A fatal flaw at the heart of Bush and Blair’s democratic crusade

THERE ARE TWO competing visions of international relations. On the one side is the Blair-Bush “new” doctrine, which links world security to the spread of Western values. On the other side is the traditional doctrine of national sovereignty, which precludes intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. In between wobbles the United Nations, whose charter commits it to uphold non-intervention, but which is pulled to the intervention by the present sentiment of its most powerful Western members.

The problem that the Blair-Bush school of reformers faces is that there is still a lot of life left in the old charter doctrine. The UN exists to defend sovereign states against aggression. Any military action has to be authorised by the Security Council, each of whose permanent members has a veto. The balance of power in the Security Council has been at least an intermittently reliable protector of small power independence: under it almost 150 new states have come into existence since the war.

So the charter remains their first line of defence against the American hyperpower. So long as the United States alone has the power of unilateral action, there is little enthusiasm to stray far beyond the old doctrine, even though in practice it leaves tyrants to wreak whatever damage they please on their wretched countries as long as they do not attack their neighbours.

But sentiment is changing. Partly as a result of the international community’s supine inaction in face of the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, the UN has accepted an “international obligation to protect the innocent”. This qualifies the principle of national sovereignty with a behaviour test. A state’s sovereignty will be deemed to lapse if it behaves too badly towards its own people — ie, starts murdering or starving them to death. The UN has also asked member states to commit to ambitious “millenium development goals”, such as cutting world poverty in half by 2015.

Few would object to this “humanitarian” extension of the UN’s mandate. The problem is the attempt to marry it to the “war against terrorism”, a much more contentious matter, especially for Muslim countries. It is made more so by the Western belief that terrorism is bred out of poverty, and poverty stems from the lack of Western values and standards of “governance”. The War on Terror thus links protection of the innocent (including anti-poverty programmes) to the spread of democracy. This is the essence of the Blair-Bush doctrine. And it is what makes many UN members suspicious.

It is one thing to say that you want to stop mass murder, help countries to overcome poverty and disease, and put them on the development path. It is another to say that poverty, disease, environmental degradation, civil wars and so on are security threats, especially if coupled with the view that they can only be dealt with if countries adopt Western standards of government. Talk of security threats automatically triggers military thinking and the search for military solutions.

The opening for military thinking is most clearly seen in the Bush doctrine of “pre-emption”, or anticipatory strike. “Pre-emption” is part of the inherent right of self-defence. But, by well-established convention, the threat of attack must be “imminent”. This requires not just the possession of weapons but an intention to use them. However, President Bush’s new security doctrine stretches US self-defence to cover defence against not just actual, but potential threats. A nuclear weapons programme (or even a civil nuclear energy programme) can be seen as a threat. So can a dictatorship. When the two are combined you have a case for preventive war.

President Bush and Tony Blair fervently believe that the most potent latent threats come from countries that have not adopted the Western “norms” of democracy, freedom and markets. Carried to its logical conclusion the Blair-Bush view would make regime change an integral part of Western security doctrine.

Apart from the practical inconvenience of obliging America and Britain to fight preventive wars into an indefinite future, the Blair-Bush doctrine rests on the fatal misconception that democracy is inherently peaceful, dictatorship inherently warlike. On this the historian A. J. P. Taylor had almost the last word: “Bismarck fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; democracies fight ‘just’ wars and kill millions.” Latin America has been mostly governed by dictators, but it has had very few wars since its countries achieved independence from Spain and Portugal nearly 200 years ago.

Even the more modest proposition that “democracies never fight each other” is disputable in theory and false in fact. Germany was more democracy than dictatorship in 1914, when the popularly elected Reichstag, including the Social Democrats, overwhelmingly voted for the war against France and supplied the imperial government with the credits to wage it.

That is why this week’s gathering of world leaders signed a bit of paper full of good intentions but no commitments. UN reform will remain blocked as long as humanitarian motives are entangled with security ones.

It would have been far better to have gone for an operational commitment to protect the “innocent” and left the War on Terror to the discretion of the Security Council. It already has the all tools it needs to fight a genuine war on terrorism — one that is not a cover for imperial adventure.