A League of Democracies?

Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has been calling for the creation of a “League of Democracies.” This new international group would possess a formidable military capacity, based partly on NATO and partly on a “new quadrilateral security partnership” in the Pacific between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. Neither Russia nor China, of course, would be invited to join: indeed, McCain wants to exclude Russia from the G8.

The League is necessary, argues McCain, because in matters vital to the US, such as fighting Islamic terrorism, humanitarian intervention, and spreading liberty, democracy, and free markets, the US and its democratic partners must be able to act without permission from the United Nations (i.e., from Russia and China). In other words, the League’s main purpose is to marginalize Russia and China in world affairs.

The most damning criticism of McCain’s plan is that it would launch a new Cold War between states labeled democracies and autocracies. This is not only dangerous, but incoherent. Russia and China do not “threaten” the “free world” with a powerful ideology and massive armed forces, as they did during the Cold War. Moreover, the world’s democracies are themselves divided on how to deal with Islamic terrorism or genocide in Darfur: it was France, after all, which led the opposition in the UN Security Council to the US invasion of Iraq.

Moreover, on issues like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change, the US needs Russian and Chinese help. Stigmatizing Russia and China as pariahs will not get them on board. (China must learn to behave “responsibly,” McCain declares with breath-taking condescension.) In fact, Russia has mostly cooperated with the US in the “war against terrorism.”

Finally, the idea is impracticable. One cannot imagine India or Brazil wanting to be part of any such a combination. So we would all spare ourselves an awful lot of trouble if McCain’s brainchild were buried as quickly as possible.

Yet underlying this idea is a serious proposition, to which Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, often gave eloquent expression: democracies don’t fight each other, so if the whole world were democratic, wars would stop. Presumably, McCain’s League of Democracies is designed to bring Immanuel Kant’s dream of perpetual peace closer to realization by putting pressure on non-democracies to change their ways, by force if necessary.

Leave aside the fact that efforts to make democracy bloom have become bloodily unstuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it true that democracies never fight each other? The affirmative answer seems to depend on two separate claims.

The first is that democracies have, as a matter of historical record, never fought each other. This is true of a rather small group of rich countries (India is a partial exception), mainly in western Europe and its overseas offshoots, since World War II. Moroever, they are “our kind” of democracy – constitutional democracies that contain all the features we take for granted in modern Western systems, not “Islamic democracies” like Iran. A reasonable generalization from this rather small sample would be that “prosperous and constitutional democracies tend to live in peace with each other.”

The second claim is that these countries live in peace because they are democracies. But is it democracy that has brought them peace and prosperity, or is it peace and prosperity that have brought democracy? Is it democracy that has kept Europe peaceful since 1945, or is it the long period of peace since 1945 that has allowed democracy to become the European norm?

The world already has a peace-maintaining institution. The UN was created under rules designed to enable states of different political colors to live together. Members accept the obligation not to use force except in self-defense or unless it is authorized by the Security Council. The US is frustrated by not being able to get its way at the UN. But the UN exists to protect all states from lawless behavior, including by the US. By implicitly bypassing the UN, and dividing the world into two armed camps, the League of Democracies would increase the danger of war.

The world also already has a prosperity-spreading mechanism. It is called trade. In 1994, the World Trade Organization was created to liberalize trade under agreed rules. It is full of faults, which need to be corrected. But we don’t need a League of Democracies to do this. By subjecting trade relations to embargoes, sanctions, and tests of democracy, environmental standards, and human rights, the League is likely to retard the growth of trade, and thus the chance for poor non-democracies to catch up.

The only purpose of the League of Democracies seems to be to legitimize war-making by democracies – in order to spread democracy! This is the thrust of McCain’s message. As he put it, the US was built for a purpose – to serve “eternal and universal principles.” Its God-given task is to build an “enduring global peace on the foundations of freedom, security, prosperity, and hope.”

Noble rhetoric! But if that is the League’s purpose – and I see no other – then it is a danger to peace. This is because its advocates believe that no long-term co-existence with non-democracies is possible. This is crazy and unhistorical. It is up to the chastened nations of Western Europe, which broadly share American values but have learned something about political patience, to rein in the American fantasy of re-making the world in its own image.

I am all for spreading Western-style democracy, but not at the cost of making the world more warlike. Peaceful coexistence between different political systems is an attainable objective, and one to which all the world’s major powers can sign up.