League of Democracies
Should democratic countries unite in a League of Democracies in order to act together in the international arena?
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A League of Democracies is a way to get the United States to re-engage in the world, working in part...
A League of Democracies is a way to get the United States to re-engage in the world, working in partnership with countries which share its core values. John McCain has spoken of the need for the USA to listen more to its allies, and to be open to persuasion by them, rather than insisting on going it alone. But he also recognises that the United Nations is often unable to act, and that a new international mechanism is needed to enable strong and decisive action to resolve international crises and stand up to rogue regimes.
American conservatives have always hated the United Nations, and this is just their latest attempt to undermine the greatest and most inclusive international organisation. A League of Democracies sounds fine but it is simply another way to dress up the Bush Administration’s use of “coalitions of the willing” to back American policy regardless of its legality and legitimacy. This would undermine the UN’s status as an international forum, while continuing to deprive it of the funding and resource commitments (e.g. for peacekeeping troops) it needs to do its job effectively. But global problems can only be solved if all the major powers are involved in discussions and consensus-building, not by a self-appointed group giving its blessing to an aggressive American unilateralism. By all means seek to reform the UN, but do not abandon it.
A League of Democracies need not be seen as a replacement for the UN, but it will be able to act whe...
A League of Democracies need not be seen as a replacement for the UN, but it will be able to act where the UN currently fails to live up to its responsibilities. After the disasters of the 1990s in places such as Rwanda, Congo and Bosnia the world resolved that never again should the international community stand by while civil war, brutal misgovernment and genocide devastated millions of helpless people. The “responsibility to protect” against these disasters is now widely accepted as sometimes justifying intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state. Yet vetoes from China and Russia, determined to protect their economic interests and political clients (e.g. Sudan, Myanmar, Zimbabwe) will always prevent the UN from stepping in to save millions of lives. A League of Democracies bound together by shared humanitarian and politically liberal values could act decisively and with considerable legitimacy in circumstances where the UN is failing.
The United Nations is far from being a failure, having learned many of the lessons of the 1990s. Although its decision-making can be slow, it is able to build sufficient international consensus to intervene when necessary. For example, UN troops have now gone into Sudan, but at the end of a process where Russia and China were brought to accept the necessity of intervention and were persuaded to lean on the regime in Khartoum to make them let a UN force into Darfur. Such a process of negotiation makes it much more likely that any intervention will be successful in achieving its objective. \
In any case, the so-called “responsibility to protect” is highly controversial and breaks the UN charter in terms of failing to respect national sovereignty. It is also dangerously subjective – Russia has claimed that its intervention in South Ossetia was justified by its responsibility to protect Russian citizens there from Georgian aggression. Finally, would a League of Democracies really do any better than the UN in intervening to prevent humanitarian tragedies? The danger of antagonising one of the major world powers outside any League would surely cause its members to hold back. Would a League really have used military force to bring humanitarian relief to Myanmar in the spring of 2008, regardless of what its neighbour China thought?\
A League of Democracies would not be a revolution in international affairs. Many existing multilate...
A League of Democracies would not be a revolution in international affairs. Many existing multilateral organisations complement the United Nations by acting when it cannot. For example, the G8 allows the world’s biggest economic powers to coordinate policy, while NATO has projected military power against rogue states in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Where a League of Democracies would differ is that it would gain legitimacy from its breadth of membership – it wouldn’t just be the USA with Canada and its developed world allies in Europe and Japan, but would also include major democracies elsewhere such as Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Japan and India. This democratic solidarity would give its actions, and possible interventions, a unique moral authority.
It is the very claim of a League of Democracies to global legitimacy that makes it such a threat to the authority of the United Nations. But that claim is deeply flawed. The moral authority of a democracy comes from the participation of its citizens in choosing their government and shaping its decisions. This consent allows the democratic state to act legitimately within its own borders, but does not extend to imposing its will over other peoples. Just because there is strong majority support for Country A to invade its neighbour, that does not make it legitimate for it to do so. Legitimacy in international affairs comes instead from universality – the UN has authority because every country is a member of it and has both a voice and a vote in its deliberations. A self-selecting group even of impeccably democratic states will never have the legitimacy to impose their will upon other countries.
A League of Democracies will not increase tensions with Russia and China, for the simple reason that...
A League of Democracies will not increase tensions with Russia and China, for the simple reason that considerable tensions already exist. Both these powerful but autocratic states use the language of confrontation in their dealings with the West, whipping up nationalist sentiment as a prop to their own authority. By using their veto power at the UN, threatening to withhold energy supplies (Russia), and by directing subsidies and investment in the developing world (China), they appear to be acting as the protectors of a “league of autocracies”. Compared to this, democratic states appear to be weak and divided in their response to global problems – a League of Democracies could respond to the rising threat posed by Russia and China, and promote positive liberal values in a more consistent and determined manner.
Talk of a League of Democracies raises the danger of a new Cold War, by making tensions with Russia and China much worse. It represents a reductionist view of the world by dividing nations into “democratic/ friendly” and “autocratic/ enemy” camps. This is simplistic (on what exact ground is Russia, with its elected President and legislature, not a democracy?). Dangers obviously exist in setting up a new international club which would exclude all but two or three Islamic countries. And it also risks becoming self-fulfilling by alienating Russia and China, who currently disagree on a number of key issues but who could be pushed closer together in response, along with other anti-Western countries such as Iran, Venezuela and Syria. At present America’s relations with these countries are difficult, but in the case of China and Russia at least there are elements of cooperation (e.g. on nuclear non-proliferation and fighting islamist terrorism). We should boost this cooperation where possible, even if tensions do exist, rather than ratchet those tensions up with a new confrontational dividing line between global power blocs.
Setting up a League of Democracies does not mean that we stop seeking to talk and cooperate with oth...
Setting up a League of Democracies does not mean that we stop seeking to talk and cooperate with other states. China and Russia also care (or are/ will come to care) about issues such as nuclear proliferation and global warming, so they will deal with us anyway through other channels. But unity between those countries sharing democratic values will put us in a stronger negotiating position and make positive outcomes more likely.
It is simply not possible to solve the major challenges facing the world just by mobilising the democratic states in a new League. We need the cooperation of Russia and China, as well as other non-candidates for a League of Democracies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt), to solve major global problems like the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, rising energy costs, an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and global warming. John McCain’s stated foreign policy objectives include commitments in all these areas, yet setting up a League of Democracies may actually make solutions harder to reach.
The creation of an influential League of Democracies would set a standard to which countries would a...
The creation of an influential League of Democracies would set a standard to which countries would aspire. Membership of the League would signal a commitment to democracy and human rights that countries would wear as a badge of pride. Concern at losing influence with America might also promote internal reform in a number of pro-western countries with weak or non-existent democratic institutions (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco). And their citizens would feel emboldened to call for political liberalisation at home.
Just because different countries are democracies does not mean that they will agree about the best course of action in international affairs, so it is highly likely that a League of Democracies would in practice be able to agree little. And would the USA be willing to go along with the majority view within any League of Democracy even if its President disagreed? In the 1980s many democracies in Europe and elsewhere differed strongly from the USA on issues such as how to treat Apartheid South Africa, or communist Nicaragua and Cuba. More recently many major democracies did not support the USA’s invasion of Iraq and they have differed greatly amongst themselves on the issue of climate change.
As a major initiative in US foreign policy the League stands every chance of being successful. Coun...
As a major initiative in US foreign policy the League stands every chance of being successful. Countries would wish to be members for the prestige attached to the League, and more pragmatically out of recognition that this is their best chance to influence American policy and to bind the United States into multilateral engagement. Most of all, democracies throughout the world recognise that our shared values give us more common interests than those things which divide us, and that strength can come from mutual support.
How do we know that other countries will want to join a League of Democracies in any case? The attempt to set one up could well prove an embarrassing failure, with many of those invited failing to show up. Few of America’s democratic allies have shown much enthusiasm for the idea. Europeans fear it would undermine the United Nations, to which they are much more committed than the USA, and they share with Asian states a fear that it would antagonise Russia and China. Britain and France are also very suspicious of anything which dilutes their own relationship with the USA, and are keen to safeguard their influence as Permanent members of the UN Security Council. And the major democracies in the developing world, such as India, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil often vote against the USA in the United Nations, and are particularly resistant to interventionist missions. The failure of Clinton’s similar Community of Democracies and democratic caucus at the UN to achieve anything in practice, shows how unlikely this is to succeed.
Details of definition need not be serious obstacles to putting a League of Democracies in place. Th...
Details of definition need not be serious obstacles to putting a League of Democracies in place. There are many major and obvious democracies outside NATO, such as Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and India. The European Union assesses democratic standards as part of its admission procedures, and these could be adopted or adapted as necessary. And the desire of countries to belong to such an influential and prestigious organisation may well prompt them to strengthen their democratic institutions and culture further anyway.
Problems of defining minimum democratic standards and so the membership of a League of Democracies make it an impractical proposition. It has become clear over the past decade that simply holding periodic elections is not enough for true democracy to exist. A free media giving equal access to different political parties, a thriving civil society, trusted neutral election authorities, and a military which stays out of politics are all also important. This kind of democratic culture is subjective and so very difficult to assess. Too tight a definition of democracy would give the League a restricted membership and make it little different to pre-1995 NATO plus Australia and New Zealand. Too relaxed a definition could allow in unsavoury regimes with “managed” democracies and make it hard to distinguish the League’s members from partial democracies such as Iran or Russia. And once a country is allowed into the League, how would standards be maintained? Would key strategic allies be thrown out of the League if an election failed to meet international standards?
What do you think?