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Home/Daniel Larison/Why Would a “League of Democracies” Be Terrible? Let Me Count the Reasons

Why Would a “League of Democracies” Be Terrible? Let Me Count the Reasons

Jonah Goldberg wants to revive the lousy “league of democracies” idea:

What would be so terrible about giving those good nations someplace else to meet? And by good, I mean democratic. A league, or concert, of democracies wouldn’t replace the U.N., but it would offer some much-needed competition.

We’ve had to go around the U.N. before, and usually we go to NATO. That’s what President Clinton did in the Balkans and what President Obama did in Libya.

Critics of the Libyan war hold that the U.S. and NATO exceeded the U.N. mandate they were given, but it doesn’t mean that they went “around” the U.N. “Going around” the U.N. is another way to say “waging illegal warfare.” We have heard some version of this proposal in the past, and it’s as misguided as ever. This wouldn’t just be a matter of having “someplace else to meet.” Democratic governments can already hold their own conferences and summits if they wish, and they can form talking-shop organizations from now until the end of time. A “league of democracies” would be a parallel organization intended to legitimize interventions that the U.N. would not approve.

Goldberg complains that the structure of the U.N. is based on might rather than right (hardly unusual in international politics), but the league he proposes would not be meaningfully different. The most powerful members of the “league” would dictate policy to the others, and the weaker members would follow (look at NATO for an example of how this would work in practice). Creating this league would be an expression of frustration with an international system that prevents Western governments and their allies from interfering in the affairs of other states as easily as they would like.

Put another way, the sovereignty and theoretical equality of all U.N. member states get in the way of coercing some of those member states to behave in certain ways. The league would presumably do away with such ideas, since the league would have been created for the sake of violating sovereignty of states that are considered inherently inferior by virtue of their arbitrary and abusive forms of government. The U.N. was founded to oppose threats to international peace and security. Its membership was as broad as possible because the League of Nations proved unable to function when many of the most powerful states in the world did not join or withdrew from it. The democratic league would be founded to create threats to international peace and security by constantly finding new occasions for international intervention.

On many major international issues, the world’s democracies disagree with one another almost as often as the U.S. and western European governments disagree with Russia and China. For that matter, there are very few other democracies with such a low opinion of the U.N. that they would be interested in forming a parallel global organization. If the U.S. tried to set up a parallel, competing organization, it would find that most of the major democracies in the world would not want to undermine the U.N. and wouldn’t bother joining.

A “league of democracies” would presumably be directed at the clients of major authoritarian powers, which would push those powers to band together despite their often divergent interests. Traditionally non-aligned democracies would not sympathize with what the “league” was trying to do, because they would correctly see a “league of democracies” as an organization created to provide an alternative source of legitimacy for Western intervention that they oppose. A formal “league” would just be the old “coalition of the willing” on a more permanent basis, and the rest of the world would regard the league’s interventions as the illegal wars they were. If the league is lucky, it wouldn’t provoke other states to form a balancing coalition against it, but it could just as easily lead to the emergence of a pair of mutually antagonistic groups of states engaged in frequent proxy battles fought mostly in poor and weak countries.

If such a “league of democracies” had already existed last year, many of the world’s largest democracies probably wouldn’t have belonged to it. They would have still been against regime change in Libya, just as many of them are against any form of foreign intervention in Syria. The “league of democracies” would have been badly split by Kosovo and Iraq. The only way for the “league of democracies” to function the way its advocates want it to (i.e., as an unaccountable interventionist alliance) is to make it almost exclusively North American and European.

The most irritating part of the case for a “league of democracies” is the breezy assumption that it would do “good things” because its members have a better form of government. Democratic states are hardly infallible, and some of the most powerful democratic states have had a rather shaky record on doing the right thing in the last ten years. For the most part, talk of a “league of democracies” crops up whenever the U.N. cannot be relied on to endorse a certain policy that some Western governments want to have endorsed, which could be an indication that the problem rests as much with the questionable policy as it does with the structures of the U.N. This also misses that there is not always a consensus within each democratic state on what should be done. What Goldberg considers a “good thing” to do abroad is probably going to be perceived quite differently by a large part of our population, to say nothing of how it will be perceived by electorates in other democracies.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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