Home inFocus Advice to the Next President (Fall 2008) A League of Democracies Would Serve America Well

A League of Democracies Would Serve America Well

Lawrence J. Haas Fall 2008

Dear Senators Obama and McCain:

One of you will take the oath of office on January 20. When you do, you will succeed a president who has upset or angered world leaders in pursuit of U.S. security interests. One of your challenges will be to repair these strained or fractured diplomatic relationships.

The desire to address this challenge, however, must not become a straightjacket that binds you to institutions and policies that no longer serve America’s interests. Indeed, America has not yet made all of the necessary changes in our foreign policy to address the new realities of a post-9/11 world. Doing so will almost certainly ruffle some additional feathers.

The Problem

A case in point is the United Nations (U.N.). That body was established more than 60 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, as a mechanism through which the international community could resolve disputes and promote peace. These are, of course, noble goals. But as you survey the landscape of global challenges that confront the United States, you will see that the United Nations has often served as an obstacle to protecting our national security interests and promoting our values.

In essence, you will face two competing forces. On the one hand, Western diplomats and foreign policy experts increasingly seek to submit all trans-national disputes to international resolution through the United Nations. On the other hand, our “strategic competitors” (our enemies) are increasingly able to manipulate the United Nations to compromise America’s national security.

The Solution

The answer to this problem lies not in reforming the United Nations, where meaningful change is slow and will almost surely fall short of what is needed. Rather, the solution lies in your leadership in creating a League of Democracies, an international organization through which the United States can protect the interests and promote the values that it shares with scores of like-minded nations across the globe.

Before turning to the virtues of such an organization, however, let us explore how the United Nations has failed us.

The U.N.’s Failures With Iran

As you will surely both agree, the greatest threat facing the free world is the prospect that the world’s most dangerous weapons will fall into the world’s most dangerous hands. For years, the United States has been trying to prevent Iran from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons.

The dangers of a nuclear Iran are manifold. For one, dangerous elements within the regime in Tehran adhere to a strain of Islamic ideology that predicts the coming return of the so-called “Twelfth Imam,” a messianic figure who supposedly will reappear to signal the end of history and bring Islamic justice to the world. Subscribers to a particularly radical strain of this ideology, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a broad cross-section of the Iranian leadership, believe not only that a violent confrontation with the West will be a harbinger of his return. They also believe they can speed his return by provoking this confrontation. An Iran with nuclear weapons can bring this prophecy to life.

For another, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with other top officials, has pledged to share nuclear technology and know-how with other nations and sub-national groups. The nations that could benefit from Iranian nuclear technology include Syria, which was clearly developing a nuclear site before Israel destroyed it in a daring raid, as well as the terrorist groups Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad—groups that Iran supports with money, weapons, training, and logistical support.

Unfortunately, as the U.S. and its allies work with the U.N. Security Council to pressure the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear program, China and Russia continue to block the kind of stringent economic sanctions that might ultimately convince the mullahs to shift course. Those two surging autocracies have established lucrative economic ties with the Islamic Republic, and they benefit when the world’s lone superpower is bogged down in a tense stand-off in the Greater Middle East.

Thus, in our laudable quest for international consensus, we have diminished our own ability to increase the pressure on Tehran, whose president envisions a “world without America” and vows to eliminate Israel, our most important ally in the region. In the meantime, Iran continues to make progress on the nuclear front, perfecting its ability to enrich uranium. As the sanctions we managed to secure at the Security Council continue to fall short of weakening Iran sufficiently, we move ever closer to the stark decision of whether to use force to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites or to live with the frightening reality of a radical regime with mind-boggling weaponry.

The U.N.’s Humanitarian Failures

The United Nations has also failed America with regard to humanitarian matters. In the Security Council, China stood forcefully against action to stop the crackdown in Burma, the killing in Darfur, and the repression in Zimbabwe. Russia joined with China recently to block sanctions against Zimbabwe’s dictator, Robert Mugabe, and other top officials for manipulating the recent election. Russia also opposed Western efforts to stop the killing and bring democracy to the Balkans.

In the General Assembly, efforts to confront human rights violations around the world devolve into an orgy of Israel-bashing, even though problems in the Jewish State do not remotely resemble those in Iran, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Russia, Burma, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, and the rest of the world’s worst violators. Now, the United Nations is planning a follow-up to its notorious 2001 human rights conference in Durban, where the anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing grew so intense that the United States walked out.

An Alternative?

That the United Nations has fallen short of U.S. expectations does not necessarily mean that the U.S. should stop working with allied nations. Neither Americans at home nor Western populations abroad want the U.S. to go it alone, except in cases of inarguable self-defense.

As has been true for decades, Washington will have to clear the hurdle of international “legitimacy” for any significant actions on the world stage. This is important for reasons of transparency, but also because many of our allies want to help us more than they care to admit publicly. Indeed, cooperation between Western intelligence services continues to help uncover and destroy terrorist plots.

What’s the answer? A new vehicle—a League of Democracies. No matter who wins in November, a league can help America pursue its global interests.

A Bipartisan Idea

A League of Democracies is an idea of deep bipartisan vintage. In 1996, the private United Nations Association of the United States of America proposed that the world’s democracies coalesce as a caucus. Four years later, 106 democracies met as a Community of Democracies. They met again in 2002 and 2003, calling for a democracy caucus within the United Nations. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations provided strong behind-the-scenes support.

On Capitol Hill, supporters of such a caucus have included Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joseph Biden (D-DE), and the House Rules Committee’s top Republican, David Dreier (R-CA). In the private sector, support comes from scholars at the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In fact, supporters include advisors to both of your current presidential campaigns.

Not a New Idea

Such a league has well-established precedents. What, after all, is NATO if not an agency of collective action in defense of Western freedom and democracy? What is the World Trade Organization (and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade before that) if not a collective mechanism to promote trade, market capitalism, and prosperity? And what was the Western alliance from 1945 until the end of the Cold War if not a mechanism through which the free world could confront the threat of expansionist communism?

Answering the Opposition

The idea is not to replace the United Nations. Rather, the league should supplement it by creating a vehicle for collective action to protect and promote freedom, democracy, and human rights; to intervene when necessary in places where the United Nations will not; to relieve humanitarian suffering; and to contain the impulses of rogue states that threaten both the United States and its allies.

Opposition to a league comes from predictable places, for predictable reasons. The foreign policy establishment—including experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, scholars from foreign policy schools, and civil servants within the State Department—says not only that a league won’t work, but that it will destabilize the world by challenging key non-members like China and Russia.

To be sure, a league will not always work. Democracies do, in fact, disagree with one another—recall the fierce splits between the United States and Britain, on one side, and France and Germany, on the other, on the need for military action against Iraq.

But democracies can agree as well—just look at the U.S.-European effort to supplement weak U.N. Security Council sanctions to isolate the Islamic Republic. And don’t forget the assistance that NATO is providing to fight the insurgency in Afghanistan.

As for angering China and Russia, as well as Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and others… it’s guaranteed. When the league takes action in situations when the United Nations will not, their power to block U.S. and Western action will shrink.

The issue, however, is not whether China and Russia are agitated. The issue is whether the benefits of a league outweigh the risks of anger among our strategic competitors.

Whether or not the league is created, China and Russia will work with America for the same reason they do now—it is in their national interest. They will oppose America for the same reason. That’s why China supported our efforts to pressure North Korea over its nuclear program, but opposed stronger Security Council sanctions on Iran or any sanctions on Burma or Zimbabwe.

The same holds true with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The United States works with Saudi Arabia to contain Iran, but confronts the Kingdom over the need to drive down energy prices by producing more oil, or the need to curb the rabidly anti-Western teachings of Wahabbism that the Saudis finance around the world.

A Final Word

One of you will inherit the mantle of leadership at a particularly precarious time. You face, among other challenges, an emboldened China, a resurgent Russia, and a long-term war against radical Islam. You also face the frightening reality that Iran is closer to developing nuclear weaponry.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led the effort to create a new world body to promote peace and security. For much of the next half-century, the United Nations adequately served our interests, providing a vehicle through which the Western alliance could contain the Soviet Union.

But new problems call for new solutions. The time has come for the United States to create an alternative vehicle for the scores of nations that share our interests and our values.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director to Vice President Al Gore, is vice president of the bipartisan Committee on the Present Danger.