Toward a Democratic Union

April 2, 2003

Toward a Democratic Union

 It takes time for a raspberry patch to mature.

 It takes time for a raspberry patch to mature. Same goes for the plum and cherry trees we planted at Chestnut Nook. Last year we had a good yield of berries, but this year, after a good cold winter and some prudent pruning, we expect an even better crop. We didn't get plums or cherries last year; an unseasonable cold snap hurt the cherries and a hellacious wind ripped the young plums from their branches. But we have hopes for this season. Fruit growing teaches you patience, and reinforces the old lesson that the harder you work the better your luck.  

Not all plantings take the first time, however. About a dozen years ago, in November 1991 to be specific, I published a proposal for the reorganization of America's alliance systems, and, by indirection, its approach to the United Nations and other existing multinational forums. Borrowing an older idea offered by the late Robert Strausz-Hupé, I argued that the Western institutions established to fight the Cold War could and should be reorganized and consolidated into an integrated alliance system of the world's liberal democracies. The sine qua non of the system, the United States, would be at the center-at its hub, so to speak. The allies would be connected to the hub by spokes radiating outward, and the spokes in turn would be connected to each other around a great wheel. This meant that allies would have responsibilities not only to the United States but also to each other. 

Membership, I argued, would be open to all countries qualifying as liberal constitutional democracies. Countries that did not wish to adopt such institutions would not be coerced, but since their dysfunctional political and economic systems were more often than not the source of their poverty and civil disorder, I argued that the Democratic Union should not subsidize the pallid economic logic of autocracy. This was intended as a an incentive system for real institutional reform that would be far more effective than the plainly futile and sometimes counterproductive efforts at "foreign aid" that had dominated "development" thinking for decades. Finally, I suggested that the United Nations would not so much disappear before the rising power of the Democratic Union, but would take on a more modest role commensurate with its actual, very limited capabilities.  

For my effort I received a few nice letters, but most of my friends in Washington thought I was off my nut. Too hard, and not necessary, they said. Better anyway not to unite the allies in a system, but rather keep them on a bilateral basis, the better to leverage American power against them one by one. Besides, the United States can always deliver the UN Security Council in a pinch to acquire the diplomatic economies provided by its legitimation. I retorted that our traditional alliance structures would inevitably be undermined by the disappearance of the main threat for which they were created, and that in a unipolar world, the tendency to balance against number 1 would make the UN a far less agreeable place for the United States. This was all salon talk; in the end, no one of consequence paid any attention to my proposal. 

In recent months I have remembered this old article because it has become clear that, as is often said, you can't fight something with nothing. So as the United States came toward war with Iraq, and did seek to legitimize its actions by showing a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, it was led ineluctably to an institution where Libya recently ascended to the chairmanship of the human rights committee and Iraq nearly to the chairmanship of the arms control committee. But once the President was persuaded by its Secretary of State to engage in what the Australian scholar Coral Bell has called "the pretence of great power concert," it had no other place to go.  

The idea that an institution populated by tyrannies and satrapies as well as democracies should have a moral legitimacy above that of the community of world democracies should be deeply offensive to the devotees of the Enlightenment among us. But the world's liberal democracies are not organized into an institution with moral gravity comparable to that even of the United Nations because American leaders have suffered a massive failure of imagination since the end of the Cold War. The builders of the West after World War II, and even Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes after World War I, understood that new times required new architecture. They were builders. Their like cannot be found today. Toward the end of the Bush41 administration, we were led by the sort of conservatives who oppose change even when it is in their own interests. The Clinton Administration believed that the processes of globalization, in deus ex machina manner, would vault American power and values to the heights without need of policy at all, but just an ad hoc accumulation of mostly unworkable treaties. And the current administration seems to think of foreign policy as a series of unilateralist-wrought epiphanies to which the other countries of the world will pay obeisance, not caring whether their own interests and views are taken into account.  

Not that a union of democracies is a panacea. France, after all, and Germany are democracies, and they could make trouble within a Democratic Union as they have within the Security Council. But the rules and structure of the UN make it particularly easy for such countries, especially with veto rights, to do so. While it would not be easy to build a union that avoids all tensions between a very powerful America and other democracies, it is possible to create a system that acknowledges the special role of the United States and still accommodates the interests, and the pride, of others (though this is not the place to go into details).  

The point is that unless we try to create some multilateral alternative to the UN system, the United States will be perpetually confronted with a choice between going to the United Nations and facing with its constraints and entrapments, or going alone and facing charges of hegemonism, unilateralism and imperialism--even when it acts in the interest of the global security commons. We've already lost twelve years of a head start tending to this particular patch; when this war is over, we'll need to make up for time lost. 


Adam Garfinkle is editor of The National Interest.