The laudable vision of “an international order of peace based on freedom” has become a perennial entry in the sweepstakes of grand ideas and presidential campaigns. In its latest version, proponents argue that democracies, based on their shared values and system of government, are natural allies on a range of international issues from climate change to humanitarian intervention and should form the core of the international system. The idea’s reemergence in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign is testament to its endurance as a concept that appeals both to neoconservatives, who believe in using U.S. power to assert our values abroad, and liberal internationalists, who want to anchor the United States in an international system that favors cooperation over unilateral action. Yet despite its superficial appeal to our better angels, even some of its advocates acknowledge that its real purpose is to legitimize the use of U.S. military force and destroy the United Nations. For that and many other reasons, the idea will not fly in the current geopolitical environment and will have to await the day when the world is composed of many more likeminded democracies than currently exist.
I come to this conclusion with some hesitation. After spending over eight years working to shape the Community of Democracies (CD), a more modest version of the League of Democracies Senator McCain is now advocating, I remain convinced of the merits of a multilateral forum for democracies—and those aspiring to join—to support each other in strengthening and consolidating democracy. Such an organization, if fully realized, would provide a powerful platform to strengthen ties among governments that adhere to core universal values of freedom and human rights and can thus speak with some legitimacy on the world stage. At the same time, my experience with the Community of Democracies tells me that if the world’s democracies have so much trouble finding common ground in promoting democracy and human rights, then surely there is little hope for a more ambitious agenda of cooperation, particularly on issues that by their nature require the cooperation of non-democracies.
In this paper, I will briefly sketch the different versions of the League of Democracies concept currently in circulation. I will then provide a more detailed account of the functioning of the Community of Democracies since its inception in Warsaw in 2000, with special attention to the question of how to determine who qualifies as a democracy. I will also offer some recommendations for strengthening multilateral approaches to the promotion of democracy and human rights, which should remain a central goal of any new administration in Washington. Throughout the paper, I will also offer some thoughts on what lessons policymakers can learn from the CD experience.