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June 21, 2007

Democracies Sitting in Judgment
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

There's an interesting debate underway over at tpmcafe on Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, The Idea that Is America.  Here's my contribution:

I take issue with the arguments being raised by Ivo Daalder, Bob Kagan and others in relation to a proposed Concert of Democracies. One of the ideas behind the Concert, as I understand it, is that because of their representative character democracies have the legitimacy to defend international legal and humanitarian principles, even when other governments don't agree. The contention is that authoritarian regimes lack moral standing to weigh in on issues, for example, of humanitarian intervention or the protection of human rights, and should therefore not be allowed to get in the way.

My view is that while defensible intellectually, this position is neither politically nor practically tenable. Here's why:

First off, it will be impossible to define who is qualified to sit at the table when decisions get made. Decisions on who deserves to be in the mix will differ case-by-case: those with legitimacy to take a stand on Darfur may lack the same when it comes to torture.  Sometimes hairsplitting references to "non-liberal democracies" or "non-representative democracies" point to the difficulty of using countries' own political systems as hard-and-fast criteria for participation in multi-lateral decision-making. Countries that are seen to practice what they preach and uphold human rights and the rule of law will, perforce, have more legitimacy in international debates on these subjects. But I don't see how we convene separate sets of qualified sovereign actors for every individual debate.

Second, political weight matters. One can question whether, given their own human rights records, Washington should give credence to Beijing or Caracas when they criticize the U.S. on related matters. The reality is, these countries have political sway over regions of the world that the U.S. cares about, such that Washington may not be able to afford to ignore them. Moreover, while their hands may not be clean, that does not mean their critiques are meritless. Sometimes a country with less to lose in terms of bilateral relations may be willing to raise a challenge that others agree with, but are reluctant to bring up for fear of straining relations. Once again, while countries' own track records will always be a factor influencing the authority accorded to their positions, it will be impossible to draw bright lines as to when others get heard.

Third, concepts of moral standing need to be reconciled with the idea of universality. The whole notion behind the human rights movement is that these principles are universal, not made in America or even by liberal democracies. They are the rights and ideals of all individuals, world-wide. The notion that a small group of liberal democracies should hold all the power over how these concepts are implemented in practice conflicts with that concept of universality. The result would be that precious few African and Islamic peoples would be represented on subjects that affect them profoundly. Admittedly, adding authoritarian regimes into the mix does not correct the problem, but the difficulty remains.


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Laying aside the question of whether the US is a representative democracy, this proposed 'Concert' is a transparently obvious attempt to create a new institution to replace the United Nations for its 'morally-driven' imperialism. The US can't control the UN as in the past. The US is using NATO to fight its unending war in Afghanistan, but a more universal and idealistic cover is needed for future aggressions that has more credence and reliability than NATO or 'the alliance of the willing'. This particularly applies to the war against Islam and 'the big one' coming up someday for the Pentagon: war with China, with Australia as a rapidly militarizing base.

Let's look at two aspects of the Concert of Democracies idea. One is institution-building. The other is ideology.

If our objective is the coordination of action by democratic governments with respect to issues of concern to democratic governments, the need for a formal institution such as a Concert of Democracies is not clear to me. Regional mechanisms, like NATO, already exist, for one thing.

For another, recall the history of what is now the G-8. This began in the early 1970s as a Nixon administration initiative to facilitate frank, private consultation among the leaders of the Atlantic democracies, plus Japan. At the time the salient concern was energy, but security and other issues could be dealt with as well. The very reason such regular meetings among the leaders of democratic countries was thought necessary was to bypass each government's myriad agencies, ministries and departments and the process requirements of institutional consultation among them.

The G-8 has since become something very different -- in many ways, it has become precisely the opposite of what it was originally intended to be. But the original idea is still a good one. It's worth taking another run at, as long as we keep in mind that the consultation among the leaders of major countries with shared values is our objective. If we allow the process of consultation and its institutional establishment to supplant it we'll only be replicating fora that already exist.

The ideology of democracy needs to be addressed frankly, and it usually isn't. The truth is, governments and people in many countries small and large do not believe in the universality of human rights. Some of them do not think human rights belong to their enemies, or to those they regard as their inferiors; some believe human rights must be subordinate to the authority of the state. Many believe "human rights" represent the instrusion of Western -- that is, Anglo-American and to some degree Western European -- values in non-Western countries. We should be honest here: human rights represent precisely that.

Does that mean Western values, derived from a political tradition much more heavily influenced by Christianity than by the other world religions and rejecting the idea that all power should rest in the hands of the state, are more benign and hold more promise for humanity's future than those of, say, the Russian, Arab or Chinese political traditions? Of course it does. We had best be clear about that.

But we should also be clear that assuming everyone outside the world's democracies shares this view is a mistake. One day, they will -- such is our hope. If that hope is eventually fulfilled, though, it will not be fulfilled as a product of such specific decisions as some might expect to emerge from the interaction between an organization such as a Concert of Democracies and the governments outside it. Instead, a process of evolution, most likely extending over many decades, will take the world where we want it to go if it is to get there at all. Remaining confident in our values and dedicated to their application is the only way forward in the long run. In the short, the international institutions we need to serve both our interests and our values already exist. The way is open for us to use those we can work with and bypass the ones we can't; we don't need to be inventing new ones.

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