Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A League of Democracies?

Senator John McCain recently gave a very interesting and provocative speech to the Hoover Institution, in which he called for the creation of a "League of Democracies." According to McCain:

[the League of Democracies] would not be like the universal-membership and failed League of Nations' of Woodrow Wilson but much more like what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace. The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur. It could join to fight the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and fashion better policies to confront the crisis of our environment. It could provide unimpeded market access to those who share the values of economic and political freedom, an advantage no state-based system could attain. It could bring concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe, with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval. It could unite to impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions. It could provide support to struggling democracies in Ukraine and Serbia and help countries like Thailand back on the path to democracy.
McCain goes on to note that while the League "would not supplant the United Nations or other international organizations," it would be "the one organization where the world's democracies could come together to discuss problems and solutions on the basis of shared principles and a common vision of the future."

I think this is an excellent idea. In a series of posts last summer (here, here, and here) I wrote about this very concept, arguing that the democratic states of the world need to create, perhaps using the WTO and NATO as foundations, a meta-institution that can spread western values, enforce international laws and norms, maintain peace and security, and bolster the international economic order. The general vision is to connect the various economic and political institutions together, whereby membership in one is predicated on adherence to commitments in the others. Thus, violating the NPT or the genocide convention is met by punishment in the WTO. Such a strategy is based on the logic of engagement which has been working reasonably well in China, where the desire to participate in and receive the benefits of the international economic order (and the fear of the economic damage that would result from being excluded) creates incentives to maintain a status quo posture. Such a network, or meta-institution, could go a long way in dealing with the issues with which the UN is incapable of dealing.

McCain's speech has already met with loud derision from those who, for whatever reason, fear seeing the UN lose any bit of power or standing. Scott Paul over at The Washington Note writes that "such an organization is doomed to fail for a number of reasons." The reasons?
First, the universal membership of the United Nations gives it a unique legitimacy among international actors. When it acts or speaks as one, it does so with a power that cannot be matched by any other institution - a power that, according to the RAND Corporation, makes it the most effective nation-building organization in the world. A new organization may be more efficient and take collective action more readily, but it will be viewed with suspicion by outsiders and cannot possibly succeed.

Second, splitting the democracies from the non-democracies is the surest way to increase the rift between the two camps. At the United Nations, countries have to care about all global problems. That's a big reason why rich countries are starting to pay more attention to global poverty and poor countries are starting to pay attention to global terrorism.

Finally - and this is McCain's major mistake, too - Bayefsky and company somehow think that the United States is capable of shaping a new world order all on its own. Even in the nascent Community of Democracies, an up-and-coming organization dedicated to helping build democratic institutions, the U.S. must tread lightly to get what it wants.

As I have noted before, the UN's legitimacy is bogus. Yes, the UN is good at doing a number of things, but those things are merely where the interests of states coincide. By virtue of being the only truly global institution, the UN is able to bring together lots of different perspectives. But, the UN's legitimacy rests on the notion of sovereign equality, which fundamentally undermines the UN's ability to deal with the serious problems of international politics.

As to the point about dividing the international community, there's something to that concern. But, every decision has its costs and consequences. If the community was only based on being democratic, this could be a problem, but if it was more based on status quo behavior and economic openness, that problem becomes minimized. Engagement and globalization have already had a powerful effect on China's political situation, and promises to continue to drive that country in a positive direction. It's true, regarding point three, that the US can't go it alone in such an endeavor. But using the WTO as a foundation would avoid that problem as well.

This is an idea that needs to be taken seriously. The UN is simply not capable of doing the job that the international community needs it to do. Perhaps a new framework is possible. I don't know whether I like McCain for president...but I do like this idea.


Matthew said...

The world's leading democracies - in NATO - already enjoy perhaps some of the closest and most interlinked alliances in all of history, yet are split on numerous FoPo decisions - from Iraq and Iran to missile defense and arms sales to China. How would creating a "League of Democracies" make their ability (or desire, for some of our Euro friends) to face today's threats to international security any differently?


Matt Bondy said...

This link will take you to a Canadian news story. It talks about ratcheting up pressure on China, using the Olympics as a lever.

I know this corner is very interested in 'engagement' as concerns China. Just fyi.


NYkrinDC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NYkrinDC said...

While an interesting concept, I do think a League of democracies faces some very important challenges. For example, which countries would be included, and what level of democratic governance would we expect of its members? I mean, would Nigeria be considered a democracy? It's last "election" wasa sham. So, if we raise the bar, we would likely end up with the US, most Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, South Africa and parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia and not much more. Yet, to be effective it would need something that because of its entry requirment it cannot have, an accurate reflection of global power. In such a venue, we would be missing major world powers like Russia, and China, who are already underrepresented in current International institutions, while tacitly recognizing the power of other rising powers, like India.

In addition, given the manner in which connectivity to globalization has already changed many authoritarian regimes (particularly China) it seems that what is more important for political change in the future is that connectivity and not promotion of democratic governance by the US, or other powers.

Along this line, Tom Barnett has argued that the notion that "if you are like us politically, then you are our friend," is an outdated notion of the Cold War era. Currently, he argues, what is more important is not whether your political system matches ours but whether your economic system is either similar or becoming similar. The reason, because over the long run, as you connect more to the global economy that connectivity will bring with it rule-sets that will promote over time more change and accountability. Notice China's move to secure its banking system by making it more transparent and calling on foreign banks to address its deficiencies. Similarly, notice how they are moving to deal with the situation involving regulations of food and health in response to both SARS and the recent problem with cat food. The reason's behind these actions are simple. They know that in order to continue to sell to the global market, they need to have a basic level of transparency and accountability that gives investors confidence that they will get a return. More recently, China backed down from its push to have bloggers register under their real names, when the Tech industry balked that the added regulations would impede economic productivity.

Barnett, instead has proposed a way in which to institute a process for dealing with problems on the world stage. To him, the U.N. security council needs to be reformed to better reflect power distribution in the world. Once that is done, we would have to expand the G-8 for similar reasons (and because they hold all the money) until we get the G-10 or G-20). This body will essentially become the world's Chief executive, while the UN and the security council would be what they are, deliberating bodies that take little action. Once they decide that a country or situation is a problem for global security, the G-20 will come up with a way to pay for it and would be in charge of implementing the Council's decision.

Also, I've added you tomy blogroll here.

Seth Weinberger said...

NYkrinDC: Thanks for the comment. I believe that my ideas are actually quite close to those of Barnett. Note that I don't call for a new IO of democracies, but one based around economic interdependence (using the WTO as a base) and basic norms and values. I agree that the regime type isn't all that important for determining international behavior; economics and adherence to the status quo are the relevant criteria.

Thanks for adding me to your blogroll...I'll be sure to check out your site!