Presidential contender John McCain has come out in support of a league of democratic nations to act where the UN will not. It’s an idea that I’ve long supported, and it’s an idea whose time has come. The UN has proven itself to be utterly incompetent and thoroughly corrupt — the Oil for Food scandal, child sex rings in Cambodia and Africa, and lax financial controls all being symptoms of the larger disease at work. While places like Darfur and Iraq are embroiled in violence, the UN more often than not sides with autocracies like Iran, Venezuela, or Libya rather than democratic nations.
ABC News has more details on McCain’s plan. If we accept that there is a concept of universal human rights, then complicit in that acceptance is the notion that the only governments which are legitimate are those that are ruled with the consent of the people. To have an international body that upholds human rights, it cannot put autocratic and undemocratic nations on the same level as nations which respect the will of their people. The central flaw of the UN (but certainly not the only flaw) is that it is charged with upholding human rights internationally while still giving legitimacy to nations like Sudan and Iran. There is a tension between inclusiveness and a commitment to human rights, and the UN is failing to find the right balance.
Still, the idea of a “league of democracies” is not without its flaws. For example, what is a “democracy?” Certainly pure democracy is not workable on the national scale — which is why there aren’t any purely democratic states. However, is Iran a democracy? They have elections, albeit elections which are controlled by an unelected Guardian Council. What of Venezuela? Hugo Chavez would say that he was elected by the will of the people, although it’s likely that his election was a scam. What of Russia? Vladimir Putin was elected in a free and fair election, but is clearly a leader with a deeply autocratic bent who has stifled free speech in Russia and is dismantling Russian civil society. What about Pakistan? President Musharraf is not a democratic leader, yet Pakistan is a critical ally in the war on Islamist terrorism.
The devil is in the details of this plan. A League of Democracies is a good idea, and the UN is so hopelessly corrupt that reform would require the UN to be practically rebuild from the ground up. Could a League of Democracies act as a valuable supplement to the UN, perhaps replacing the UN Security Council in holding veto power over the decisions of the General Assembly? McCain’s proposing a bold idea, and one that makes a great deal of sense from a moral perspective. What remains to be seen is how concrete he can make this plan. A League of Democracies makes sense conceptually, but it has to be made to work in practice. If McCain can come up with a compelling structure that makes it all work, it will be a major boost to his foreign policy credentials. If not, it will be a pie-in-the-sky idea that has no chance of implementation.
At the same time, I’m hopeful that McCain will be able to champion the cause of creating more durable and less corrupt international institutions. The international sphere has been taken over by the relativist left, which is ultimately harmful to world peace. Striking the right balance between preserving national sovereignty and respecting the self-determination of nations and enforcing valuable international norms is crucial in a world where terrorists and weapons of mass destruction pose unprecedented challenges to world stability. That balance has not been found yet, but that doesn’t mean that the US and its democratic allies should stop trying. We need international institutions which defend human rights and the democratic values that come with them, and if the UN cannot be that body, then we should be looking at institutions that can.