A League of Their Own Imagination

I recently heard some very smart people condemning the idea of a “League of Democracies” as dangerous and divisive, yet another major strategic blunder advanced by John McCain, the neoconservatives, and the liberal hawks. They were so insistent on this idea that the League of Democracies was a dangerous and wrongheaded idea that I quickly concluded that there might be something to it.

Note that in the mid-1990s serious foreign policy scholars tended to believe that NATO expansion was a bad idea. I agreed with them. In fact, I still think it was a bad idea. But there’s no denying that NATO expansion to the Visegrad states has been widely viewed as a success, and that the expansion that followed also went relatively smoothly. That doesn’t mean the same would be true if we encroached further on Russia’s Near Abroad. Nevertheless, it is useful to keep this in mind.

So what are the key objections to a Concert of Democracies? The first is that it would enrage China, Russia, and authoritarian states in the Middle East. It would be used to legitimate the use of force — as in the invasion of Iraq — yet it would have no legitimacy in the eyes of most people in the world. That Robert Kagan is a prominent advocate of a Concert of Democracies is enough to turn some stomachs. But what even the most sophisticated observers fail to understand is that a Concert wouldn’t enable or facilitate armed intervention; rather, it would make armed intervention more rather than less difficult. The UN Security Council contains a number of authoritarian states that can be reliably expected to veto an armed intervention, thus encouraging Kosovo-style workarounds. It is easy to dismiss China’s strong defense of state sovereignty as narrowly self-interested. The ur-idea behind the Concert is to create a smaller, more exclusive club has greater normative authority to veto proposed interventions. In “The Next Intervention,” Kagan and Ivo Daalder wrote,

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.

Lest we forget, the United States failed to build such a consensus in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Any imaginable Concert would include France, Canada, and other historic allies who were strongly opposed to an invasion on President Bush’s timetable. So the Concert concept is actually a critique of unilateralism. Daalder is a vocal critic of the Bush White House, and he strongly opposed the Iraq invasion. He very shrewdly sees this proposal for what it is.

As for the legitimacy question, let me put it bluntly — the UN Security Council is a farce. Neither India nor Brazil are permanent members. Both would be members of any Concert of Democracies worthy of the name, most likely in prominent roles. Some suggest that China and Russia would seek to develop alternative institutions, and that this would prove polarizing. Perhaps some democratic states that jealously guard their sovereignty would join them. That would, in my view, be all to the good: a Concert that couldn’t retain, say, Brazil shouldn’t exist, and peaceful competitive pressures are a good thing. The Cold War confrontation helped drive the United States to improve our abysmal domestic human rights record — I’m referring to the fact that Jim Crow seemed all the more embarrassing and obscene when we were appealing to post-colonial states as the champion of freedom and democracy.

Then there is the European Union question. The European Union has been extraordinarily successful in radiating peace and prosperity throughout the European continent, yet there are thorny questions regarding its further expansion. Is Turkey, for example, sufficiently European? If not, the world is in for a rude shock. It is easy to imagine resentment building in Turkey if it is rebuffed. But of course this begs the question: what of the rest of the world, which lies far outside the charmed circle? The magnet of EU membership simply doesn’t apply to, say, the Central African Republic. It’s not absurd to posit that a Concert of Democracies could have a strong economic component, that it could serve as a global and incipiently universal version of the liberal European order. In fact, McCain proposed exactly that.

“It could act where the U.N. fails to act,” McCain says.

Such a new body, he says, could help relieve suffering in Darfur, fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa, develop better environmental policies, and provide “unimpeded market access” to countries sharing “the values of economic and political freedom.”

And, McCain adds, an organization of democracies could pressure tyrants “with or without Moscow’s and Beijing’s approval” and could “impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions” while helping struggling democracies succeed.

Surely fighting the AIDS epidemic is a global public good, and surely it makes sense that states clustered by similar regime type would have an easier time reaching consensus on how to go about doing that.

Critics focus on China’s exclusion from the club. The real question mark is over the putative exclusion of, say, Thailand or Singapore, two of the many states over which China exerts a powerful magnetic pull. Again, I’m not totally sure it’s bad for the world if China and the EU, with America as a junior partner, are bidding for the allegiance of such swing states. It’s not, I’ll admit, an obviously good thing for the states doing the bidding. For one thing, it won’t be cheap. The Cold War on the Periphery involved so-called “client states” turning their so-called patron, the United States, into a patsy — Pakistan was ostensibly a bulwark against Soviet expansion, yet they used us in their local conflict against India, which in turn drew India into the Soviet orbit, at least when they weren’t trying to hustle money out of us too.

To me, the striking thing about McCain’s endorsement of a League of Democracies isn’t that it is a naked power-mad attempt to ram armed interventions down the world’s throat. Rather, it is the incipient utopianism of the proposal — we would focus aid, presumably large amounts of aid, and we would open our markets to states that share our normative commitments. This sounds more like the germ of some kind of world-state than a militarist plot.

And that’s actually not a bad reason to oppose it. I’m not sure. Where I part company with Kagan, a thinker I greatly admire, is in my far more relaxed and sanguine view of rising Chinese power. When I see China, I see its extreme vulnerabilities. I’m also sympathetic to the crude Angellian view that our economies are irreversibly intertwined, and that this matters more now than in the days of Anglo-German antagonism. I also think that when it comes to trade, unilateral liberalization (by the US and other countries) should co-exist with a lot of policy experimentalism (to manage the impact of open markets). When people talk about renegotiating NAFTA, I always think, “Yeah — the Mexicans need more room to maneuver, and Canadians deserve fairer treatment.” That’s not the kind of renegotiation NAFTA’s American critics have in mind, however.

The League is not an entirely serious idea. It’s hard to see it getting off the ground. What’s in it for the Europeans, really? But when we take the idea seriously, it has a number of surprising implications, not all of them calamitous.