Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Roundtable: Can Democracies Go It Alone?: Democracies Human Rights and Collective Action [Full Text]

Mar 26, 2009

In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt founded an American civic organization called Freedom House to support the engagement of the United States in the monumental struggle for the survival of free nations against the oppressive forces of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Summoning fellow citizens to such a role was extraordinary. The United States was still familiar with John Quincy Adams's warning that we should not "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

These two expansionist and authoritarian powers threatened the future of the world community. Yet, as a continental power separated by two oceans from the intrigues of Europe and Asia, the United States had long insisted on stout isolationism. Even after we were saved by the intervention of the French fleet in the American Revolution, we supposed that our safest course was to avoid the power politics of Europe and declared that we preferred to be left alone. We sidestepped the continental wars between Britain and France, and avoided the fight against Napoleon by the Holy Alliance, entering into conflict with the British only after blockades and the seizure of U.S. ships stymied our global commerce. American democrats in the early nineteenth century may have rooted for revolutionaries—Henry Clay was called "Harry of the West," and likened to Simon Bolivar and to Byron resisting the Ottomans in Greece—but as a matter of official policy the United States was hors de combat.

This inward gaze changed some during the American Civil War, when both sides worried that Britain and France might enter the mortal conflict. Liverpool merchants abhorred slavery, but were hungry for cotton. But U.S. involvement in the struggles of great powers did not really begin until the First World War, when we chose to reinforce the exhausted troops of France and Britain in the deadlock of trench warfare against the Kaiser. Nonetheless, with the war's close, American attention again turned inward. The security mechanisms of the new League of Nations seemed entangling to a skeptical Senate, and the American military was diminished to a size that could not begin to intimidate any rising powers in Asia or Europe. Woodrow Wilson's declaration of the Fourteen Points still resonated, but this was a hope, not a policy, and we did not think hard about the potential misuse of a right of self-determination as a goad to violent nationalism. Not even the rise of Hitler and the diabolical acts of the Nazi regime against German Jews in the 1930s persuaded the United States to part with its isolationist views. It was only after the surprise attack by Japan that the United States was brought to act as an open ally of the beleaguered states of Europe and Asia.1

This background of hesitation makes America's role after the Second World War appear all the more extraordinary. The attempt to reconstruct an international system of trade, finance, and political collaboration, and to transform the cultures of Germany and Japan, was not a task Americans were accustomed to. But the change in America's posture was crucial to the evolution of the postwar world, where a policy of generosity toward enemies proved far more effective in winning the peace than any punishment or reparation. So, too, the willingness to counter the outward thrust of Russian Communism was informed by the lesson taken from our slumber during Fascism's rise. The United States was willing to accept that a two-ocean continental power had unique advantages in policing the commons, for the restoration of peace and commerce, and the protection of democratic freedoms.

Leadership and ProgressThe last half century has witnessed the inspiring reconstruction and integration of western Europe, the independence of new states in Africa and Asia, an economic boom in East, South, and Southeast Asia, the crumbling of Communism, and (at least until recently) extraordinary growth through the international trading system and open capital markets. Paradigm shifts in technology and medicine, whether antibiotics, jet aircraft, computers, or the Internet, produced the optimism that sustains governments and inspires societies.

Nonetheless, humans still continue to inhabit many different centuries at once. Inconceivable poverty lingers in parts of Asia and Africa. Many economies cannot absorb their young men and willfully subordinate their women. Some countries have conspicuous natural resources that attract pillaging neighbors and lure political leaders to loot while they can. The blood sport of ethnic warfare and the violence over religious differences still makes life a torment for many millions of people. The idea of homo economicus, the synthetic creature of economic analysts, does not even begin to describe large swathes of the globe where honor, vengeance, status, and the memory of injury matter more than incremental economic development. Such traditional societies refuse to follow the classical model of the market-state. Meanwhile, the peaceful technology of nuclear energy has proved too easily converted to fuel production for nuclear weapons, while the technology of weapons design has spread hand to hand among unstable and abusive regimes through gray market sales and rogue networking.

Collective Action in the Twenty-First CenturyThis is the setting in which we debate how best to organize collective action. In 1945 the United Nations had fifty-one members, and most were relatively modern societies. For a time, the UN Charter's promise of collective security appeared robust. South Korea’s defense in 1950, for example, was organized by over a dozen countries, including the United States, France, and Britain, joined by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey. But the Security Council has since stood down in innumerable crises. The Council does not have the military capacity to carry out its own recommendations. Though Articles 43 and 45 of the Charter assume that member states will lend troops and aircraft, in fact most countries do not recognize a moral, much less legal, obligation to maintain the UN's capacity to support peacekeeping operations. Consequently, over the last five decades peacekeeping outside of Africa has depended on a handful of reliable donors, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and, conspicuously, such postcolonial states as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, which have proud military traditions and large populations that speak English, the UN's chief operating language. Regional peacekeeping in Africa has been far less successful. The brutal path cut through Sierra Leone by Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor, financed and armed by the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, was initially countered only by the regional peacekeeping of neighboring Nigeria and Ghana, which acted out of necessity in the absence of an authorizing vote by the Security Council.

But in the last decade, though the British, French, Dutch, and Belgians, as well as the Spanish, Italians, and (in some limited settings) the Germans, still take part in peacekeeping on a regular basis and have sophisticated technologies, turn-of-the-millennium Europe has largely walked away from the project of collective military security, preferring instead the stated vocation of setting new norms for warfare through limitations on various weapons systems and the support of the institutions of international criminal justice. Postmodern Europe does not see itself as having a global military role. It does not, for example, accept even partial responsibility for collective security in Northeast Asia. European governments support the political apparatus of NATO, including the cautious integration of eastern Europe, and concede in principle that NATO could act out of area. But most European states have not met the Prague Summit pledge to invest 2 percent or more of their gross domestic product in the infrastructure, equipment, and personnel necessary for robust peacekeeping. The discrete peacekeeping projects of Afghanistan and Kosovo have exhausted NATO's operational capacity, and many European countries have hesitated to commit military forces under rules of engagement that are sufficient to protect civilians actively threatened by insurgents.

Today the Security Council, even after the end of the cold war, is still marked by unvarnished national interest—whether for strategic, political, or economic ends. The ambitions of China and Russia for access to Iran's vast oil reserves have limited the range of Security Council options to counter the Shia power's headstrong quest for a nuclear weapon. The strategic consequences of an Iranian bomb, including possible nuclear projects by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and even Iraq, have not been a sufficient incentive for effective Security Council action. Similarly, African states have provided most of the peacekeepers for Sudan and, more recently, Somalia. China's interest in Sudanese oil has firmly checked a more robust UN presence; and in central Africa, where mineral riches incite national lust, the support for insurgencies by neighboring states is still rife.

Measured against this disappointing history, it remains difficult to specify a single way to organize collective security or, indeed, to advance any other UN priority, such as the protection of human rights and the achievement of economic sufficiency for the poor. The singular problem in the General Assembly and in UN human rights organs remains the rigidity of voting blocs. This was never anticipated by the Charter itself, which speaks of the deliberative processes of the General Assembly and other organs as if each were a convention of philosophers.

There is no way to call for a secret ballot in the United Nations General Assembly. Rather, decisions and motions are approved most often by "consensus" (which means that the few countries that care most about an issue will drive the debate, and others will sit in silence) or, more rarely, by open roll-call voting. These voting rules mean that each member of a regional or ideological group is on display to all the other states in the group. Typically, a state dares not oppose consensus, much less vote against its group in an open ballot, because all other benefits that a state might wish to obtain in the UN system are also apportioned through that group. Even the process of opinion formation is open only to insiders. Though the idea of regional groupings does not appear in the Charter's account of voting procedures, the UN's council and conference rooms are given over to each regional group and ideological caucus for meetings in private, with no observers allowed from the press or other diplomatic delegations. This means that no one can witness, much less influence, the key moments of opinion formation.

Upon arrival on the floor of the General Assembly, the vote on most resolutions is thus preordained. A vote in the General Assembly on important questions requires a two-thirds majority, or 133 votes; and this voting procedure becomes the domain of the developing world, with its own particular constraints and practices. The Group of 77 (sometimes called the G-77) was formed in 1977 at a UN trade conference, but now includes 129 Southern states voting in common on a wide variety of economic and social issues.2 The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) commands an overlapping group of some 120 votes. African Union members have 53 votes in each group, and the reluctance of African heads of state to criticize each other in public means that few questions dealing with violence or misgovernment will be taken up. So, too, the Organization of the Islamic Conference shapes the vote of 56 countries, wielding weighty influence in each group. This means that the United Nations, in its attempt to address such issues as democracy and human rights, as well as security issues, is tiptoeing around the political redlines of various intransigent members whose power is enhanced by their role in bloc-centered politics.

Working with the United NationsThe idea of organizing a caucus among democracies and liberal states within the United Nations thus aims, in part, to crosscut the hegemonic voting patterns that are typical of regional groups in such multilateral settings. There are no seats reserved in the Security Council for "democratic" countries. But the hope is that the moral sympathies and political camaraderie of a democracy caucus might make some countries more willing to take the difficult decisions that extend beyond immediate self-interest. To maximize the chance that a democracy caucus could affect collective decisions, one should strive at the same time to reform the voting rules of the United Nations. So-called "closed-slate" balloting for candidates on UN bodies is especially damaging, since regional groups often nominate just as many names as there are openings, preventing any option to avoid the election of the representatives of notorious regimes. It is astonishing that representation should be allocated purely by region, with no open seats that can be chosen on the merits of a particular ambassador or regime.

There is, of course, another goal for a democracy caucus within the United Nations: that is, to support and celebrate the purposes and claims of democracy itself. It is a fact that nongovernmental organizations have taken up much of the work that would otherwise properly fall to democracies, including reporting on human rights violations, tainted elections, and the neglect of minorities and populations by their own governments. But the sheer normative claims of democracy also need reinforcing, as only a democratic practitioner can do. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali completed three important white papers during his term at the United Nations, styled as "agendas" for the future: "An Agenda for Peace," "An Agenda for Development," and "An Agenda for Democratization." With an intellectual sophistication and moral courage overlooked by his U.S. critics, Boutros-Ghali deserves great praise for his celebration of democracy in an organization that is dominated by undemocratic states. It is also worth remarking, however, that the white paper on democracy was published only in the last moments of his tenure, and then only in the unobtrusive form of a General Assembly document.3

To be sure, the secretary-general's agenda was not the ultimate foundation for a claim to democratic rule. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets forth a guarantee that people have a right to take part in the choice of their governors, proclaiming that "Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity . . . To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives"; "To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors"; and "To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country." So, too, the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, embraced by the General Assembly in 1948, announces the same guarantees. We have also witnessed the famous commitment of the Organization of American States (in Resolution 1080) to convene an emergency session in the event of any unconstitutional change of government; and the warning of Secretary-General Salim Salim of the Organization of African Unity, at the 1999 Algiers summit, that leaders taking power by force would no longer be welcome.

One could dismiss these displays of support for democracy as mere shadowboxing by UN denizens who still do not wish to offend the many ambassadors who sit in its councils as representatives of undemocratic governments. The periodic reporting of the UN Human Rights Committee reveals a surprising number of states where criticism of a head of state can still be prosecuted as criminal libel, and regimes that limit Internet access by choosing politically reliable service providers. Then there are the infamous leaders of central Asia who choose to win reelection each time by reporting overwhelming margins of victory, failing even the standards of a lazy university student who knows that a "dry lab" experiment should allow realistic data scatter. And even UN human rights experts seem flummoxed by the idea of extending standards of democracy and due process to the customary institutions of tribe and clan that govern the daily lives of most people, including notably most women, in rural areas of the world. The intricate commentary of the UN Human Rights Committee on the practical application of procedural due process in modern administrative states dealt only gingerly with these same norms in the opaque settings of local forums established by custom and tradition.4

Nonetheless, it is still essential to allow at least "two cheers for democracy," as E. M. Forster famously put it, and to summon the voices willing to give those huzzahs. This is especially true at the present time, with the recrudescence of arguments that the demand for participatory democracy is subversive, alien, and the instrument of strategic enemies, or that it is somehow inconsistent with the right of citizens to feel loyal to their nation and to a broader community.5 Thus, the purpose of a democracy caucus in the United Nations also may be to reaffirm the worthy traditions of liberalism and citizen participation in government.

A word of caution, however: political scientists and diplomats will be disappointed if they suppose that organizing the voices of democratic states will automatically or openly gain acceptance as a substitute for a Security Council vote on crucial questions of international security and the use of force to protect human populations. The framing of the powerful idea of R2P—the "responsibility to protect" vulnerable and innocent populations against catastrophic harm—was put forward in the report of the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change in December 2004 at the invitation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.6 It was an important normative moment. Kofi Annan also noted in an eloquent address to the General Assembly that the absence of Security Council approval might seem a morally poor reason for inaction in the face of genocidal violence, such as in Rwanda.7 Still, the use of force against an extant regime—even against a brutal and recklessly self-destructive dictator—is often seen as a threat to other UN member states. As mordant observers remark, the UN is an intergovernmental organization, not an organization of peoples, and remains predictably devoted in its subterranean politics to the care and feeding of governments.

To be sure, there have been momentous occasions when another locus for political action was used. The General Assembly served that role in the early history of the United Nations—in the Korean War and the Suez crisis, as well as several other peacekeeping ventures. More recently, the role of regional organizations under the Charter has been legitimated and enlarged by the evident inadequacy of the UN's own passivity in the face of human crisis. There will be future dilemmas, no doubt, in which the Security Council will fail to reach agreement on a pressing matter of security, or fail to win the pledge of troops and resources needed to take action. In such a situation, a coalition of democracies may take a decision and undertake action in the hope that the merits will prove evident to impartial observers over the long run. As the political philosopher John Rawls famously wrote nearly four decades ago, there is a balance and tension between procedural and substantive justice. Rules of procedure begin to lose their claim to legitimacy if the results taken are persistently unjust. A democracy caucus within the United Nations can make plain when the inaction of a larger collation of states fails that test.

Competitive Multilateralism vs. a Concert of DemocraciesThe acknowledgment of the importance of this role for democratic and liberal states within the United Nations system should not be mistaken for an endorsement of the various proposals to form a singular and elaborate independent organization of democracies. The simplicity of communication in a wired world means that it is no longer necessary to meet in person or to establish secretariats in order to create consensus and mobilize opinion. The effort of the Clinton and Bush administrations to organize a Concert or Community of Democracies as a stand-alone and formal organization with its own secretariat and an occasional convocation has borne little fruit. Regional states hesitate to label their neighbors as undemocratic; and the membership of the Community of Democracies, spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and first convened in June 2000, has therefore been open to a number of regimes that hardly seem to qualify for the name. Episodic meetings of mid-level diplomats are no substitute for the vigorous pursuit of capital-to-capital diplomacy on the time-sensitive and urgent decisions that too often fall prey to the hegemony of bloc voting in New York. For decades, the United States has underinvested in its diplomacy at the United Nations, failing to attract foreign service officers to the post as the acme of a high-velocity career, failing to develop the personal relationships within regional caucuses that can break apart bloc voting, and failing to demand that a Caucus of Democracies be recognized as a caucus with claims within the United Nations itself comparable to the regional system of spoils.

In addition, the idea of a Concert or Community of Democracies should not ignore the more subtle mixtures that can be especially effective in crisis resolution. On a number of occasions, UN secretaries-general seeking to mediate a dispute or contain a deteriorating situation have usefully convened a "friends" group that involves powerful neighbors in the problem area, alongside states that have linguistic or cultural ties, as well as states with a strong normative commitment to a solution. The persuasive powers of democratic states will sometimes be best deployed in mixed settings that involve nondemocratic regimes as well. There is a potential problem with any election of saints, as the Calvinists discovered. There is room for the fallen who have met Half-Way Covenants. A real-life crisis may benefit from the involvement of regional neighbors, economic partners, societies with cultural affinities, influential members of a treaty regime, charismatic personalities who have previously dealt with the regime leadership, and states that can contribute peacekeepers. Some of these actors may be democracies, but others may not. Not least, the involvement of imperfectly democratic countries may be necessary to supply the peacekeeping forces useful in stabilizing a conflict, especially as Europe diminishes its military capacity and the United States continues to be overstretched.

Further, there is an advantage in problem solving within organizations that meet for multiple purposes. For the United States, it is enormously important to ensure that there are alternative regional forums and functional settings in which we can take part in conversations about security and human rights issues. The discussion of Asian problems should not be left to a China-centered architecture such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or to ASEAN Plus Three, where the United States has no right of participation. The mixed architecture used by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—in which issues of security, democracy, and human rights found a place in different "pillars"—may be a useful model for other regions, including the Mediterranean basin.

I have proposed elsewhere the virtues of a "competitive multilateralism," concluding that there should be no single venue for the solution of interstate problems.8 "Competitive multilateralism" can work alongside the United Nations system. Model treaties can be proposed by gatherings of the most interested states. Indeed, regional groups may dare to go further in normative standards and proposals, which would then set a higher bar for the United Nations itself. There may be other organizations in which states are willing to follow the example of international financial institutions in allocating voting power in proportion to the economic or other contributions to the organization's purpose.

In light of the great variety of problems and the intricacy of their solutions in a world of diverse geography, politics, and personalities, there is much to be said for a multitude of institutional options. This leaves a broad field for a community of democracies to advance the values that free beings tend to support. But one should wait to see what the foot traffic brings to its door, without a utopian design.


1 It is startling to recall how the war transformed the isolationist views of prominent postwar leaders. Though one hesitates to summon the memory, members of "America First," an active lobby against joining the war, included such important postwar leaders as Philip Jessup, who became a judge of the International Court of Justice, Potter Stewart, who became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Kingman Brewster, who became the president of Yale.
2 As the G-77 describes itself, it is "the largest intergovernmental organization of developing states in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues."
3 "Report of the Secretary-General on the support by the United Nations system for the efforts of Governments to promote and consolidate new or restored democracies," A/51/761, December 20, 1996; reprinted under the title "Agenda for Democratization," DPI/1867 (97.I.3), para. 5.
4 UN Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 32, Article 14: Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial, UN Doc. CCPR/C/GC/32, 23 August 2007, at paragraph 24.
5 Compare Rein Mullerson, "Promoting Democracy without Starting a New Cold War?" Chinese Journal of International Law 7, no. 1 (March 2008), p. 2 ("though only few of those who are involved in the business of exporting democracy are driven primarily by altruistic concerns . . . quite a few exporters of democracy have in mind rather different considerations such as oil, gas, war against terror and strategic advantages, and do not give a damn about democracy.")
6 See Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A more secure world: our shared responsibility, December 2004, U.N. Doc. A/59/565; available at
7 See "Secretary-General Presents His Annual Report to General Assembly," UN Press Release SG/SM/ 7136, GA/9596 (September 20, 1999): "To those for whom the greatest threat to the future of international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask—not in the context of Kosovo—but in the context of Rwanda: If in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of States had been prepared to act in defence of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?" See also "Statement of Danilo Turk, Permanent Representative of Slovenia," in UN Press Release SC/6659 (March 26, 1999): Council has "primary, but not exclusive responsibility for maintaining international peace and security."
8 Ruth Wedgwood, "Give the United Nations a Little Competition," New York Times, December 5, 2005.

You may also like

AUG 9, 2023 Podcast

Nuclear Ethics for this Moment

This panel explores ethical questions surrounding nuclear weapons and builds upon a symposium published in the most recent issue of "Ethics & International Affairs."

U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams tanks

FEB 6, 2023 Article

Ethics, Escalation, and Engagement in Ukraine and Beyond

Now that HIMAR and Patriot missiles as well as Leopard and Abrams tanks are on the way to Ukraine, NATO unity is at a high ...

DEC 22, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 36.4 (Winter 2022)

The highlight of the Winter 2022 issue of "Ethics & International Affairs" journal is a roundtable organized by David Ragazzoni on healing and reimagining liberal constitutional democracy, ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation