March 23, 2004

Community of Democracies

From Reason, positive steps at the UN:

Imagine a better Washington. Imagine a conservative Republican administration working hand in glove with liberal congressional Democrats on a foreign-policy initiative designed to strengthen the United Nations while simultaneously increasing America's clout there. Imagine both parties and both branches bringing this initiative to fruition smoothly and unfussily, during an election year. Say, this year. Say, right now.

Pinch yourself. It is happening.

Since 1996, a handful of foreign-policy wonks have been kicking around the idea of a "democracy caucus" at the U.N. Two administrations, first Bill Clinton's and then George W. Bush's, took quiet but significant steps in that direction. Now, according to Bush administration officials, the concept will be test-flown at the six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that began on Monday in Geneva.


Late in the second Clinton administration, with a push from the State Department, the democracies began to organize. In 2000, 106 democracies gathered for the first meeting of an informal group they called the Community of Democracies. It had no permanent staff or formal powers, but it did produce an endorsement, in principle, of a democracy caucus at the U.N., a stance that the community reaffirmed in a second meeting in 2002 and, most recently, at a U.N. meeting last fall.

The Bush State Department then began lobbying Community of Democracy nations in a series of diplomatic lunches. "And these lunches with ambassadors from all different geographical regions—but all democracies—talked about all kinds of ideas, including this one," Paula J. Dobriansky, the undersecretary of State for global affairs, said in an interview. "Overall, it was very clear that other democratic countries from various regions embrace this idea and feel it could be of great value at the U.N., that it can bring together and highlight issues relevant to democracy."

All of that was groundwork. What had yet to happen was for the caucus to meet at the U.N. to do actual business: devise common positions, advance resolutions, eventually vote as a bloc on nominations and policies. It is this operational coordination that the administration hopes will now begin in Geneva, under the leadership of Chile, which currently heads the Community of Democracies' steering group.

In my mind, the UN has always had a two-pronged legitimacy problem. On the one hand, it is routinely ignored by everyone from North Korea, Iran, and Iraq to Israel, Russia, and the US, because of its relative impotence and unwillingness to truly deter. It has no credible threat to bring to bear.

On the other hand, it is ridiculed in Western states because autocratic regimes count as much as democratic ones, leading to such absurd situations as Libya chairing the Human Rights' Commission. To make matters worse, the veto-wielding states are frozen in a historical moment that is increasingly out of line with present facts. As the article points out, these realist compromises were necessary in the aftermath of WWII, when democracies made up a small minority of the nations in the world.

While not addressing the former, this new "democracy caucus" could help significantly with the latter. And as the article also points out, it should unite the Wilsonian idealists with the neo-conservatives currently in power.

This is obviously a big step because, at its core, it's a rethinking of the Westphalian order and a re-examination of the roots of sovereignty. Two hundred and fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the world might be ready to embrace the fact that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".

We (legitimately) forced Europe to roll back the tides of paleo-colonialism after WWII, reciting the mantra of self-determination. But we remained caught in the Continental framework of de facto sovereignty – a framework that legitimized autocratic and kleptocratic (but now home-grown) regimes. Needless to say the threat of global communism made this view convenient to the realists guiding our foreign policy during the Cold War, and they were more than willing to accept these ground rules.

But the post-Cold War order requires us to truly think through the question of sovereignty, statehood and war for the first time in 450 years. We must realize that these constructs are just that – constructed – and do not exist a priori. We recognize, and thus create and define, them through our actions.

Al Qaeda and "rogue" states challenge our current conceptions from different directions. Loosely affiliated terrorist networks that attack our homeland do not fit neatly into the bucket of "things against which you declare war", leading to confusion about whether the "War on Terror" is a marketing slogan or a state of affairs. Our popular view of what Al Qaeda is, is probably poorly informed by our understanding of how traditional, hierarchical states work – a fact born out, I think, by the difficulty in understanding the relationship between Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Abu Sayyaf, IMU, GSPC, Jemaah Islamiyyah, Silafi Jihad, etc. and the ongoing confusion about second-in-commands and senior leadership within the organization.

But despite the fact that we do not recognize them, and might not fully understand them, we must confront them.

"Rogue" and "failed" states challenge us from the other direction. We recognize them because they occupy territory, command armies, and make a claim of legitimacy. But our security and our humanity force us to question when it is justified to intervene – to remove an autocrat proliferating WMD or to stop a kleptocrat committing genocide. The problem is, when? And by whose authority?

The missed opportunities (Rwanda), partial successes (Serbia), and ongoing disagreements (Iraq) highlight the fact that a new order that answers these questions is yet to materialize. But the old order is being ushered out quickly.

There is obviously a huge gulf between the world today and the one envisioned in the Reason article, where democratic regimes control the taps of legitimacy. Much remains to be defined, and the view of this new order is just a rough sketch. But the Community of Democracies is an important step and offers hope that a new consensus can emerge – and one we might be proud of.

Posted by richard at March 23, 2004 10:22 PM