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
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
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
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.