Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Roundtable: Can Democracies Go It Alone?: ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: For a Federation of Democracies (Response to Stephen Schlesinger)

Aug 28, 2009

This article is in response to Stephen Schlesinger's article "Why a League of Democracies Will Not Work."

In his recent critique of the proposal for a league of democratic states, Stephen Schlesinger joins several other skeptics, such as Charles Kupchan, against proponents such as James Lindsay, Ivo Daalder, and Anthony Lake.1 Since early 2008, when presidential candidate Senator John McCain began widely promoting the idea, the debate has largely focused on political feasibility and likely effects, rather than on philosophical fundamentals. In past work, I have argued that strong conceptions of basic rights such as those held by David Luban, Thomas Pogge, Jürgen Habermas, and Jean Elshtain imply that if we can create an effective global authority to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity, to pressure tyrannical governments to democratize, to prevent mass destruction by terrorists, and to halt the spread of powerful weapons, we are morally obliged to do so. The logic for creating this new level of government is apparent from the central principle of the Federalist Papers: when collective action problems prevent effective coordination among parties for their common good, they should consolidate enough decision-making power to ensure the necessary sacrifices from each.2 In addition, as is now widely recognized, there are many public goods besides basic rights that require collective action at the global level. Managing a global economy, addressing global environmental problems, and world health issues all require more coordination at the international level than our present transnational institutions permit.3

The solution to these problems is not a league of democratic states operating as another treaty organization with no enforcement powers of its own, requiring large supermajorities to approve any initiative, or even retaining vetoes for the largest and most powerful member states. Such a league would be too similar in structure to the American Continental Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation. Although the issue in 2009 concerns a proposed bond between distinct nations around the world, the federalist insights of 1787 apply to this case much as they did to the former American colonies. They teach us that the problems that stall the Security Council can be solved only if all parties are bound to abide by simple majority votes (for almost all issues), and that effective authority must have primary enforcement power over the matters it controls. But a federation of states with primary sovereignty over its enumerated functions could be legitimate only if its legislature and executive are directly elected by the citizens of all its members. It ought to balance representation by population with mechanisms for ensuring that smaller nations retain a voice. Except in cases of direct defense of their own soil against foreign attack that is already underway (or, perhaps, directly imminent), member states would cede the authority to wage war to this new federation, which would be empowered to act for the whole to uphold territorial integrity and basic human rights flowing from the Geneva Conventions and other major international rights treaties. Clearly, such a federal authority could not be directly elected unless its member nations were full democracies running regular multiparty elections with free press coverage, open debate, and the civil rights needed for these to flourish.

Such a federation should replace the UN Security Council as the central source and arbiter of international law, although it could leave the General Assembly and various UN agencies intact for some time.4 To show its inclusive intentions, and that it is not meant to be run by the United States and Europe, its founding members should include at least fifty democratic states ranging over all continents, and must include Russia from the outset. Of course, Russia must come a long way to be a full democracy in the sense just sketched. But the opportunity to be an equal partner in such a democratic federation might provide just the impetus that Russia needs, while showing that the West is not simply trying to enlarge NATO for its own strategic interests.5 However, joining would commit Russia to accept the majority will on such issues as humanitarian intervention and secession crises.

The federation should also begin with an open offer for China to join as soon as it adopts free multiparty elections with a free press at the national level.6 The founding members would clarify these standards for the entry of new states upon their application (open in principle to all nations); they could also establish an associate membership class, with consultation powers but no vote on most issues, for nations that generally respect rights more basic than the right to popular sovereignty, but that are not yet full-fledged democracies. That way, active diplomacy with decent non-democratic states would be encouraged from the start, and a pathway toward full membership would be established for interested nations. But nations would not be forced to join; the federation would not set becoming a single world government as its goal.

This stronger version of the proposal for a "concert" of democracies allows a better response the main criticisms raised against the league proposal. First, it accepts Schlesinger's point that the United States cannot "organize and lead" such a group (p. 13). Rather, the U.S. would be one member with a voice roughly proportional to its population, and without a veto.7 In return for accepting genuine multilateral control of the global order, the democracies of Europe, Asia, and Latin America would start doing their fair share to maintain that order, to secure borders and stop atrocities, to resist tyrannies and fundamentalism, and promote democratization. Consequently, the United States would no longer be expected to act as the policeman of the world when crises occur. American politicians might not like to accept majority rule in such a federation, but they should face the fact that the United States is too overextended and deeply in debt to continue acting unilaterally or by leading small, short-lived alliances to address the world's worst threats and atrocities, while other nations free-ride on its military. In the federation, each member nation would retain full sovereignty over its internal affairs consistent with the federation's minimum human rights standards, but none can now hope to secure global public goods largely by their own influence, arms, and money.

Schlesinger suggests that other democracies will "question the legitimacy of a body that restricts membership to 'free' states," especially if it excludes Russia and China (p. 14). However, we must rid ourselves of the shameful illusion that the UN is more "inclusive" because its members include military dictatorships, theocracies, and kleptocracies of all kinds; these regimes do not give their peoples any voice at the UN. Like other critics of the league proposal, Schlesinger errs when he assumes that "universal membership" is the key to legitimacy for a transnational order (p. 18); no plausible theory of legitimacy supports this view.8 Regimes that systematically violate human rights and deny their peoples the free exercise of deliberative democracy detract rather than add to the authority of organizations to which they belong. In 1945 such a compromise appeared necessary; but as Lindsay correctly argues, that has changed dramatically. Today, democracies hold the lion's share of the world's military and economic strength. Far from undermining "the edifice of international law," as Schlesinger fears (p. 16), the proposed democratic federation could finally enforce international law made by a legitimate process, with international courts answerable to a directly elected legislature.

As in 1787, today's skeptics wildly exaggerate the alleged dangers of a federation or permanent alliance, underestimate the benefits, and downplay the near-total failure of the current system. For example, Schlesinger credits the UN for preventing a third world war (p. 18), when in fact this had nothing to do with the UN; a new world war was avoided by a combination of luck, NATO, U.S.-Soviet arms treaties, the daring of Solidarity, and the courageous reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Amazingly, Schlesinger insists that "few states really question the fact that, for all its shortcomings, the UN has staved off warfare, provided much-needed peacekeeping missions," and delivered other social goods (p. 15). Certainly many UN agencies have done much good, but the Security Council has utterly failed almost every major test in its history: from the unenforced two-state solution in Palestine to Tibet, East Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Burma, Somalia, East Timor, Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and the Congo (to say nothing of the Central and Latin American dictatorships supported by the United States during the cold war). In virtually every case, the failure resulted from great power vetoes and lack of coordination among states. Only in protecting South Korea and liberating Kuwait did the UN's central mechanism function as its founders intended. Thus, no democracy in the world is under the impression that the UN is able to protect it, but a federation would offer serious security through global coordination. Should we refrain from such an alliance because it would mean that we cannot draw peacekeeping troops from "military-led governments" (p. 14)—troops that under UN control have too often stood aside to allow genocide, persecution, systematic rape, and scorched earth tactics to proceed?

Critics of a wider democratic alliance, such as Habermas and Charles Kupchan, typically respond that the UN system can be strengthened, although they know that the Security Council structure cannot be amended without the consent of all five permanent members, who will never agree to give up their vetoes in that framework. Expanding the Security Council's membership, as Schlesginer suggests (p. 18), will never eliminate the basic incentive that the permanent members have to defect from any bargain by exercising vetoes whenever it serves their perceived national interests, despite defeating the public goods that the institution is meant to secure. Moreover, the UN can never defend its own human rights principles while it is based on the unlimited sovereignty of states over their internal affairs, for which Schlesinger lauds it (p. 15); and this cannot be changed by mere amendment. The proposed federation would replace this outdated Westphalian model with a system that does not protect regimes that abuse their own people.

None of Schlesinger's other criticisms pose anything more than pragmatic difficulties that can be overcome with sufficient political will and skill. His objection that action by a democratic league "may push rogue regimes, such as North Korea or Myanmar [Burma], towards defiance and resistance" (p. 14) implies, absurdly, that they are not already defying the UN and the world's democracies with success. We have nothing to lose in dealing with such rogue regimes through a stronger alliance that can speak for all the peoples of the world whose governments allow them a reasoned voice in governance aimed at securing global public goods. Kupchan's related objection that such a broad and growing democratic alliance would divide the world and encourage autocracies to "chart their own course," perhaps even forming a "league of dictators"9 is highly implausible as a response to a federation practicing true multilateralism without U.S. dominance. Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry have argued that the threat of long-term "autocratic revival" is largely a myth.10 There is no chance of alliance between communist dictatorships and Islamic theocracies, which in turn are divided between Sunni and Shia factions. And most other rogue regimes are military tyrannies without any principles that could foster stable alliances with other non-democratic states. A federation that unites the will and strength of the world's democracies will not generate new divisions, or worsen present ones, and it will better equip us to manage the divisions that do exist.

In conclusion, there is every reason to think that a democratic federation that began by representing 40 percent of the world's population in fifty nations would, within a couple decades, come to represent two-thirds of humanity in a hundred nations, while there is no reason to think that the UN will ever become more representative. If we truly respect the values that inspired the founders of the League of Nations and the UN, we should recognize that the time has come for a Democratic Federation to take their place.


1 Stephen Schlesinger, "Why a League of Democracies Will Not Work," Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 1 (2009), pp. 13-18. Subsequent page references to Schlesinger appear parenthetically, e.g., (p. X).

2 See, in particular, Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 15, The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: Penguin/Mentor Books, 1961), esp. pp. 108-10.

3 James M. Lindsay, "The Case for a Concert of Democracies," Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 1 (2009), p. 5. Also see Inge Kaul et al., Providing Global Public Goods: Managing Globalization (New York: UN Development Program/Oxford University Press, 2003).

4 It has sometimes been suggested that a "coalition of democratic states" should operate as a backup to the UN, undertaking humanitarian interventions when the Security Council fails to act in the face of massive atrocities (see, for example, Allen Buchanan and Robert O. Keohane, "The Preventative Use of Force: A Cosmopolitan Institutional Proposal," Ethics & International Affairs 18, no. 1 [2004], pp. 1-22, p. 2). But if legitimacy depends on Security Council approval, such a coalition's actions would seem illegal; if instead legitimacy depends on the human rights that the coalition enforces, then this should be clearly asserted by replacing the Security Council rather than trying to play second fiddle to it.

5 Skeptics like Robert Kagan have argued that China and Russia are not democratizing but rather pursuing strategic interests that keep them at odds with Western democracies (see Robert Kagan, "League of Dictators?" Washington Post, April 30, 2006). I agree with Kagan that adopting capitalist economic systems does not entail democratization. But the Hobbesian dynamics Kagan describes reflect the near state-of-nature between nations, and would be radically altered by the possibility of a global federation.

6 Consider Wen Jiabao's acknowledgement that China needs democratic reforms (interview with Fareed Zakaria, CNN, September 28, 2008): "We need to gradually improve the democratic election system so that state power will truly belong to the people and state power will be used to serve the people." Also see John Thornton, "Long Time Coming: The Prospects for Democracy in China," Foreign Affairs 87 no. 1 (2008), pp. 2-14.

7 In his critique, Thomas Carothers assumes that the proposed league would provide a vehicle for an "expansive global leadership role" for the United States (see Thomas Carothers, "Is a League of Democracies a Good Idea?" Carnegie Endowment Policy Brief, May 2008, p. 3). By contrast, a genuinely multilateral federation would assure Asian, Latin American, African, and Muslim-majority democracies that the U.S. is not seeking the role of global hegemon.

8 Allen Buchanan and Robert O. Keohane, "The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions," Ethics & International Affairs 20 no. 4 (2006), p. 413.

9 Charles Kupchan, "Minor League, Major Problems: The Case Against a League of Democracies," Foreign Affairs 87, no. 6 (2008), pp. 96-109.

10 Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, "The Myth of the Autocratic Revival: Why Liberal Democracy Will Prevail," Foreign Affairs 88 no. 1 (2009), pp. 77-99.

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