democracies could strategize solutions, authorize action by three-fifths or two-thirds vote, and then empower coalitions to take action in defense of free peoples. We’ve seen glimpses of this in the Free World’s response to Putin’s assault on Ukraine and in the ideas laid out by Zelensky and Biden. The Alliance of Democracies would add an imprimatur of legitimacy under international law, which is important to many U.S. allies.

This Alliance of Democracies would not be a panacea for all the world’s ills. But it would be equipped to address problems rather than ignore them. And it would be a “force for action,” in Churchill’s words, its members working to deter aggression whenever possible, to repel aggression whenever necessary, and to defend their interests whenever threatened—interests that, by definition, the world’s tyrant regimes do not share.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.

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