...this concept is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world really works and is based on three false premises: that democracies are somehow more inclined to act in the name of the common goodwill; that democracies will agree not only on what is broken, but what needs to be done to fix it, and; that alliances are forged from common values, and not shared interests.All of Matt's critiques are excellent, and right on the money. But the sum of his arguments don't add up to the total of his conclusions. He's right on all of his points: Democracies aren't necessarily any more likely to act on issues of low national interest, democracies aren't necessarily any more capable of coming to consensus, and shared values aren't always the strongest or best metric of mutual alliance.
1. Democracies are more inclined to act... There is no reason to suspect that the creation of the League of Democracies will prompt increased attention to a situation such as, say, Darfur....In the case of Darfur, the international community has - to put it crudely - simply been too busy elsewhere. The ongoing conflict there has been only of peripheral interest to the US - it scarcely has the time or human resources at its disposal to provide the type of attention a challenge like Darfur requires. A nation acts when it is in its interest to do so and, most importantly, is actually available to do so. If anything, the competing priorities on the US foreign policy agenda (I'm looking at you, Iraq) prevent Washington from taking the sort of action on the ground in Darfur that would be necessary to end the bloodshed.
2. Collectively, democracies will do what needs to be done... To solve the litany of problems plaguing the international community today requires that states involved in the effort not only agree on what the threat is, but define its nature and agree on the steps needed to resolve the problem. By what objective standards are democracies more capable of this than other states?
In the end, the world's leading democracies already enjoy perhaps some of the closest and most interlinked alliances in all of history, yet are split on numerous foreign policy decisions - from Iraq and Iran to missile defense and arms sales to China. How would codifying their relationships into a formal "League of Democracies" make their ability to face today's threats to international security or their ability to agree any differently?
3. Alliances are built on shared values... This is the largest conceptual flaw behind the push for creating a League of Democracies, mistaking alliances among states for a nod that the two are in agreement for how the world should look both within and among states. Alliances are forged when interests between one or more states converge and a cooperative relationship between two states becomes the most realistic means of achieving shared goals. This is why the US has a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia than it does with, say, Belgium. (Pervez Musharaff and a few other Central Asian autocrats have often made quite useful partners in recent years, one might add.)
But, to take the critiques in turn, the whole point of the league is to create a mechanism that will be more effective at spurring these countries into action. When Daalder and Kagan speak of creating a "formal mechanism" they presumably are thinking of some kind of enforcement mechanism as exists in the WTO that would bind states to their institutional commitments. The impetus behind finding a institution to replace the UN is to find one that works: That punishes states that break the rules and that forces its members to act when those rules have been broken.
Matt wonders why democracies would be any more likely than a mixed body to agree on means. Perhaps. But to discard the notion of an alliance on those grounds would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. First, NATO, the WTO, and other institutions made of up like-minded states have certainly been more able to design coherent plans of action than has been the UN. Matt points to the problems experienced by the US surrounding the invasion of Iraq, but that seems to work against his argument, as Iraq was conducted outside of the framework of an institution. Iraq was done by the whims of the US, ignoring the advice and warnings of America's allies. A league would create some formal mechanism for planning, akin to NATO's unified command structure. Now, before you mention Kosovo, yes, I'm aware Kosovo was a problem for NATO planners. But it was still better than the UN could have done.
Finally, Matt argues that interests rather than values are the basis for partnerships in international politics, asking why, if the opposite were true, would the US have a closer relationship with Saudi Arabia than it does Belgium. This is a very short-sighted understanding of interest. While it's true that interest plays a role, the American interest in Saudi Arabia is a tactical one; oil. The American interest in Belgium is a much more long-term one; shared values. So while America may need to placate Saudi Arabia in the short-term to get access to oil or to get cooperation in counter-terror efforts on Iraq, the US relationship with Belgium is much stronger and deeper and is ultimately more fundamental to US and global security.
Matt's critiques are trenchant and powerful, but ultimately, unconvincing. Properly constructed (and that is no easy task), a league of democracies could be a powerful and meaningful force in international politics. The WTO has fired the first shot across the bow...will there be more?