The Democratic Community: Institutionalizing a Liberal World Order

Republican presidential candidate John McCain calls it a “League of Democracies;” the authors of the Princeton Project on National Security, distinguished scholars and influential politicians, as well as Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan, refer to it as a “Concert of Democracies.” Although the details of each proposal differ in some important aspects, they represent the same concept: a new international organization composed of the world’s democracies. When the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant envisaged such a federation of free states—a foedus pacificum—and a republican government as foundations for “perpetual peace” more than 200 years ago, the idea was illusionary.

Today, after the so-called “third wave” of democratization, and given the emerging consensus that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government, Kant’s vision—though still far from becoming reality—is no longer just a utopian dream. This article will argue that we have already witnessed the emergence of an informal democratic community, which is increasingly shaping world politics. Indeed, the democratic community is already being institutionalized and has even reached the stage of legalization at the regional level in some parts of the world. It is the principal aim of this article to identify this informal community in various aspects of contemporary world politics and to discuss the possible implications of a formal global organization of democracies. As closer scrutiny reveals, there are many reasons to doubt that establishing such an organization could prove to be the first step towards “perpetual peace.” Rather, it would draw new boundaries between democracies and non-democracies, weaken the universal system of the United Nations, and ultimately deteriorate prospects for a more liberal order. Instead of creating a new organization, the world’s democracies should support the growth of the informal democratic community and encourage the spread of liberalism within existing institutions.

A Global Organization of the World's Democracies?

In a recent Foreign Affairs article outlining his foreign policy strategy, John McCain calls for a “League of Democracies” to provide a common structure for the world’s democracies: “This League of Democracies would not supplant the UN or other international organizations but complement them by harnessing the political and moral advantages offered by united democratic action.” The authors of the final report of the Princeton Project make a similar point:

While pushing for reform of the United Nations and other major global institutions, the United States should work with its friends and allies to develop a global ”Concert of Democracies”—a new institution designed to strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies. This Concert would institutionalize and ratify the “democratic peace.” If the United Nations cannot be reformed, the Concert would provide an alternative forum for liberal democracies to authorize collective action, including the use of force, by a supermajority vote.

Thus, it becomes clear that these proposals are a consequence of the perceived deficiencies of the current international system with the United Nations at its center. Daalder and Kagan are even more explicit:

Until the UN members, particularly the Security Council’s permanent members, fully embrace the logic of state responsibility, leaving the decision-making authority solely with the United Nations is a recipe for indecision and inaction—and increased insecurity. Instead of the United Nations, the decision to intervene promptly to keep small threats from turning into big ones must lie with those who take seriously the notion of sovereignty as responsibility: the world’s democracies (including in particular the United States and its major democratic partners in Europe and Asia).

It has been argued that a decision by a supermajority in an assembly of democracies would be more legitimate than a resolution adopted by the current UN Security Council, which is comprised of a mixture of democracies and non-democracies. Members of the Security Council as well as observers have often accused more autocratic members of the Council of blocking what they feel would constitute effective action by the UN.

Legitimacy, however, is a matter of perspective. Having a body of (mostly Western) democracies decide over the use of force is likely not the ideal a majority of the world’s citizens has in mind, regardless of whether they hail from democratic or non-democratic countries. While they have been legitimated by their electorates, representatives of democratic countries have not been elected by peoples outside the democratic world. An institution which is based on the exclusion of certain countries from participating is, quite ironically, inherently undemocratic, too, if it decides over the fate of others that could not at all influence its decision-making. Perhaps this is why, despite any deficiencies, the United Nations remains the central forum for international action: the fact that it is inclusive affords it legitimacy on the international stage. Since legitimacy is critical to successful international action, even for the world’s only superpower, this factor cannot be ignored.

Therefore, these proposals should be taken with a grain of salt. While the authors—except for Daalder and Kagan—maintain that their proposals should not be seen as an alternative to the UN, ultimately they are exactly that. In fact, the possible areas of action for the League that McCain envisions need no further institutionalization; they are already either well-coordinated by the world’s democracies or positioned within the central competences of the UN Security Council. For example, there is no need for a new government organization if its purpose is combating HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, putting pressure on autocrats, or supporting struggling democracies, for this can be done within the current institutional structure. More often, it is not a lack of a common organization, but a lack of political will that hinders more effective engagement in these areas. The examples McCain himself gives—the failure by the Security Council to legitimize sanctions against Iran and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur—are particularly striking in this regard. There is little doubt that the actions taken by the UN Security Council with regard to these questions have so far fallen short of Western expectations. Yet, it is exactly issues like these that belong to the core responsibilities of the Security Council. Especially regarding the use of force short of self-defense, international law generally requires a UN mandate. This does not mean that in cases of extreme danger concerted action by the world’s democracies should not be an option. As Kosovo has shown, such action may be necessary to halt excessive human suffering. Interestingly, this action has been widely perceived as legitimate.

However, creating an alternate organization that would institutionalize the possibility of a surrogate mandate would further undermine the already weakened authority of the Security Council. This problem becomes apparent in the final report of the Princeton Project, the annex of which is a proposed Charter for a Concert of Democracies. Whilst the Charter states that “[t]his Treaty does not affect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting in any way, the rights and obligations under the UN Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security,” it also maintains that in cases of failed reform of the UN Security Council, action “consistent with the purposes of the United Nations, including the use of military force, may be approved by a two-thirds majority of the parties.” Apart from the fact that very few international lawyers would consider this new Charter to be consistent with international law, it is also doubtful that such an endeavor would meet broad international support. Since legitimacy, again, is key for a stable world order, such an organization could not survive in the long run without consent of the broad majority of the international community. Ironically, Anne-Marie Slaughter, co-editor of the Princeton report, points to this very argument in another text, justifying her repudiation of a “community of democracies in lieu of the U.N.” This community, according to Slaughter, is “the cherished dream of a certain small group in Washington [that] would be quite happy to dynamite the U.N.,” and she further claims that “the problem with that vision is that we—the United States—would be the only member of that community. There is no other democracy in the world that is prepared to leave the UN and come in with us in an alternative group.”

These and other difficulties a global organization of democracies would face can be observed in relation to an already existing organization uniting democratic states: the Community of Democracies, sometimes referred to as the “best kept secret in multilateral diplomacy.” Proposed by the late Clinton administration and established in Warsaw in 2000, this community has suffered from a range of problems. First and foremost, the Community has not received considerable support—most notably from important democratic states. Many governments in Eu-rope are uneasy about what they see as an essentially “American project.” This feeling has only been strengthened by the mostly unilateral foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration. Second, several of the governments that did sign the Warsaw Declaration pledging to uphold democratic principles in their own countries and to support the spread of liberal values to others have rather shaky democratic records themselves. Even some members of the Convening Group, a kind of executive committee preparing the ministerial meetings every other year, cannot be considered as consolidated liberal democracies. Sustained criticism has recently provoked a reform of the invitation process, but it remains to be seen whether it will help to improve the Community’s performance.

So far, the achievements have been rather modest. Probably the most important decision was the establishment of the Democratic Caucus within the United Nations, which works toward improving the coordination of the world’s democracies. Yet, the pledge to coordinate has so far remained an empty promise. Although the members of this group could theoretically dominate the new Human Rights Council, voting still depends by and large on regional horse-trading rather than on adherence to the Democratic Caucus. Nonetheless, the creation of this Caucus is an important step in the right direction, and it may well become an important coordinating mechanism for democratic states in the future.

Despite its rather limited mandate and low degree of institutionalization, many democratic governments are already reluctant to embrace the Community of Democracies. Hence, the road to a global organization of democratic states that eventually is to take over core responsibilities of the Security Council seems bumpy at best. Practically speaking, it might be next to impossible to objectively determine membership of this organization. Today, Freedom House counts 121 electoral democracies. However, the term “electoral democracy” already points to the fact that this definition is very narrowly conceived. Many of these “democracies” are not liberal democracies, but often rather “defective democracies” that only guarantee a minimal standard of democratic governance, which in turn seems insufficient to fulfill the conditions necessary for a democratic security community. Since there just is no clear-cut boundary between democracies and non-democracies but rather a continuum of different systems, it will be hard to select members. If the input-legitimacy argument is to be taken seriously, i.e. if decisions are perceived to be legitimate only if taken by democratically elected organs, then only consolidated liberal democracies would be admitted. In this case, however, the organization would not be much more than an enlarged NATO. No wonder then if this endeavor provokes comparisons to the nineteenth century distinction between civilized and non-civilized nations. Consequently, a global organization of democracies would heighten the already precarious tension between democratic and non-democratic states—or rather states deemed to be either one or the other —effectively constituting the iron curtain of the twenty first century based on a new standard of civilization. Robert Kagan describes such a world of black and white without any shades of gray—a clear-cut division between the “club of autocrats” and the “axis of democracy.” Presuming that the world’s democracies are a rather homogeneous bloc, he simply overlooks the fact that democracies have very different positions on how to deal with nations like Zimbabwe or Burma. South African and Indian foreign policies on these issues have so far been at odds with Western approaches. Nevertheless, proponents of a global organization of democracies seem to accept the premise that their interests are close to identical to those of the United States Furthermore, the labeling of countries as part of the “club of autocrats” may become a self-fulfilling prophecy in bringing together very different states that could eventually form a “Concert of Non-Democracies.”

There is a less dangerous and probably more effective way of paving the way for a “federation of free states” leading to “perpetual peace”—within the United Nations and within the framework of international law. Indeed, seen from a distance, it is fair to say that international order is increasingly shaped by an informal democratic community that has been able to change central rules of the broader international community. This community has the potential to shape the world for the better.

The Emergence of an Informal Democratic Community

Needless to say, the United Nations is no “federation of free states” in the sense of Kant, no community of democracies. When it was established after World War II, its founders preferred universal to democratic membership. During the Cold War, it remained largely based on the notion of absolute sovereignty that saw the political system as the fundamental core of the domaine reservé. In other words: it was irrelevant for international law whether a state was democratic or not. Nowadays, however, the international community is increasingly embracing liberal democracy as the reference point for domestic political order. Of course, this emerging consensus, and the end of the Cold War, did not bring about the “end of history,” as described by Francis Fukuyama. Indeed, it has become common for scholars discussing the post-Cold War world to disapprove Fukuyama’s thesis by pointing to the many instances of violence, war and genocide that occurred during the 1990s, which made clear that history did not come to an end. Unfortunately, by fighting this academic straw man, some scholars ignored the revolutionary fact that democracy is now widely seen as the only legitimate form of governance.

This widespread agreement has informed much of international politics since, owing to the engagement of a phenomenon that I would like to call the “democratic community.” Ever since its ideological alternative, namely state communism, crumbled along with the Berlin Wall, this informal community made up of liberal, democratic states and supported by a vast array of non-state actors such as international organizations and non-governmental organizations has had a decisive impact on inter-national relations.

Research in International Relations, informed by constructivist thinking and the English School, has dealt with the changing of norms central to the international community. It can explain the emergence of regional security communities of democracies able to overcome the security dilemma, not only in Europe and the North Atlantic area, but also increasingly in other parts of the world. These developments are also reflected in the development of international law, which—at least on the regional level—has begun to take the political system into account. Many regional organizations around the world have now introduced membership criteria based on the upholding of democratic rights. The most sophisticated ones can be found in Europe (e.g., the so-called Copenhagen Criteria for European Union admission; the Council of Europe and its European Convention on Human Rights) and in the Americas (most notably the commitments laid down in the Inter-American Democratic Charter). It seems fair to say that these regional developments may be the first signs of a new world order. This is only underlined by the fact that liberal values have taken root in almost all societies across the world. Research based on the World Values Survey, for example, has shown that people in any part of the world support general democratic principles. Apparently, there is no culture or religion that is per se hostile to democratic values—be it Asian values or Islamic traditions. While it might be true that some societies will not embrace a Western concept of liberal democracy anytime soon, there is nothing in these cultures that would generally rule out democracy. It is this normative context that accounts for the emergence of an informal democratic community with the first elements of institutionalization at the regional level that has begun to fundamentally transform the international system. In some areas of the world, democracy is the only legitimate and legal form of government.

The Informal Democratic Community Shaping International Order

In three areas where the influence of this informal democratic community can be seen—democracy promotion, international peace operations, and humanitarian intervention—it becomes obvious that members of the democratic community aim to spread liberal values from the democratic core to the non-democratic periphery. United by a shared ideology, the democratic community is thus shaping international order, helping it to become increasingly liberal.

Some authors speak of a “democracy promotion industry,” referring to the vast array of different actors engaged in furthering democratic governance. Democracy promotion has become an important—albeit not always central—part of the foreign policies of all major democracies. Additionally, many regional and international organizations, especially those dominated by liberal democracies, have embraced the idea of promoting democracy. The same is true for a variety of quasi-governmental actors such as political foundations as well as non-state actors, often based in liberal democracies. However, momentum for democratic change has decreased in recent years. This is mostly due to resistance by autocratic governments, but is also partly induced by U.S. foreign policy confusing democracy promotion with regime change. As leading U.S. experts on democracy promotion hold, the Bush administration has severely undermined the prospects for peaceful democratic change. Its foreign policy has not only suffered from double standards, it has indeed perverted the democratic peace thesis by trying to spread democratic peace by military means. Given this climate and lacking the support of important allies, the creation of a global organization of democracies would only strengthen existing boundaries.

Furthermore, international peace operations since the 1990s have shown that UN-mandated action can contribute to the spread of liberal values. Daniel and Caraher demonstrate that stable democracies account for the lion’s share of troop contributions to peace missions. These countries are the backbone of what the authors call “the international peace operations community.” It comes as no surprise then that the missions have thus promoted a very specific system of governance: “Since the 1990s, the donor community has concluded that post-conflict societies must undergo a threefold transition; war to peace, command economy to free market enterprise, and authoritarian system to open political order.” One can debate whether it has been a “coercive democratization” in all cases, but it is certainly fair to say that countries that underwent the programs implemented by these actors did not have much room for maneuver. This becomes problematic if the model is imposed as part of a “one size fits all” approach that fails to respect the needs and wishes of the local population. The phrase ”exporting” democracy—unfortunately widely used without question—underlines this problem and is contrary to the idea of democracy. If local actors cannot choose which procedures they would like to adopt, the idea of a new mission civilatrice is indeed looming. A global organization of democracies, establishing eventually a two-class system with a zone of the democratic peace and a zone of chaos in which democratic states may intervene, will contribute to that perception. In the normative context, the democratic community so far has succeeded in securing legitimacy and support for this transfer of liberal norms. But this success also depends on the way it is done and—given the growing criticism —cannot be taken for granted.

A third subject that deserves mentioning is humanitarian intervention. The democratic community has been at the forefront of a new understanding of sovereignty. While sovereignty was long seen as a shield protecting governments from external intervention, it is now increasingly understood as “sovereignty as responsibility.” It might be argued that the “responsibility to protect” is still far from becoming reality, but the adoption of this principle at least underlines the changing norms of the international community. While there is still no universal right to democracy, and the recognition of governments is not generally contingent on the respect of the popular will, sovereignty has ceased to be an excuse for suppression and violations of fundamental human rights. In recent years, arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention mostly came from democratic governments, often triggered by considerable domestic support or pressure. On the one hand, we can regard this development as insufficient, given the many failures of the international community to respond adequately to atrocities. On the other hand, it bears witness to the fact that normative change is, indeed, possible.

To summarize, we can consider these three aspects—albeit on different levels of intrusiveness—as the expression of one idea: liberal democratic states are promoting liberal norms to non-liberal states. Interestingly, they have done so by influencing and carefully transforming international norms that appear to become more and more liberal—without challenging the international order institutionalized after the end of World War II.

Implications for a Foreign Policy Strengthening a Liberal Order

I turn now to some challenges faced by the proponents of this new liberal order. Interestingly, given the normative framework of world society, the democratic community has been able to gain wide acceptance for its project of liberal transformation by using the traditional procedures of the international community. However, pushing the process too far and leaving the framework of what could be defended as consistent with international rules could eventually undermine the liberal order itself. Naazneen Barma, Ely Ratner, and Steven Weber suggest that a “World without the West” is already emerging. As they see it, authoritarian regimes opt for “the development of a new, parallel international system, with its own distinctive set of rules, institutions and currencies of power.” While this probably over-estimates the unity among non-Western states and underestimates the strength of the West, it makes clear the danger we are facing. Western democracies should not under-mine an international order, which in the last two decades has increasingly served to promote liberal values. Endangering this order is tantamount to a voluntary first step back to a pre-Charter era.

For several reasons, the goal of strengthening a liberal order should be central to the foreign policy of every democracy. A considerable amount of research has demonstrated that liberal democracies indeed do not fight each other. Enlarging this zone of democratic peace by spreading liberal values and supporting democratization promises to be a central objective within any strategy that aims to realize a more peaceful world. However, intervening militarily to enforce a people’s right to political participation means replacing one evil by another. Additionally, while stable democracies do not wage war against their fellow democracies, democratization processes may not be particularly peaceful. As some critics have pointed out, democratizing states might be even more violent than autocratic governments. The fact that most “third wave” transitional countries have not yet become stable democracies illustrates this problem. Further, re-search suggests we should not expect democratic peace to become a reality between “fig-leaf democracies.” This is why the established democracies should try to support transformation processes towards democratic rule. More research into transition processes and into the instruments external actors could use to contribute to democratization is needed.

The same is true for the relationship between democracy and internal conflict. Whereas established democracies with stable institutions that guarantee minority rights and establish formal procedures for conflict resolution allow societies to regulate tensions in a peaceful manner, a minimal democracy without institutional capacities may lead to the contrary: ethnic conflicts in which the majority attacks a minority. This is, however, also true in autocratic states and only underlines the need to strengthen institutions in democratic states, allowing compromise and due process to take place.

Democratic governance is often seen as enabling development ultimately benefiting the people. As Amartya Sen has noted, “no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” In a world where billions are suffering from hunger, this is a remarkable fact. It is certainly true that many autocratic countries have achieved impressive growth rates over the past years, but this has been made possible only by ignoring the voices of the many people who are left behind.

If we accept human rights as the ultimate value base of the emerging international community, we should—it is argued by proponents of liberal democracy—not separate human rights from democracy. After all, democratic governance is the only form of governance that guarantees human rights as rights. Only in a democracy, so the argument goes, can people claim their rights not depending on the will of the leader, the king or the ruling party. Of course, many autocracies have improved their human rights record due to political pressure, and benevolent dictatorships are certainly better than malevolent ones. Unfortunately, however, there are not many of them.

These advantages notwithstanding, democracy should not be seen as a cure-all. It will neither per se end terrorism, nor mitigate climate change. Rather, it is a foundation for tackling old and new threats. Accepting that a liberal order and respect for human rights and democracy is desirable for all, a few recommendations should be taken seriously.

Legitimacy is of utmost importance. As this brief analysis has shown, it can be argued that the democratic community has been very successful in changing the normative order by securing acceptance by the wider international community. However, reluctance expressed by important U.S. allies in Europe, not to speak of major democracies like India and Brazil, shows that there is not much support for a global organization of democracies. Therefore, the United States should strengthen the already existing institutions. The Community of Democracies can become a relevant forum for the “democratic family.” Its flaws should be a reason to ameliorate it, not to create another institution. Within the UN, the Democratic Caucus could profit from renewed U.S. leadership. For decades, it was a particular strength of American diplomacy to build coalitions. Unfortunately, Europe is either unwilling or unable to perform as the motor of the free world, but it can be expected to do more if the United States returns to a more multilateral approach within the UN A new effort also means that the United States should seek membership in the Human Rights Council and try to better it in conjunction with fellow democracies.

In addition, the United States should refrain from using military force to spread liberal values. It is not only a perversion of the idea of democracy but also counterproductive. Instead, it should support more research into the strategies that might in the end bring about sustainable results. We already know that external support for democracy can make a difference, but we do not know much more. To secure legitimacy, however, it has to be clear that U.S. democracy promotion will respect long-established principles of international law. This includes the insistence on a further development of international rules that are more conducive to liberal values.

Finally, promoting liberal values begins at home. Liberal democracies cannot preach to others the values of liberty while undermining them within their own jurisdiction. This has nothing to do with idealism. When talking to people all over the world, one can only roughly estimate the extraordinary damage the existence of Guantánamo Bay, incidents like Abu Ghraib, or the debate about water-boarding have done to the U.S. power to induce positive change in world politics. For decades, it was the promise of American democracy that was the basis for U.S. leadership in the world. We can only hope for the new administration—be it Democrat or Republican—to renew the American support for common institutions furthering freedom and democracy. The United Nations may not be perfect, but a global organization of democracies will not represent a viable alternative. Rather, the United States should support the positive developments within the United Nations increasingly shaped by a democratic community within the framework of the international community as a whole. As Kofi Annan has remarked: “When the United Nations can truly call itself a community of democracies, the Charter’s noble ideals of protecting human rights and promoting ‘social progress in larger freedoms’ will have been brought much closer.” What, if not this, could be a legitimate end for the world’s only superpower?

Tobias Bunde is a MA candidate in international relations at the Freie Universitat in Berlin, Germany. He studied international relations in Dresden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, and was a Fulbright exchange student at the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2007.

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