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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | April 23, 2007
Democracy Club
By Will Marshall
Table of Contents

One welcome casualty of the Iraq war is the myth of an imperial America. If the United States can't impose its will on a small country like Iraq, it's probably not bent on world domination.

The greater danger, in fact, is that the United States, burned by its misadventures in Iraq, will sheathe its sword and step back from world leadership. If that happens, who else is going to confront rogue states, genocide, and other threats to international order? Unfortunately, the body created expressly for that purpose, the United Nations, is incapable of providing collective security.

We're in a bind: The United States is strong, but lacks the authority, as well as the will, to play global gendarme. The United Nations has the aura of political legitimacy but lacks the power and unity to enforce its mandates and intervene in conflicts.

Some U.S. progressives are coalescing around an idea they hope will resolve this dilemma: a Concert of Democracies. As envisioned by the Princeton Project, led by John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Concert would combine non- Western nations like Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia with the trans-Atlantic partners in a global alliance of some 60 genuinely liberal democracies.

Its main purpose would be to create a more effective instrument of collective security, by reforming the United Nations if possible, or by creating an alternative venue for action if necessary. A Princeton Project report puts it this way: "If (Security Council) expansion and reform proves impossible by the end of this decade & the Concert could become an alternative forum for the approval of the use of force in cases where the use of the veto at the Security Council prevented free nations from keeping faith with the aims of the U.N. Charter."

A coalition that includes the world's richest countries would also be a soft-power juggernaut. It could coordinate trade and aid strategies to encourage growth and reform in developing countries. Following the precedent of the European Union and the former Soviet satellite countries, the prospect of joining the Concert would give countries strong incentives to liberalize their economic and political systems. And its decisions would arguably be more legitimate than those of the United Nations, a majority of whose members are not democratically accountable to their people.

So is the Concert the big foreign policy idea that progressives have been searching for since the Cold War ended? Maybe, but first its backers need to grapple with some serious objections.

First, blackballing great powers like Russia and China could have unpleasant repercussions. Maybe the magnetic attraction of membership in the Concert would draw them in. But it's as likely that they would form their own balancing coalition -- a concert of autocracies. Some European countries won't want to antagonize Russia, a key energy supplier, while the risk of incurring China's ire might keep East Asian democracies from signing on. And in the Islamic world, where conspiracy theories run rampant, the Concert would likely be seen as a fig leaf covering America's hegemonic ambitions.

Some critics object to the Concert's core premise that shared values lead to common interests. They point to the West's rupture over Iraq as a case in point, and argue that it was the Soviet threat, not liberal precepts, that held the Atlantic alliance together.

Yet the peace and prosperity that reign among the world's democracies suggest they are capable of forging stronger bonds of trust and cooperation than autocracies. Constrained by liberal institutions at home, they are less likely to abuse their people and attack their neighbors and more likely to abide by international treaties and law.

Some oppose the Concert precisely because it might be more interventionist than the United Nations. After all, its advocates believe that the international community has a "responsibility to protect" people from their own governments, not just states from states. Liberal scholars Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay state bluntly, "Nation-state sovereignty can no longer be the sole organizing principle of international politics."

This infuriates "realists," for whom such claims conjure a nightmare of liberal interventionism across the globe. They fear the Concert would merely replace the United States' overreaching with a dangerous new democratic imperialism. Yet they lack plausible alternatives for solving urgent crises, such as the slaughter in Darfur.

A Concert of Democracies is worth a try. It would at the very least be a potent constituency for liberal reform at the United Nations. It could evolve -- much as Europe has over the past half-century -- into a consensus-driven force for consolidating and expanding market democracy and the rule of law. And, not least, it could offer a third option to a world that too often faces a choice between U.S. solo action and U.N. paralysis.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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