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Democratic commonwealth

By James Ruhland
web posted March 29, 2004

I write not to praise the UN, but to bury it. But how many such articles have people written over the years? The last several years have seen a multitude of "this is the end of the UN" pieces, but still it persists and at least half the country and much of the world regards it as a source of moral legitimacy. This despite the facts that fly in the face of the UN's image as an institution of cooperative high-minded nobility in action. In Reason, Johnathan Rauch's article "Voting Block" describes formation of a Democratic Caucus that might lead not to the end of the UN, but to its reform. Is reform within the structure of the UN likely, or even possible?

The problems with the UN are based in the compromises necessary in founding it with the cooperation of the Soviet world. In the current era, it is ever more apparent that the UN's vices are inherent, its virtues accidental. The essential problem is that in practice the UN is morally neutral between dictatorships and democratic republics – where it does not actually privilege the former over the later. It treats regimes like Libya and Syria as having as much standing to serve on a Human Rights Commission as any other country. The UN's Oil for Blood program in Iraq was run with a mafia-style skim into the billions of dollars of corrupt payoffs and vote-buying. The UN's structure encourages such venality and more often than not serves as an instrument for the defense of dictatorship rather than democracy. It invokes international law most strenuously against not the world's rogue regimes, but those who would oppose them, against the fire brigade rather than the fire.

Will a "caucus of democracies" change that? It is the first step in the right direction, but in the end that step is towards a post-UN world. The problem with a "democratic caucus" in the UN as it stands is that not all democracies act alike on the international stage. Some are almost as irresponsible as the dictatorships they are in league with, and others simply do not want to upset their tyrannical regional fellows. France essentially behaves as a rogue regime itself, and as with other rogue regimes invokes international law to restrain others but exempts itself from these norms. France uses the UN and its Security Council vote to shield their dealings with other rogue regimes around the world and fill the coffers of their elites with funds from, for example, the aforementioned Oil-for-Blood program. That program was administered by the UN on behalf of French and Russian interests and the Ba'athists in Iraq. Elsewhere, South Africa may be a democracy, but they will not vote in a way that would upset Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Many Latin American countries will refuse to cast votes that offend Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. Indeed, they will likely insist that Chavez be treated as a democrat in good standing.

The UN's problem is its tradition of regionalism and logrolling and the fact that, as an institution, it treats all governments equally, from the most representative and accountable to the most dictatorial and oppressive. Rauch points this out but does not highlight sufficiently the degree to which this will make the "Community of Democracies" ineffective within the UN. I believe that the more responsible members of the just formed "democratic caucus" will eventually find themselves frustrated, and look outside for a means of organizing their efforts. Rauch writes that "[b]y the time the Community of Democracies becomes strong enough to act coherently inside the U.N., it will also be strong enough to act coherently outside the U.N", but within the UN's democratic caucus the flaws of the UN generally are repeated, as all democracies are treated equally. But as I mentioned, they do not all behave the same. The more responsible ones will find that they will have to operate outside the UN. They will not be able to act coherently within the UN to accomplish their goals, given its structural incentives and disincentives.

Free market conservatives believe that incentives are important. In the UN as it stands, the incentive structure is skewed to reward irresponsibility and unaccountability. It promotes an international "free rider" problem. Ultimately we should replace the UN with a "Commonwealth of Democracies" founded on two pillars. The first is that only democratic nations can participate in decision making. Other nations may be our allies, but will have no vote internationally until their citizens have a meaningful vote at home. The second pillar is the principle of putting your money and men where your mouth is: only those who are prepared to contribute meaningfully to an effort will have a right to consultation on it. This means that non-participants like France or Germany, conscientious objectors in the combating of threats to the western world, cannot play the obstructionist role they currently play in the UN. Nations like Britain, Australia and Poland would qualify, and nations like Canada, India, and Japan would have new incentives to enhance their contributions to global security.

Countries will thereby be encouraged to sufficiently fund defense. Nations like India and Japan who are currently pushing for representation on the UN's Security Council will have their incentives altered. Right now, these nations feel the need to placate a France or Russia – or even a China – because of the influence those nations have in the running of the UN. Currently, the structure of the "international community" and its institutions creates incentives to work against rather than cooperate with the United States and its allies. This needs to be changed and would be in a system based on the pillars of democratic accountability and responsibility in spending resources. In addition, a "commonwealth of democracies" would not coerce its members. Any nation that did not want to participate in a venture would not be coerced or bullied into doing so, as is often the case with the UN's system and the treaties sponsored by the "world community," such as Kyoto or the International Criminal Court.

The most important change is that no longer would international institutions be invoked in the defense of dictatorship at the expense of democracy, and votes would not be stacked in such a way that democratic republics are condemned for defending themselves against aggressor states or terrorists that blow up their citizens. Responsibility and accountability would be encouraged, whereas the UN as it stands discourages both. Ultimately, any "Community of Democracies" within the UN, the decent members at least, will find themselves agreeing with Rauch when he writes that "perhaps—one can dream—it may someday be the U.N.'s successor." But for any Commonwealth of Democracies to function, it will need to learn from the UN's mistakes, and establish an incentive structure that will make it function properly.

James Ruhland is the author of the blog Porphyrogenitus.

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