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How about a League of Democracies?

Robin Lustig | 16:47 UK time, Monday, 19 May 2008

There's a rather interesting debate under way - just below the radar for now, but attracting increasing attention among foreign policy scholars and analysts - about whether the world needs a more effective institution than the United Nations.

The problem with the UN, according to its critics, is that any old nation can join - and every member has a vote. Yes, including Burma, Zimbabwe, north Korea and sundry other places whose governments don't exactly meet with universal approval.

So why not set up another body, whose members would have to pass certain agreed political standards? The US Republican party's presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, has been championing the idea of what he calls a "League of Democracies".

This is what he said in March: "If I am elected president, I will call a summit of the world's democracies in my first year to seek the views of my democratic counterparts and begin exploring the practical steps necessary to [create a League of Democracies] ...This organisation could act when the UN fails to act--to relieve human suffering in places such as Darfur, combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises, provide unimpeded market access to those who endorse economic and political freedom, and take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems."

But he's not the only one toying with the idea - so is Barack Obama, and according to today's Financial Times, so too is the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whom it quotes as saying: "You can see the dangers. You don't want to set up something which undermines the ability of the international system to get to grips with difficult issues. Equally though . . . should people with the same values work effectively together? The answer must be yes."

The FT's foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman is not impressed. "Almost all of America's closest democratic allies have deep reservations about a league of democracies. The Europeans are committed to the UN and would be loath to join an alliance that undermined it. They are also suspicious of America's democratic evangelism."

And a former British ambassador to the United Nations, Lord Hannay, writes: "The real conversation-stopper, which none of the proponents of the league seems to have addressed, is the improbability that the great democracies of the developing world (India, Brazil, South Africa, and so on) would be prepared to sign up for the journey. A brief survey of the United Nations voting records of the three developing countries I have mentioned would reveal that they are among the most anti-interventionist of all UN members and the most hesitant about authorising the use of force. Have any of the champions of a league of democracies thought to ask the Indians or Brazilians what they think about the idea?"

So is it a non-starter? I'm not so sure. Look at NATO, for example, which expects of its members that they will have achieved what it calls "certain goals in the political and economic fields". These include "settling any international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means; demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of their armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility."

Or take the European Union, which has what it calls "Copenhagen criteria" which need to be adopted by all aspiring EU members: "Membership requires that a candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and, protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union."

So there's nothing all that outrageous about international institutions setting out rules for membership. The big problem with the "League of Democracies" idea, it seems to me, is that it risks once again dividing the world into two blocs of nations, much as it was during the Cold War. In one bloc, you could have much of north and south America and Asia, and nearly all of Europe (not including Byelorus), plus some of Africa; in the other bloc, Russia, China and all of the Arab world, where there isn't a single functioning democracy (Lebanon and Palestine come closest, but neither is in great shape at the moment).

Gideon Rachman says: "The trouble with this idea is that it risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. America's relationships with China and Russia are complicated and ambiguous -- with elements of both competition and co-operation. But the formation of a league of democracies would harden antagonisms and might even be seen as the launching of a new cold war."

For now, the debate is being conducted largely in the US. I wonder how long it'll be before it takes off on this side of the Atlantic as well.


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