One of the most talked about concepts for the American foreign policy community lately is the notion that the United States should organize a concert of democracies or "League of Democracies" to help reorder the world. This idea has been put forth both by Democrats, including such figures as Anthony Lake, Barack Obama's foreign policy advisor, and Ivo Daalder, of the Clinton Administration -- and, most famously, by Republican presidential candidate, John McCain.
The belief is that a grouping of perhaps about 100 democratic nations would be able to protect human rights, enforce peace and achieve prosperity around the globe -- and even perhaps influence nations under dictatorial rule to move toward democratization -- and more importantly, circumvent the power of authoritarian states like China and Russia in the United Nations Security Council, who have blocked intervention of various sorts in places like Zimbabwe, Darfur and Myanmar (Burma).
But can such a proposal really work? On paper, this sort of experiment sounds plausible. If countries with like-minded constitutional systems can cooperate on economic and environmental matters and governance, and, on occasion, impose sanctions and even undertake military intervention to end abuses, wouldn't the world be better off?
But there are a number of fundamental flaws in this proposition. First, the assumption of most proponents is that the US would presumptively organize and lead such a group. But there is little evidence at this time that America today has the sort of influence and standing to inspire such a conclave, much less direct it -- unlike when it almost single-handedly pulled together the UN organization at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. After eight years of the Bush administration, Washington's low repute means that few democracies are likely to rally to its standard.
Second, even if such distrust could be surmounted, bringing together over 100 countries as a democratic coalition is a singularly difficult feat. An initial obstacle -- what would constitute the criteria for admission to the body? After all, what constitutes a democracy? As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, there are illiberal democracies as well as liberal ones. Do the illiberal ones get to enlist? Second, once convened, by what procedures will the grouping make decisions: one state/one vote; majority rule; or unanimity. Each has consequences, especially among outspoken, disputatious democracies. Third, would there be enforcement regulations or penalties for member-states that refuse to go along with decisions? That seems highly unlikely.
Fourth, how would the organization be financed over the short and long-term, e.g., who would pay for the opening conference and where would its headquarters be located? Hard cases. Fifth, such a grouping, by definition, will have to exclude authoritarian states, yet, as a body, it would for the most part be acting against these very non-members -- which means that the assembly would have no world-wide legitimacy for its actions.
These drawbacks have already weakened the only experiment in this regard -- the body assembled by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Warsaw in 2000 composed of 106 nations and known as the "Community of Nations," which has so far shown itself to be more of a symbolic body than a substantive player in world affairs. Such difficulties bring us back to the one and only universal security body in today's world -- namely, the United Nations. Much of what these strategists are seeking can still be obtained within this body -- without inventing a new one. The genius of the UN from the start has been that it does not set a requirement of democratic rule for entry into the organization. This is because the UN's first responsibility is security, namely, ending wars -- and since all nations might be involved in conflicts, all nations must be part of the assembly. This universality of membership instantly gives legitimacy to any decisions made by the UN.
Where a democracy caucus might conceivably have its greatest impact is as a lobbying group within the UN. And, in fact, there already is a democracy caucus within the UN also called the "Community of Democracies" formed by more than 80 states in September 2004. At its best, these democracies should be able to affirm the role of human rights in, for example, a still fledgling and weak agency like the Human Rights Council; convince all nations to share the burden of reaching the Millennium Development goals; put pressure on the Security Council to act to end abuses in benighted places like Darfur; and use the General Assembly to take action when the Council won't. This will not always work (and so far the caucus has only just beginning to exercise its muscles, in the last few years blocking Belarus and Sri Lanka from the Human Rights Council), but if one wants to seriously form and nurture such a caucus, it is really only feasible within the UN -- and that is where the advocates of this idea should now be focusing their resources and energies.