from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Time for a Coalition of Capable, Like-Minded Democracies?

January 7, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Could a coalition of democracies help the United States address some of its more daunting global challenges?  In a new CFR working paper, Like-Minded and Capable Democracies: A New Framework for Advancing a Liberal World Order Ash Jain argues that the answer is yes. The title may be cumbersome, but Jain’s inclusion of “like-minded” and “capable” is critical. Democratic solidarity is possible only if the United States judiciously includes democracies that truly share U.S. preferences and have tangible resources to leverage for collective action. Failure to think soberly about these two criteria has doomed previous proposals to harness democracy  to U.S. strategy.

Jain is hardly the first analyst to invoke democracy as a potential foundation for world order. In 1795, Immanuel Kant argued in Perpetual Peace that a world dominated by liberal republics would be inherently peaceful—given shared political values, common commercial interests, and (not least) the pacific inclinations of citizens and accountable leaders. More than a century later, prominent U.S. politicians attributed the outbreak of World War I to the warlike proclivities of the authoritarian Central Powers. Teddy Roosevelt declared that the time had come “to consider a great world agreement among the world’s civilized military powers to back righteousness by force”—and there is no doubt he meant the world’s Western democracies. Similarly,  President Woodrow Wilson believed that prospects for postwar security would be greatest if the members of the League of Nations—or at least the vast majority—were democratic states. Subsequent research has tended to confirm that relations among democracies–at least wealthy, consolidated democracies—are disproportionately peaceful.

Following the Cold War, the ideological triumph of liberalism over totalitarianism appeared to raise the promise of an ever-expanding liberal “zone of peace.” The Clinton administration adopted this vision explicitly in 1994, releasing a National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement. It envisioned a gradual and inexorable expansion of market democracies. To hasten this process, the administration pursued inititiatves such as NATO enlargement,  the Partnership for Peace, and a new “Community of Democracies” (CD).

Over the past decade, both Democrats and Republicans have advocated creation of what they variously term an “alliance,” “league,” or “concert” of democracies. In 2006, the Princeton Project on U.S. National Security, a center-left effort co-chaired by Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry, advocated a new Concert of Democracies to “harness the vast influence of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.” In 2008, the GOP standard-bearer, Senator John McCain, called for a for a “new global compact” uniting the world’s democracies. As conservative intellectual and McCain adviser Robert Kagan explained, such a “League of Democracies” would include the world’s “other great democracies,” including India, Brazil, Japan and Australia, to shore up its legitimacy.

Alas, the dream that world order can rest on a club of democracies is flawed on several grounds, as critics from Thomas Carothers to Charles Kupchan have noted. First, as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrated, similar domestic political orientations hardly guarantee common foreign policy alignments, even among established U.S. allies. Second, this problem is even more pointed when it comes to emerging power democracies like Brazil, India, South Africa, and Turkey, which have repeatedly departed from U.S. preferences at the UN Security Council in recent years, particularly on issues of sovereignty, intervention, and human rights. Third, contemporary foreign policy challenges like financial instability, climate change, and nuclear proliferation are simply too complex and too global to be addressed in a narrow club of democracies, without input of major non-democracies, not least China. Fourth, defining “democracy” is difficult, and failure to establish strict criteria can be disastrous. In the CD, for example, expansive membership rules have permitted authoritarian foxes to run rampant in the henhouse. Finally, a concert or league of democracies could not replace the United Nations—with its standing capacity, universal membership, and legally binding Charter.

But Jain’s paper is careful to avoid the weaknesses of past proposals.

To begin with, the paper has limited—and realistic—ambitions. Jain does not advocate replacing the United Nations or other existing multilateral frameworks. He knows that there’s no substitute for the UNSC, the G20, or the World Bank. But there may be certain issues where solidarity among advanced democracies can help the United States and its close allies arrive at common positions and—where needed—even act independently (as NATO did in Kosovo in 1999).

Jain wisely adopts an incremental approach. Rather than trying to construct an entirely new institution, he suggests expanding a preexisting diplomatic dialogue begun during the Bush administration among policy planning directors from the United States and its G7 partners (Canada, France, Germany,  Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom), plus Australia and South Korea. To these nine, Jain would add the European Union, creating what he calls a “Democratic Ten”— or D10—designed to “promote strategic cooperation on global political and security issues and advance the norms and values of a liberal international order.” Once elevated to the ministerial (secretary of state) level, this forum would provide the world’s established democracies with a dedicated institutional vehicle to coordinate policies and respond to crises in a manner that advances shared interests and values.

More fundamentally, Jain insists that the membership and the agenda of the new grouping be limited. To be effective, the new grouping must be restricted to mature, capable democracies, and exclude countries that could act as spoilers or remain attached to post-colonial mindsets that hinder cooperation. At the same time, new members could easily be added as capabilities and preferences of rising democracies evolve.

The agenda of the group, likewise, should be limited to political issues of highest import to Western nations, and which have tended to divide them from China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers. These include the promotion of human rights, the protection of civilians from mass atrocities, the sanctioning of outlier states pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and resistance to the establishment of great power spheres of influence.

The biggest danger this scheme must avoid, as Jain acknowledges, is in reinforcing a “West versus the Rest” dynamic, leading to polarization and, conceivably, the consolidation of Cold War style ideological blocs. He is confident the United States can avoid this, however, by treating the D10 as just one multilateral vehicle among others.

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