Op-Ed

Who and Why: The Concert of Democracies

Ivo H. Daalder

The following opinion was originally posted at the America Abroad weblog on TPM Café. All past posts may be found at America Abroad – A Blog on Current Affairs on this website, or at TPM Café.

Lots of comments here on the ideas that Jim and I, amongst others, are pushing. Some of them are supportive; most are not. But we’re grateful for all of them (well, almost all of them…). Jim’s addressed some of the issues that have been raised, and a good many other issues are covered in our American Interest article (which, I should make clear, differs in many key ways from what the Princeton Project has proposed). I urge people to read it as well. Here, I’ll confine myself to two big issues that have repeatedly come up: who and why?

Bruce, Eddie-george and others ask the important question of who would be members of the Concert of Democracies, and who would decide which countries can join. This, of course, is vital — draw the circle too narrowly and you exclude countries that have good reason to think they belong in; draw it too broadly and you include countries who many other members feel don’t belong at all.

So what are the criteria for membership and who gets to decide whether they apply? The latter is simple — at least down the road — which is that the members of the concert decide who gets in — as well as who should be thrown out. That’s how all clubs work, whether it’s the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, or the Lion’s Club.

As for the criteria, which will determine the countries that can become members in the first place, this admittedly gets tricky. It’ll be vital to avoid the kind of wrangling about membership criteria that Bruce worries about. Political scientists may want to devote years on this question, in the real world it would paralyze the organization from the start. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have a pretty good sense of the kind of countries that clearly should become members as well as the kind that clearly should not. In member countries citizens must enjoy both fundamental political rights (not just to vote, but also to organize and participate in government) and basic civil rights (to speak, assemble and freely practice their religion) — and those rights must be guaranteed by law and enforced by an independent judiciary. Moreover, the commitment to uphold individual rights and govern by the rule of law should be so rooted in society that the chances of a reversion to autocratic rule are for all practical purposes unthinkable.

There are lots of data bases and qualitative and quantitative assessments that could be used to evaluate the degree to which countries around the world meet these criteria. Our assessment that nearly five dozen countries would be acceptable members of the Concert comes from examining Freedom House data on political and civil liberties as the Polity IV database compiled by the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management. But since most data sets come up with similar results, we can in some sense rely on the old Potter Stewart rule — that when it comes (in this case) to democracy, you kind of know it when you see it.

Now to the second concern — why create this organization? What would it do? And how would it do it better than institutions that already exist? Important questions all. We’re not interested in creating a new organization for its own sake or to duplicate what already exists. What the concert would do is offer a way for the United States to work with other countries to address problems that neither it alone nor existing institutions have been able to address. Currently, these problems are either ignored or dealt with in an ad-hoc fashion by a temporary coalition of the willing. The concert offers another alternative, a complement to existing institutions, to try to address some of these problems.

And which problems are we talking about? Well, let’s get concrete. One would be to implement the responsibility to protect, in Darfur and other places. Another would be to impose sanctions on Iran if it continues to resist the demands of the Security Council. A third would be to interdict shipments of nuclear and other proliferation-related materials from North Korea or other proliferating countries (currently the province of an ad-hoc arrangement called the Proliferation Security Initiative). More broadly, a concert, whose members would account for the vast bulk of annual foreign assistance outlays, could get serious about poverty reduction and infectious diseases, promote democracy and human rights, and advance a vision of a better and more hopeful world in which countries view their sovereignty not just as a right to be defended but as entailing real responsibilities toward both their own citizens and the security of those in other countries .

Now, it’s possible — maybe even likely — that concert members may not agree on how to deal with any of these issues. Or even when they do that they won’t act (as might be the case in Darfur). As James Traub, Bruce Jentleson, and others argue, national interests (parochial or otherwise) often do trump common values. So while certain democracies may not agree on how or whether to address a particular issue, some of them may be able to make common cause with other non-democracies. And when that’s the case, then, by all means, let’s get the job done. As we’ve stated before, a concert of democracies must be seen as one more basis for cooperative action, not the only basis.

At the same time, we do strongly believe that democracies are more likely to act together in more instances than are larger agglomerations of nations that also include non-democratic countries. The United Nations record speaks for itself. Part of the reason we think so is common values. But another part — which Daniel Greenbaum rightly pinpoints and which Tod Lindberg underscores — has to do with the United States: America is much more likely to act in concert with other democracies to address these kind problems than it is to act in concert with non-democracies. Americans view democracies as far more able and far more legitimate partners than non-democracies, and they are therefore much more inclined to listen and even to defer to these partners than they are to non-democracies or organizations that include all sorts of countries. It’s what differentiates NATO from the United Nations.

It is this reality that should entice the world’s other democracies to take the idea of a concert seriously. The concert offers them an opportunity to influence Washington — to guide it, even to constrain it — in ways that neither ad-hoc coalitions of the willing nor the United Nations ever can. It’s this reality that should give democracies around the world plenty of reason to try and make the concert work.

Posted at TPM Café on December 15, 2006 — 8:52 AM Eastern Time

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