Wed, Jun 25, 2008 - Page 9 News List

‘League of Democracies’ is a frightening thought

The world already has a peace-maintaining institution: the UN

By Robert Skidelsky

US Republican presidential candidate John McCain has been calling for the creation of a “League of Democracies.” This new international group would possess a formidable military capacity, based partly on NATO and partly on a “new quadrilateral security partnership” in the Pacific between Australia, India, Japan and the US. Neither Russia nor China, of course, would be invited to join: Indeed, McCain wants to exclude Russia from the G8.

The league is necessary, argues McCain, because in matters vital to the US, such as fighting Islamic terrorism, humanitarian intervention and spreading liberty, democracy and free markets, the US and its democratic partners must be able to act without permission from the UN — and thus from Russia and China. In other words, the League’s main purpose is to marginalize Russia and China in world affairs.

The most damning criticism of McCain’s plan is that it would launch a new Cold War between states labeled democracies and autocracies. This is not only dangerous, but incoherent. Russia and China do not “threaten” the “free world” with a powerful ideology and massive armed forces, as they did during the Cold War. Moreover, the world’s democracies are themselves divided on how to deal with Islamic terrorism or genocide in Darfur: It was France, after all, that led the opposition in the UN Security Council to the US invasion of Iraq.

On issues like terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change, the US needs Russian and Chinese help. Stigmatizing Russia and China will not get them on board.

In fact, Russia has mostly cooperated with the US in the “war against terrorism.”

Finally, the idea is impracticable. One cannot imagine India or Brazil wanting to be part of any such a combination. So we would all spare ourselves an awful lot of trouble if McCain’s brainchild were buried as quickly as possible.

Yet underlying this idea is a serious proposition, to which former British prime minister Tony Blair often gave eloquent expression: Democracies don’t fight each other, so if the whole world were democratic, wars would stop.

Presumably, McCain’s League of Democracies is designed to bring philosopher Immanuel Kant’s dream of perpetual peace closer to realization by putting pressure on non-democracies to change their ways, by force if necessary.

Leave aside the fact that efforts to make democracy bloom have become bloodily unstuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it true that democracies never fight each other? The affirmative answer seems to depend on two separate claims.

The first is that democracies have, as a matter of historical record, never fought each other. This is true of a rather small group of rich countries — India is a partial exception — mainly in western Europe and its overseas offshoots, since World War II. Moroever, they are “our kind” of democracy — constitutional democracies that contain all the features we take for granted in modern Western systems, not “Islamic democracies” like Iran.

A reasonable generalization from this rather small sample would be that “prosperous and constitutional democracies tend to live in peace with each other.”

The second claim is that these countries live in peace because they are democracies. But is it democracy that has brought them peace and prosperity, or is it peace and prosperity that have brought democracy? Is it democracy that has kept Europe peaceful since 1945, or is it the long period of peace since 1945 that has allowed democracy to become the European norm?

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