Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Source of Legitimacy in International Politics

As President Bush has learned as a result of the invasion of Iraq, legitimacy is exceedingly important in international politics. Soft power and interdependence have become such prominent features of the international landscape that acting in opposition to global norms and mores can be very costly.

However, while legitimacy may be important, its sources aren't clear. Most people look to the UN -- the closest thing that exists to a global parliament or legislative body -- for that legitimacy. But ultimately doing so makes no sense. Legitimacy must stem from a collective of shared values; that is, the actors from whom legitimacy is sought must agree on the basic values and rules to be followed that define the legitimacy. But the UN does not represent the kind of values that should define American (or global) legitimacy. The UN stands for sovereignty, nothing more. Every state is treated equally no matter how reprehensible the state, no matter how many of the UN's own rules it violates. Thus, we get states like Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Sudan not just participating, but leading committees and being treated as normal. However, despite this seeming democratic nature, the UN is fundamentally non-democratic, as the UN's institutional structure allows one of five states (the permanent members of the Security Council) to veto any action and block the will of the rest of the international community.

Seeking legitimacy from this institution makes no sense. Why is it acceptable to allow Russia or China to veto international action in Kosovo or Darfur? Why should the US seek approval from an organization that allows Sudan to serve, and chair, on the Human Rights Committee? That allows Zimbabwe to chair the Sustainable Development panel? That repeatedly condemns Israel but makes no mention of the genocides in Darfur, the brutalization in Zimbabwe, or the misery of North Korea? And the UN is, obviously, subjected to the politics of national self-interest which undermines its ability to define legitimacy. As Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan note in their Washington Post op-ed from Monday:

the U.N. Security Council, no longer suffices [as a source of legitimacy], if it ever did. Under the United Nations Charter, states are prohibited from using force except in cases of self-defense or when explicitly authorized by the Security Council. But this presupposes that the members of the Security Council can agree on the threat and the appropriate response. From Rwanda to Kosovo to Darfur, however, and from Iraq to North Korea to Iran, the Security Council has not been able to agree and has failed to act decisively. Its permanent members are deeply divided by conflicting interests as well as by clashing beliefs about the nature of sovereignty and the right of the international community to intervene in the internal affairs of nations.
If the UN can't provide legitimacy, where should states look? According to Daalder and Kagan, "the answer is the world's democracies, the United States and its democratic partners in Europe and Asia." They continue:

As the war in Kosovo showed, democracies can agree and act effectively even when major non-democracies, such as Russia and China, do not. Because they share a common view of what constitutes a just order within states, they tend to agree on when the international community has an obligation to intervene. Shared principles provide the foundation for legitimacy.

A policy of seeking consensus among the world's great democratic nations can form the basis for a new domestic consensus on the use of force. It would not exclude efforts to win Security Council authorization. Nor would it preclude using force even when some of our democratic friends disagree. But the United States will be on stronger ground to launch and sustain interventions when it makes every effort to seek and win the approval of the democratic world.

Eventually, perhaps, these matters could be addressed and decided in a more formal arrangement, a Concert of Democracies, where the world's democracies could meet and cooperate in dealing with the many global challenges they confront. Until such a formal mechanism has been created, however, future presidents need to recognize that legitimacy matters, and that the most meaningful and potent form of legitimacy for a democracy such as the United States is the kind bestowed by fellow democrats around the world.

I have supported this idea many times in these pages. Back in May, I wrote about John McCain's idea of a league of democracies, arguing that:

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.
I also claim that its not as important that the members of the group be democratic so long as they are committed to globalization, economic interdependence, and preservation of the status quo.

The UN is simply not capable of dealing with issues of global security, nor should it be seen as a source of legitimacy where such issues are concerned. The UN is invaluable when it comes to peace keeping, nation building, and social initiatives like disease prevention, education, and the like. But it is time to recognize the UN's limits. While the UN dithered getting a weak, watered down resolution in Darfur, more than 200,000 people died and millions more were displaced. If such an parallel institution existed, perhaps the Kosovo model, in which the democratic members of NATO authorized their own intervention contrary to international law, could have applied and countless lives saved.


Lindsay said...

Funny- I was JUST thinking about international legitimacy 5minutes ago. I think, one day, democratic norms will become the new international laws (said the unwavering optimist). I think this was implicit in some of your blog.

Matt Eckel said...

While I generally agree with the concept you propose here, I wonder how such a group would respond in practice when faced with what Azar Gat notes are now durable authoritarian capitalist powers like China and Russia. Will relations be well managed in such an environment, or become more poisonous?

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