An Alliance of Democracies: Our Way or the Highway

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

November 6, 2004

For the first time in a generation, foreign policy dominated the US presidential election campaign. Even as the candidates battled over who could better wage the war on terror and whether the Iraq war was wise and well-executed, the real issue dividing the candidates was more fundamental—namely, how America should engage the world. While both men recognised that America’s interests would be best served if the US worked with others, they differed profoundly on how to achieve that co-operation.

John Kerry, like many previous US presidents and most Europeans, argued that co-operation would be most effective if countries work through international institutions, especially the UN and Nato. George W. Bush, on the other hand, has been deeply sceptical about the efficacy and even legitimacy of these institutions and has always favoured working through ad hoc coalitions instead.

Both arguments contain important truths. Institutional forms of co-operation are often more efficient and more legitimate than coalitions forged for the moment and only for specific missions. But many existing institutions have failed to deal effectively with today’s many challenges. The unilateralism vs. multilateralism argument that has dominated the American and transatlantic debate in recent years has failed to grapple with this essential dilemma. Rather than perpetuating a stale debate, the president has a major opportunity to move us beyond it. He needs to forge a renewed consensus within America and across the Atlantic that our interests are best served by creating an international institution that encourages co-operation in ways that are both effective and legitimate. An Alliance of Democracies is just such an institution.

For the past three years, people could be forgiven if they got the impression that the US was not much interested in international co-operation. Undergirding this was a belief in the US that the country was so powerful, and its goals so pure, that it could lead without considering the views and interests of others. Allies, multilateral institutions, and international law—long the mainstay of US engagement abroad—had come to be viewed as constraints on America’s freedom to act as it wished and should. To Bush and his administration, an unbound America was seen as a more secure America.

This foreign policy perspective dominated the views of a few—David Frum and Richard Perle’s An End to Evil is one notable example—but after the disaster that has befallen Iraq it has lost many of its early adherents. Few Americans believe that deploying 90 per cent of the foreign troops, suffering 90 per cent of the military casualties, and paying 90 per cent of the bill represents much of a bargain. Whether it is in Iraq or anywhere else, Americans want to work with others. The reasons are straightforward. The US is powerful, but it is not omnipotent—or omniscient. It needs the help and advice of other countries, whether to counter terrorism, curtail weapons proliferation, cure infectious diseases or curb global warming.

Institutions make such co-operation possible in an otherwise anarchic world. By operating on an agreed set of rules, institutions reduce uncertainty, enhance predictability and create expectations of future co-operation on the part of their members. An alliance such as Nato fosters co-operation by reducing distrust among its members and enhancing the capacity for joint action through inter-operability of their military equipment, joint training and co-ordinated defence planning and strategy development. Arms control regimes can encourage dialogue, create transparency and set limits on what kinds of military capabilities states can possess or use.

But if institutions are valuable, it is increasingly evident that the chief existing international security organisations—the UN and Nato—are not up to the task of confronting the new global challenges we now face. As a pre-cold-war organisation operating in a post-cold-war world, the UN has struggled mightily to be relevant and effective. There have been some notable successes, especially in the 1990s when it responded effectively to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and facilitated negotiations and operations that helped end brutal conflicts in Cambodia, East Timor, El Salvador, Mozambique and Namibia.

But the past decade has also shown that there are limits to what the UN can achieve. While its blue helmets can help keep the peace when warring parties choose not to fight, we saw in Somalia, the Balkans and elsewhere that they cannot make peace where none exists. Moreover, whether it is Rwanda a decade ago, Kosovo five years ago or Chechnya and Sudan today, we know the UN is powerless when regimes or their supporters are bent on slaughtering their own populations. And as 12 years of resolutions demanding Iraq’s disarmament showed, even a consensus within the Security Council on the need to act does not guarantee that the UN’s will is enforced.

Efforts to improve the UN’s capacity to respond to global security threats are laudable. But we are never going to see a UN army. And remaking the Security Council, training peacekeepers and increasing funding will only marginally improve the UN’s ability to act. The real problem is that reform proposals such as these do not go to the heart of what ails the organisation—its founding principles are obsolete. One such principle is the sovereign equality of its members, regardless of the character of their governments. Another is that its main purpose is to prevent aggressive wars. Neither of these principles are surprising for an organisation born in the wake of history’s most destructive conflict. But 60 years later, they no longer make sense.

The main security threats in today’s world come from internal developments within states rather than from their external behaviour. The last three wars fought by the US, Britain and others—against Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq—were each precipitated by internal developments: the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians, the provision of a terrorist sanctuary and the presumed (and illegal) pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. In two of these cases, the UN Security Council failed explicitly to authorise the use of force; in the case of Afghanistan it did so only implicitly.

The principle that UN members should be treated as sovereign equals regardless of the character of their governments is equally problematical. It can lead to such absurd decisions as allowing an Iraq that ignores resolutions demanding that it dismantle its weapons of mass destruction to chair the UN Conference on Disarmament, or to vote a Sudan that wages a genocidal civil war on to the UN Human Rights Commission. Today, respect for state sovereignty must be conditional on how states behave at home, not just abroad. Sovereignty carries with it a responsibility to protect citizens against mass violence and a duty to prevent internal developments that threaten others. Regimes that fail to uphold these duties and responsibilities should lose their sovereign right to insist on the non-interference in their internal affairs.

Is the UN’s current weakness Nato’s future strength? After the allied rescue of the UN in Bosnia many thought and hoped the Atlantic Alliance could fill the gap. Nato would go out of area—first to the Balkans, then to the rest of central and eastern Europe, and ultimately to the Middle East and beyond. The alliance had some important successes along the way. It ended the brutal fighting in Bosnia and prevented a worse humanitarian calamity in Kosovo. By bringing in new members, Nato helped stabilise their transition from stagnated dictatorships to vibrant market democracies. As a result, Europe today is more peaceful, more united, and more democratic than at any time in history.

But an alliance originally founded to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down, as Lord Ismay, its first secretary general, once put it, is not well suited for today’s world. While Nato is committed to take on roles beyond Europe, its performance in Afghanistan and Iraq has been woeful. Nato countries have deployed just 6,500 troops to help maintain the peace in Afghanistan—a country the size of Texas. (The US deploys another 20,000 troops in a separate operation in Afghanistan, but few of these have stabilisation and peace-building as their mission.) As for Iraq, all Nato could come up with was a small contingent to assist in training Iraqi security forces—but nothing like the kind of stabilisation effort it deployed in the Balkans or even in Afghanistan.

There are many reasons for Nato’s failure to respond more forcefully, but among the most important is the reality that the alliance takes a less central place in European and US foreign policy than it once did. Europeans increasingly look toward the European Union to guide their policies, including in the foreign and security realm. Americans, confident of their own power, increasingly see Nato as providing a toolbox from which to select useful capabilities necessary to make up coalitions of the willing. To neither is Nato any longer the main instrument of their foreign or defence policy.

Ever since the end of the cold war, many have argued for the need to reform institutions such as Nato and the UN to make them relevant for the world that is, rather the world that was. It has proved a fool’s errand. The UN has been built on false premises – which a majority of its members nevertheless insist must be upheld. Attempts to adapt Nato have run up against its functional and geographical limitations. We have to do better.

The solution must lie in creating a formal Alliance of Democracies. Such an organisation would address the main US criticism of institutional multilateralism—that it gives countries implacably hostile to American values a say in its foreign policy. What other members of the alliance would receive in return is more predictability in and influence over America’s behaviour. Washington would find it more difficult at home to give the back of its hand to an Alliance of Democracies than to the UN. The first key to making such an alliance work is to restrict its membership to countries with entrenched democratic traditions. The great weakness of the Community of Democracies, an effort launched in Warsaw in 2000 to bring together countries “committed to democracy”, is that it cast its net too wide. By no reasonable criteria are Egypt, Qatar or Yemen—to name just some of the more than 100 members—democracies. Many other members are newly born or quasi-democracies that could—and in some cases have—slipped back into authoritarian government.

Membership of the Alliance of Democracies must instead be limited to countries where democracy is so rooted that reversion to autocratic rule is unthinkable. Using criteria and rankings compiled by the widely respected Freedom House and the Polity IV Project at the University of Maryland, nearly five dozen countries meet this membership threshold. These include not just the obvious candidates, such as the OECD countries, but also Botswana, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Mauritius, Peru, the Philippines and South Africa. The diverse mix of regions, cultures and traditions represented makes for the basis of a truly global institution. More countries could join as they demonstrated a deeply rooted commitment to democratic governance.

The second key to making such an alliance work is to give it a broad mandate with real responsibilities. The Community of Democracies seeks to promote democratisation worldwide. The purpose of an Alliance of Democracies would by necessity be far more ambitious: it would unite democracies to confront their common security challenges. Alliance members would work jointly to strengthen international co-operation to combat international terrorism, halt weapons proliferation, stop the spread of infectious diseases and slow down global warming. And it would work vigorously to advance the values that its members see as fundamental to their security and well-being—democratic government, respect for human rights and market-based economies. It would accomplish these objectives in part by working through existing international institutions—it would become a powerful caucus at the UN and its affiliated agencies, enabling its members to pool their votes and exercise diplomatic clout in a co-ordinated fashion.

But to achieve its full potential the alliance would also have to develop its own capabilities. On the military front, that means emulating Nato. The alliance would develop doctrine, promote joint training and planning and enhance inter-operability among its member militaries. These efforts could cover high-intensity warfare and peacekeeping operations.

Its reach would also extend to economic matters—its potential members are responsible for the bulk of world economic activity and would constitute a powerful voting bloc within the World Trade Organisation. To deepen their mutual ties and to solidify the alliance’s importance, they should work toward eliminating tariffs and other trade barriers among member countries. The alliance would also be an appropriate forum for co-ordinating development and financial assistance strategies, creating an emissions trading system to combat climate change and developing new energy policies that reduce reliance on oil and other fossil fuels.

The alliance’s ultimate goal would be for it to play a role akin to what Nato did for its members during the cold war, with one key difference: it would not be formed to counter any particular country or be confined to any region. Its aspiration would instead be to expand its membership ranks. Much as the opportunity to join the European Union encouraged east European governments to embrace democratic ways, the possibility of becoming a member of the alliance could provide a powerful incentive for democratising countries to complete their journey.

Such an alliance will not be built in a day. More than four decades elapsed from the day Robert Schuman outlined his vision of a European Coal and Steel Community to the formal creation of the European Union, and Europe’s political evolution continues. It may take as long or longer for a full-fledged Alliance of Democracies to emerge. What is important is that the world’s main democracies, led by the US and its allies, make the commitment to building a new kind of international institution explicitly based on the political character of its members.

The task of building an alliance is in many ways less demanding than creating a unified Europe. Schuman had no historical precedents for his vision. Indeed, two world wars in a quarter century suggested that the effort would be wasted. Today, however, the building blocks for formalised co-operation among democracies already exist. The European Union and Nato are the great exemplars.

Moreover, as Anne-Marie Slaughter demonstrated in her book A New World Order, necessity has already encouraged substantial co-operation among democratic countries. Whether it is crime, financial regulation, counter-terrorism or some other trans-national challenge, government agencies and officials have come together across borders to solve common problems. The practical imperative to find ways to co-operate in handling transnational problems will only intensify as the pace of globalisation gathers.

The question surrounding an Alliance of Democracies is not whether it is necessary but whether the political will to create it can be found. Europeans worry that such an alliance would threaten the UN system. Many Americans on the left are likely to agree. The temptation will be to embrace calls for strengthening, reforming and improving the UN, even though we have little to show for several decades of such efforts.

The political argument for an Alliance of Democracies is compelling. For the US, it satisfies the yearning on both the left and the right to promote America’s values while securing its interests. It also provides a powerful vehicle for encouraging Europe, which clings to its regional orientation even as the world globalises, to assume broader responsibilities for tackling global problems.

An alliance would also give Europe something it wants—a way to persuade the US to once again embrace the formal multilateralism that it first championed after the second world war. Bush could turn his back on the UN over Iraq because most Americans doubted that it had any claim to legitimacy. That assessment did not change, even with the Iraq occupation. An August 2004 poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 48 per cent of the Americans surveyed regarded strengthening the UN as a top priority for Washington, a figure essentially unchanged since September 11. Americans will see international institutions as legitimate only if the organisations embody the democratic values they hold dear. This new rhetorical consensus in the US on the need to work with other countries provides an opening for an initiative to create an Alliance of Democracies. Making it happen will require leadership from Washington and allied capitals. The failure to grasp the opportunity will not mean a return to the modus operandi that existed before 9/11. It is instead a recipe for continued drift and division within the transatlantic community—and inadequate responses to international security challenges that jump across borders.