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League of Democracies

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The United Nations has failed to deliver international peace and security. Power politics and national interest have crippled the Security Council even as humanitarian crises claimed millions of lives. The purpose and relevance of the UN is being contested.

The League of Democracies has been proposed as an alternate international organization.
This was a brainchild of the Princeton Project, a bipartisan initiative to bolster national security in the United States, three years ago. It was endorsed by Senator John McCain as part of his foreign policy during the presidential race.

The advocates of the scheme have also included several of President Barack Obama's top foreign policy advisors during the elections. Accusations of a "neo-con" agenda have been vehemently denied. The basis of this proposition is that US leadership, Democratic or Republican, needs to band together with other democracies to solve this century's problems, unprecedented in scale and impact.

From Rwanda to Darfur, UN failure to take decisive action has triggered public disillusionment. Most recently, Intelligence Squared, Britain's leading debate society fronted the motion: "The United Nations is terminally paralyzed: the democratic world needs a forum of its own." Six leading diplomats from Europe, US and India spoke- for and against- in London. After hearing the arguments, the audience voted overwhelmingly against the motion.

Branding the entire organization as useless is clearly inaccurate. Several achievements can be ticked off-- facilitating decolonization, consistent work of organizations like UNICEF, World Food Program and the UNHCR, deployment of thousands of peacekeepers and setting up of international criminal tribunals. On the other hand, the nerve center of the UN- the Security Council (SC)- is severely damaged.

The critical question, then, is whether the League of Democracies will do a better job maintaining international peace and security. The plan is that when the SC is crippled, the League can organize international interventions and authorize the use of force. This assumes that like-minded states, which share common values and ideals, can turn words into action.

Besides the practical challenges that the subtraction of China and Russia pose to the plan, critics also point out several conceptual flaws. It is difficult to establish the criterion for entry point into the League. The Project calls for regular multiparty elections, a criterion that has been dismissed as overly simplistic.

"Who is to decide what is a democracy," said Elazar Barkan, who teaches international relations and human rights at Columbia University. "Iran has elections but is seen as a dictatorship." The doors maybe closed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran but open to an Iran under a reformist like former president Mohamed Khatami--a skewed standard.

"What about Palestine?" asked Sir Jeremy Greenstock, speaking against the motion at the debate? Greenstock, UK's former ambassador to the UN was referring to the complicated situation on the Gaza strip, which is governed by Hamas- a group that came to power through elections in 2006, but is branded as a terrorist outfit by the US and Europe.

Further, experts point out that the assumption that all democracies behave similarly is flawed. Regional and local environments carve out diverse priorities. India and Indonesia do not agree with the West on many issues. On the indictment of President Omar-al Bashir of Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC), South Africa holds a position contrary to France, Britain and the US.

These differences are not restricted to the North-South divide. Foreign policy dissimilarities emerge on either side of the Atlantic, as well. The aggressive position assumed by Americans against Russia is not shared by the Europeans who prefer to cajole the regional giant in a gentler way. There is a stark contrast in the perception of international justice. While most European states are members of the ICC, the US energetically opposes the world tribunal.

Foreign policy analysts also note the fault in the argument that democratic states follow the rule book more than non-democratic states. The past four years have seen two acts of aggression contrary to international law by Israel- a democratic state.

Membership in a League will not inhibit a state from protecting its national interest. Will, for instance, the US hold its ally Saudi Arabia responsible for its objectionable human rights record? Both India and the US will continue to turn a blind eye to the imperfections of Sudan and Saudi Arabia, respectively, for the oil.

League bashers warn against dividing the world into the democratic and non-democratic states, believing that such a division will ferment worldwide turmoil. At the debate, Lord Malloch Brown, Britain's foreign minister, said that it was wiser for the democracies to form a strong caucus within the UN than out of it. A strong and united front would eventually influence non-democratic states. "Jaw jaw is better than war war," he said, quoting Winston Churchill.

Supporters of the League make two strong points. The first is that the UN is a 20th century relic, which is not equipped to handle 21st century problems. Second, the SC has failed countless times. The international community, however, has not been able to offer a workable substitute for this unsatisfactory mechanism.

The only recourse is to gradually reform the Security Council, according to Barkan. "It will be a long and frustrating process," he said. Reforming the SC has been on the "To do" list for a long time. Till date, it has proven to be an abstract muddle. But, reorganizing the Council will not automate a flurry of action. The real paralysis is caused by the lack of commitment of its members. Likewise, replacing one institution is not the answer.

Finally, what is fair? A League, without China, Russia and a chunk of the Middle East, can successfully sanction Iran, Burma and Sudan. But, will it pass judgment on American and Israeli adventurism? Even now, international norms are subject to power dynamics. At least, in the UN the underdogs can throw a tantrum. A club of like-minded democracies is the imposition of a black and white worldview- not the best antidote to the far grayer shade of global mayhem.