With President Bush's go-it-alone policy foundering in Iraq, many of his critics are calling for a return of American foreign policy to a traditional multilateralism centered on the United Nations. Bush's critics are right to point out that the United States benefits when its actions enjoy U.N. blessing. Gaining such support can often be as important as demonstrating America's power and will to act. But they fail to acknowledge publicly what everyone admits privately: that as a pre-Cold War institution operating in a post-Cold War world, the United Nations is not up to the task of handling the most pressing security challenges.
An immediate problem is that the United Nations lacks the capability to make a difference. Its blue-helmeted troops can help keep the peace when warring parties choose not to fight. But as we learned in the Balkans, they cannot make peace where none exists. And as we saw in the 12 years preceding the Iraq war, the United Nations cannot enforce its most important resolutions.
Efforts to improve the United Nations' capacity to respond to global security threats are laudable. But we are never going to see a U.N. army. And proposals to remake the Security Council, train peacekeepers and eliminate featherbedding -- to name just a few of the most popular reforms -- will only marginally improve the United Nations' ability to act.
The deeper problem is that these reform proposals do not go to the heart of what ails the organization: It treats its members as sovereign equals regardless of the character of their governments. An Iraq that ignores resolutions demanding that it dismantle its weapons of mass destruction can chair the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. A Sudan that wages a genocidal civil war can be voted onto the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
The idea of sovereign equality reflected a conscious decision governments made 60 years ago that they would be better off if they repudiated the right to meddle in the internal affairs of others. That choice no longer makes sense. In an era of rapid globalization, internal developments in distant states affect our own well-being, even our security. That is what Sept. 11 taught us.
Today respect for state sovereignty should be conditional on how states behave at home, not just abroad. Sovereignty carries with it a responsibility to protect citizens against mass violence and a duty to prevent internal developments that threaten others. We need to build an international order that reflects how states organize themselves internally. The great dividing line is democracy. Democratic states pose far less of a threat to other countries and are often more capable than autocracies. That is why democratic nations should rally together to pursue their common interests.
We need an Alliance of Democratic States. This organization would unite nations with entrenched democratic traditions, such as the United States and Canada; the European Union countries; Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia; India and Israel; Botswana and Costa Rica. Membership would be open to countries where democracy is so rooted that reversion to autocratic rule is unthinkable.
Like NATO during the Cold War, the Alliance of Democratic States should become the focal point of American foreign policy. Unlike NATO, however, the alliance would not be formed to counter any country or be confined to a single region. Rather, its purpose would be to strengthen international cooperation to combat terrorism, curtail weapons proliferation, cure infectious diseases and curb global warming. And it would work vigorously to advance the values that its members see as fundamental to their security and well-being -- democratic government, respect for human rights, a market-based economy.
Alliance membership would need to come with real benefits. Trade among its members should be free of tariffs and other trade barriers. Decision-making should be open, transparent and shared.
The alliance would be a powerful instrument for promoting democracy. Just as the prospect of joining NATO and the European Union remade the face of Europe, so too could the prospect of joining the Alliance of Democratic States help remake the world.
The Alliance of Democratic States should operate both on its own and as a caucus inside existing institutions. It should work to make the United Nations a more effective and responsive institution. But if the United Nations continued to display its inability to confront the world's toughest problems, the alliance would constitute an alternative, and more legitimate, body for authorizing action.
American leadership in creating an Alliance of Democratic States would satisfy the deep yearning on both the left and right in the United States to promote America's values while pursuing its interests. Success in this effort offers the only hope of escaping the doomed alternatives of going it alone or pursing a traditional multilateralism in which concern for procedure has long trumped a commitment to effectiveness.
Ivo Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Lindsay is vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are the co-authors of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy."