The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
Democracies of the World, Unite

We need a Concert of Democracies to manage the global politics of the 21st century.

Published on January 1, 2007

The Bush revolution in foreign policy is over. After September 11, the Administration acted on the conviction that an America that dared to shake off the constraints of international rules, laws and institutions could remake the world for the better. What they found instead was that an America unbound alienated allies, empowered adversaries and divided Americans. Faced with an overstretched military and multiplying threats, the Bush Administration in its second term has acknowledged through its deeds what its critics have long argued: The United States, powerful but not omnipotent, needs to work closely with others if it is to solve the foreign policy challenges now confronting it. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we’re all multilateralists now.

While the Bush Administration’s renewed commitment to cooperate with others resolves one major foreign policy debate of the past six years, it doesn’t resolve another—namely, what kind of multilateralism do we need? President Bush’s conversion to multilateralism has been of a particular sort. It mostly involves traditional diplomacy, typically only with close U.S. allies, and almost always on an ad hoc, problem-oriented tactical basis—as with the decision to take Iran’s nuclear program before the UN Security Council. There is no strategic vision of how international institutions can be shaped to serve longer-range American interests. In many ways, then, President Bush’s second-term multilateralism is a kinder, gentler version of his first-term unilateralism.

In contrast, many of the President’s critics call for a return to a traditional multilateralism. They initially urged the Administration to cede postwar political control of Iraq to the United Nations, and then to give a greater military role to NATO. This instinct to turn to New York and Brussels remains strong in other contexts, too, like nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, and violence in places such as Lebanon, Darfur and East Timor. Yet the track record of existing international organizations in addressing problems like these is spotty at best. World bodies often respond with too little and too late—not least because the arduous search for consensus tends to produce agreements that reflect the political needs of member-states rather than what the situation requires.

The Bush Administration and its critics thus offer, respectively, 19th- and 20th-century foreign policies for a 21st-century world. We can and must do better than that. In an era where dangerous developments anywhere can have devastating consequences everywhere, including here at home, we need international institutions capable of prompt and effective action both to prevent and, when necessary, respond to threats to international security. We need institutions that bring together the most capable states that share common interests and perspectives on the dangers confronting us. A Concert of Democracies, which brings together the world’s established democracies into a single institution dedicated to joint action, fits that bill.1

[credit: R. Jay Magill]

Democracies share the most important value of all—a common dedication to ensuring the life, liberty and happiness of free peoples. And democracies constitute the world’s most capable states in terms of military potential, economic capability and political weight. A Concert that brings the established democracies together into a single institution will be best able to meet the many challenges that beset the new age of global politics.

Why Cooperation Matters

The United States cannot go it alone in the world. Iraq has showed why those who believed it could were wrong. American military power proved sufficient to remove a hated dictator with great speed, but it has not been enough to produce long-term security or a stable government.

If Iraq were the exception, we could all rest easier. But it isn’t. As globalization and the spread of powerful technologies empower the vengeful, more problems are beyond America’s ability to solve on its own—and more will reach America’s shores if they are allowed to fester. Think of terrorism. A few young men born in Riyadh and trained in the Hindu Kush outside Jalalabad plotted their terrorist dreams in Hamburg before turning jetliners into weapons of mass destruction in New York and Washington. Or think of deadly diseases like SARS, or a newly virulent flu that might be easily transmitted from one person to the next. One infected person at an airport in Hong Kong can inadvertently spread sickness and death to every corner of the globe. Or think of climate change. Economic expansion in China, India and other developing countries means that the concentration of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere will continue to grow even if the United States and other OECD countries were to take genuinely effective steps to reduce their own emissions. Over a whole range of functional challenges, the world today is essentially undergoverned.

A world in which problems easily cross borders is one in which broad-based multilateral cooperation is essential. But how do we achieve that cooperation? The Bush Administration favors ad hoc coordination among the major powers. “For the first time since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648”, observes Condoleezza Rice, paraphrasing the September 2002 National Security Strategy, “the prospect of violent conflict between great powers is becoming ever more unthinkable. Major states are increasingly competing in peace, not preparing for war.”2 Some realists have pushed this point further, explicitly calling for a new concert of great powers that encompasses strong and rising nations, including the United States, Russia, Europe, China, India and Japan.3 With war among them unthinkable, these great powers can now attempt to forge agreement on a set of rules, policies and institutions that aims to quell armed conflict, limit terrorism, reverse weapons proliferation, open markets and societies, and reduce violence, pollution, poverty and disease.

A concert-of-powers strategy is a venerable approach in international affairs. Indeed, with the Cold War now far behind us, it is hard to imagine any American foreign policy that would not seek to work with other major powers, at least when that cooperation is forthcoming. The Clinton Administration sought to enlist China and Russia as strategic partners on a variety of matters, not least in stemming the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and in stabilizing Northeast Asia. And despite its preference for going it alone, the Bush Administration has solicited and acquired—even in the midst of the spitting match over Iraq—a large degree of great-power cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda.

Yet for all its basic logic and appeal, a great power concert is not sufficient. One obvious problem is that great powers often refuse to cooperate. Washington may think Beijing should use its economic clout to shut down Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, or that Moscow should halt its nuclear dealings with Tehran, but China and Russia see their interests differently, the former even after the North Korean nuclear test of this past October. Moreover, disagreements among the great powers are the sharpest on perhaps the defining issue of our day: the extent to which sovereignty should remain inviolable. Russia and especially China have become the foremost defenders of the principle that states are the exclusive masters of their own internal affairs. They have resisted—from Kosovo to Darfur to Burma—every action proposed by the United States and the European Union that would interfere in the domestic circumstances of other states.

A concert-of-powers strategy suffers from a second fundamental weakness: a lack of legitimacy. By definition, the vast majority of states and people would have no role in setting the rules. One reason Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receive such rousing receptions when they rail against great-power dominance from the rostrums of the UN General Assembly is that many of their listeners resent being told what to do by a few powerful countries. Might, they contend, doesn’t make right, so few of these countries see any reason to abide by the rules or wishes of the powerful.

The lack of legitimacy in great-power concerts is why so many states favor larger, universalist organizations like the United Nations as the primary vehicle for international cooperation. In some instances, these organizations do a creditable job. This is especially true of some of the UN’s functional agencies, like the UNHCR, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization. Confronted with a particular task—resettling refugees, feeding the hungry, eradicating diseases—these UN bodies often do a remarkably effective job even when, as is invariably the case, their resources prove inadequate to the task.

But in many instances, and especially in hardcore security questions, the United Nations falls far short. The UN must have consensus to act, but consensus is usually difficult to achieve. When it finally achieves agreement, its actions are often delayed or deficient. The UN Security Council proved unable to achieve a consensus on how to address Iraq’s failure to comply with its many resolutions, leaving it sidelined when the United States, the United Kingdom and a few other countries decided to take matters into their own hands. North Korea has repeatedly violated its nuclear non-proliferation commitments; the response from Turtle Bay so far has been weak and indecisive. Genocide in Darfur has prompted heated speeches in the General Assembly, but little in the way of effective action.


[credit: Associated Press]

None of this is terribly surprising. The United Nations was founded in a different era and for different purposes. The goal in 1945 was to avoid another great war like the one just concluded. The victorious powers believed they could prevent war as long as they were united in that common purpose. This belief proved to be well-founded, but only when it came to war among great powers themselves. Violent conflict among lesser powers and between greater and lesser powers hardly disappeared after the UN’s founding. On the contrary, as the number of nominally sovereign states multiplied, so did the incidence of conflict both within and between them. And though the United Nations at times succeeded in mitigating the consequences or mediating the end of these wars, in the vast majority of instances it stood by helplessly as deadly conflicts unfolded. In a few conflicts, it can be argued, a feckless UN peacekeeping presence actually, if inadvertently, facilitated violence and massive human rights violations—as in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One reason the UN falls short of the hopes its supporters have for it is that the Security Council institutionalizes the deficiencies of a great-power concert more readily than its benefits. Unless the five permanent members agree to act, the Security Council will at most talk an issue to death.

Another reason for the UN’s failings lies in what is held to be the UN’s great virtue—its universality. Even as many see the UN’s universality as the source of its legitimacy, it is in many ways the UN’s greatest curse. It makes the institution beholden to its least cooperative members—a point underscored by the repeated failures to reform the organization. Universality also focuses almost all of the UN’s attention and action on the relationship between and among states rather than on what happens within them. And therein lies the rub. In our increasingly interconnected world the main threats to security stem from developments within states rather than from their external behavior. Yet the UN’s founding Charter insists that a state’s domestic affairs remain essentially outside the purview of others.

Although the vast majority of UN members is comfortable with the notion that borders demarcate international no-go zones, this principle of absolute sovereignty is unsustainable in an age of global politics. When developments within one state can profoundly affect the security and well-being of peoples in other states, the only practical way for countries to ensure their security is to interfere into the internal affairs of other states. The fundamental question of how that can best be done is one that the United Nations has so far largely shunned, and that, given its origins and very nature, it is unlikely ever to answer effectively.

The practical result of the UN’s ineffectiveness and lowest-common-denominator politics has been that Washington has repeatedly turned to NATO as its primary vehicle for effective multilateral action. It did so in the 1990s, when the UN proved unable to end the war in Bosnia or prevent a humanitarian calamity in Kosovo, and it did so again when robust peacekeeping forces were needed to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan. As a result, NATO, which was originally founded to help western Europe deter Soviet aggression, has increasingly extended its operational reach beyond the North Atlantic area—to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Africa and even New Orleans.

Although NATO’s evolution has been laudable, the organization’s ability to help the United States deal with today’s most pressing security challenges is limited by two shortcomings. One is that NATO was and still is by design a military alliance. It therefore lacks the full array of diplomatic and economic tools needed to meet today’s varied security threats. The other problem involves its legitimacy. NATO is a regional organization whose members still view its activities beyond Europe as more the exception than the rule. At the same time, much of the rest of the world sees the involvement of a U.S.-led Atlanticist organization in other regions as illegitimate, if not actually threatening to their interests.

Why Democracies Must Unite

To meet the security challenges of the age of global politics, we need, as Francis Fukuyama has argued in these pages, forms of multilateral cooperation (whether institutionalized or not) that are both effective and legitimate.4 Great-power concerts, the United Nations and regional organizations cannot provide what we need. The solution lies instead in organizing the world’s democratic governments in a framework of binding mutual obligations. And precisely because the need for both effectiveness and legitimacy is so critical, by “organizing” we mean a Concert of Democracies with a full-time secretariat, a budget, ministerial meetings and regular summits. We are not proposing a photo-op bedecked gab fest.

First to the question of effectiveness. From the United States and Canada to India and Japan, from Brazil and Argentina to Botswana and South Africa, from Finland and Spain to Australia and New Zealand, the world’s democracies possess the greatest capacity to shape global politics. They deploy the greatest and most potent militaries; the largest twenty democracies are responsible for three-quarters of the resources spent on defense in the world today. Democracies also account for most of the world’s wealth, innovation and productivity. Twenty-eight of the world’s thirty largest economies are democracies. The average annual income of people living in democratic societies is about $16,000, nearly three times greater than the average income of those living in non-democracies. In the main, the people living in democracies are better educated, more prosperous, healthier and happier than those who live under authoritarian and dictatorial rule. Harnessing the power that comes from this overwhelming military, economic, political and social advantage would provide the necessary ingredients for effective international action.

Of course, effective cooperation is not merely a function of resources. It is also a function of coordination. And here it must be said that democracies often disagree on what needs to be done in the international arena. The divisions between Washington and many of its closest allies over the Iraq war is a case in point. Any democracy—like any state—has national interests that can and will conflict with the interests of other countries, however they may be governed. London and Paris squabble over agricultural subsidies, Tokyo and Seoul trade insults over historical indignities, Washington and Brasilia bicker over who should lead the Organization of American States.

What separates democracies from non-democracies, however, is their proven track record of effective cooperation. They disagree, yes; but they also know how to limit and overcome their disagreements. NATO, the most successful multilateral organization the world has ever known, is a concert of democracies on a regional level. It works not only because its members have common interests and shared values, but also because they have established procedures for overcoming disagreement in ways that both meet the interests of the members and ensure timely and effective action. Democracies work well with each other, above all perhaps, because their shared commitment to the rule of law and government of, by and for the people enables them to trust one another’s leadership. There is no place for intimidation or coercion in inter-democratic interactions, whereas relations between democracies and non-democracies are invariably infused with suspicion and mistrust. Will China abide by its pledges to protect intellectual property rights? Will Syria respect Lebanon’s sovereignty? Will Russia refrain from manipulating natural gas exports to advance its political goals? Democracies worry that the answer to these questions is “no” because they do not trust authoritarian regimes to keep their word.

What about legitimacy? A concert of democracies would seem to falter on this point. The majority of the world’s countries are not genuine democracies, at least as the word is properly understood. This obviously runs counter to traditional notions which assume that the legitimacy of an action increases with the number of countries supporting it, with the universalism of the UN imprimatur being the gold standard of legitimacy. This is why the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq was deemed by many observers to be illegitimate. The vast majority of states—including a majority on the Security Council—opposed it, so ipso facto it could not be legitimate.

But should international legitimacy rest on universalism, or at least on the widespread support of the international community as a whole? This notion reduces the criterion of legitimacy to a procedural question: The number of states or votes one can marshal in support of a given action will determine that action’s legitimacy. The nature of the action itself—or the nature of the states consenting to it—matters little, if at all.

This is a deeply flawed conception of legitimacy. The rightness or wrongness of a particular course of action ought to reside at least in part in the nature of the action itself. In the case of the use of force, for example, the justness of the cause, the proportionality of the response, the nature of the authority deciding the action and the likelihood of success constitute considerations that are at least as important in determining its legitimacy as the number of states that would support it. And consider the inescapable logic of the converse: Does the failure to garner widespread support for forceful action when it is necessary to reverse a terrible wrong (for example, genocide or gross atrocities) thereby render inaction legitimate? Such a conclusion would be absurd. It is unarguable that, in considering the legitimacy of a given action, its normative foundation must be deemed more important than the procedural basis on which action is undertaken.

The second problem of equating legitimacy with the number of states that support a given action is that it assumes all states are equal. States may be equal in a procedural sense, but they are not equal in fact. Most states in the world today, including a majority of UN members, do not represent the interests or perspectives of the people they rule. So when it comes to determining international legitimacy, why should states with no legitimacy at home have an equal say as states with such legitimacy? Real legitimacy, like real sovereignty, resides in the people rather than in the states—which is why state decisions to confer international legitimacy must rest in the democratically chosen representatives of the people, not in the personal whims of autocrats or oligarchs.

Here is where the case for a Concert of Democracies is the strongest. Democracies understand that international peace and justice in an era of global politics rest on protecting the rights of individuals. Nation-state sovereignty can no longer be the sole organizing principle of international politics. Since what happens within a state matters to people living outside it, tackling these internal developments cooperatively is vital to the security and well-being of all. Threats to security arising within states are matters of concern to the commons, and so must yield to legitimate cooperative action arising from the commons. Democracies are open to cooperation to preserve the common good—it is the very essence of how they govern within their own societies, after all—in a way that non-democracies very often are not.

Who, What, When and How

Who should be able to join the Concert of Democracies? One obvious criterion for membership is regular, free and fair elections. The fact that a state calls itself democratic—as the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both do—doesn’t make it so, of course. The same holds true for states that stage-manage or heavily circumscribe elections. The great weakness of the Community of Democracies, an effort launched in Warsaw in 2000 to bring together countries “committed” to democracy, is that it cast its net far too wide. Among the initial invitees were countries like Egypt, Qatar and Azerbaijan—where even a commitment to genuine democracy, let alone its practice, is lacking. But even the pared-down guest list of more than a hundred attendees at the last Community of Democracies ministerial in Santiago in 2005 included countries such as Afghanistan, Bahrain and Jordan, none of which can be called democracies under any reasonable criteria.

What, then, are those criteria? Although free and fair elections are necessary for Concert membership, they are not sufficient. Members of the Concert must also guarantee the rights of individuals within their countries. Citizens must enjoy both fundamental political rights (not just to vote, but also to organize and participate in government) and basic civil rights (to speak, assemble and freely practice their religion)—and those rights must be guaranteed by law. Moreover, the commitment to uphold individual rights and govern by the rule of law should be so rooted in society that the chances of a reversion to autocratic rule are for all practical purposes unthinkable.

Political scientists could argue for hours on end about exactly which countries now meet these criteria. Disputes over who should and should not belong are endemic to all exclusive clubs, whether the World Trade Organization or the local Elks Lodge. But upward of sixty countries around the world today have upheld the membership criteria of regular competitive elections, protection of individual rights and the rule of law over a sustained period of time. This group includes obvious candidates such as the OECD countries, but also nations like Botswana, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Mauritius, Peru, the Philippines and South Africa. In other words, the Concert of Democracies would be composed of diverse countries from around the globe—small and large, rich and poor, north and south, strong and weak—in ways similar to any other large international organization.

The converse of the fact that some five dozen countries would be eligible for membership in a Concert of Democracies is that most countries would not. Some current quasi-democracies could become eligible for membership over time as their commitment to democratic values deepens. Indeed, as the Concert becomes more established and effective and as the prestige of membership grows, its very existence would stand as a strong incentive for countries to embrace competitive elections, safeguard individual rights and uphold the rule of law. NATO and the European Union have served precisely this function in encouraging east and central European countries to democratize. For that reason, the Concert should have procedures in place to ensure that any country meeting basic democracy criteria can become a member. The Concert of Democracies must be an open and even a potentially universal alliance.

Night falls on Turtle Bay [credit: Rudy Sulgan/CORBIS]

But many countries would not be eligible for membership unless they changed their entire political systems. Regimes in places such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Cuba do not share the basic values of democracy and freedom that stand at the core of the Concert. This does not mean that the United States and other democracies would not work cooperatively with authoritarian and repressive regimes, both bilaterally and multilaterally, when interests and events warrant it. The need to work with governments one dislikes is an unavoidable fact of international life. What the exclusion of authoritarian regimes means is that the Concert will stand in opposition to their political systems and focus the attention of democracies on effective cooperation to advance their common interests.

Can a Concert of Democracies succeed if it excludes large countries such as China and Russia? Of course it can. Many successful international organizations do not count China or Russia as members. Neither country belongs to NATO, the European Union or the OECD. China doesn’t belong to the G-8, and Russia stands (at least for now) outside the WTO. Yet no one argues that these institutions are ineffective because of these exclusions. A related objection is the fear that the creation of a Concert of Democracies might encourage China and Russia to create an alternative organization—some sort of League of Authoritarian States. But if authoritarian governments find it in their interests to cooperate—as Beijing and Moscow apparently do already in many cases—they will do so regardless of what the world’s democracies may decide.5

Would Chinese leaders view the creation of a Concert of Democracies as an effort to encircle and constrain it, thereby setting the stage for a new cold war? They might—especially if Washington sought to use the Concert and other foreign policy tools to isolate China. But such an outcome is hardly inevitable (or likely to win the support of other democracies). To suggest that members would have to choose between the Concert and China is to present a false dilemma. The Concert of Democracies is not a substitute for all other forms of multilateral and bilateral cooperation, but a complement to them. At the same time, democracies should not be shy about pursuing their vital interests by working together to build a global order conducive to their political principles. China’s regime certainly has no inhibitions about shaping the global order to suit itself. From Asia to Africa to the Americas, it has been aggressively using its newfound economic strength to advance its interests at the expense of others.

In the end, the desirability of a Concert of Democracies will depend not on the approval of autocrats, but on whether it offers an effective means for addressing the challenges of an age of global politics. What, in short, would the Concert actually do?

First, the Concert would be a vehicle for helping democracies confront their mutual security challenges. This would involve close coordination of diplomatic strategy, law enforcement activity, intelligence collection and analysis, and military deployments. Over time, Concert members could follow NATO’s lead and develop common doctrine, promote joint training and planning, and enhance interoperability among their militaries, police forces and intelligence agencies. Such closer coordination would enhance the ability of all democracies to fight terrorism, prevent weapons proliferation, rescue failing states, deter and reverse aggression, and generally promote international peace and security.

Second, the Concert would promote economic growth and development. The Concert’s members would be responsible for the bulk of world economic activity and constitute a powerful voting bloc within the World Trade Organization. They would also be responsible for providing the vast bulk of both official and private development resources and expertise. To deepen their mutual ties and to solidify the Concert’s importance, democracies should work to eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers among member countries, thus creating a tangible economic premium for democratic rule that can provide an incentive for other states to become democracies. They could also pool resources and fully coordinate their development and foreign aid strategies. And they could and should craft policies to protect against threats to their collective economic health such as climate change, rising energy prices and pandemic diseases.

Third, the Concert would promote democracy and human rights. A better coordination of its members’ existing democracy-promotion programs could make a major contribution to building more democratic states. The Concert’s greatest contribution to democracy promotion, however, might well be its very existence, which would serve as a powerful magnet persuading other countries to adopt democratic practices. As the success of the European Union has shown, once nations excluded from the Concert come to see the benefit of membership, they will move rapidly, and often at great short-term expense and sacrifice, to take the necessary steps to meet the criteria for joining.

Likewise the Concert would be a more effective vehicle for promoting human rights than the United Nations. As a smaller group composed of like-minded states that possesses the means to act swiftly and effectively, the Concert would be in a much better position than the UN to reach agreement on timely action. Moreover, the existence of the Concert would increase the pressure on its members to live up to their own commitments to protect human rights. They would no longer be able to shirk their responsibilities by hiding behind Chinese or Russian intransigence, as they have often done at the United Nations.


Admittedly, it will be years before a Concert of Democracies could take on all of its potential responsibilities. But the fact that a Concert cannot be built in a day is hardly an argument not to begin construction. More than four decades elapsed from the day that Robert Schuman outlined his vision of a European Coal and Steel Community to the formal creation of the European Union, and Europe’s political evolution continues even today. It may take even longer for a full-fledged Concert of Democracies to emerge.

It doesn’t have to take that long, however. We must not exaggerate the obstacles to building the Concert. The task at hand is in many ways less demanding than that of creating a unified Europe. For one thing, we already have a well-engrained habit of working most closely, whether formally or informally, with other democracies. NATO is the great example, but democratic countries have come together to solve common problems over a whole host of issues: crime, financial regulation and the environment, to name just a few.6 In that sense, we are a bit like Molière’s M. Jourdain, who was surprised to discover that all his life he had been speaking prose. Working with fellow democracies is our native language.

The first step toward creating a Concert of Democracies is to transform the democracy caucus at the United Nations into a genuine and effective coalition—one whose members seek to develop common positions prior to important votes, just as regional groups of member states do now. The ranks of the P-5 and the G-8 and the L-20 should be joined by a D-60. In the UN, the Concert’s work would be directed at building support for specific substantive policies, such as ending the genocide in Darfur and combating human trafficking. The Concert would also make UN reform, starting with its operations in New York, its top priority, thereby highlighting the reality that a Concert of Democracies would not necessarily be a replacement for the UN, but a spur for its adaptation and improvement.7

A UN Democracy Caucus would also remind democracies what they too easily forget: They have common interests with other democracies precisely because they share the same commitment to government by the people, individual rights and the rule of law. The simple truth about the human experience is that group membership shapes group identity, which in turn leads to collective action. Membership in regional organizations like ASEAN directs attention to shared regional interests and opportunities; membership in economic organizations like MERCOSUR directs attention to shared economic interests. In the same way, a D-60 would provide a framework for encouraging democracies to think in terms of advancing their common interests as democracies.

A second step toward realizing a Concert of Democracies is to enlist the support of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan for the basic concept. All four countries aspire to become permanent members of the UN Security Council, but none of them is likely to get there anytime soon. A Concert would provide them a mechanism for realizing their understandable desire to wield influence on the international stage commensurate with their economic clout and regional status. Active leadership roles by Brasilia, Berlin, Delhi and Tokyo would bring an additional benefit: Not being the reigning and oft-criticized dominant superpower, all four are free of the baggage that would hamper any U.S.-dominated effort to create a Concert of Democracies.

A third step would be to forge a variety of informal links among democracies with an eye to deepening cooperation and common perspectives among them. These could include an advisory board of Elder Statesmen, people such as Mandela, Havel, Fischer, Clinton, Menem, Koizumi and Singh, who could advise governments on how to tackle common problems. It could also include assemblies of parliamentarians from the democracies and meetings of up-and-coming leaders in business, politics and the arts. In these and other ways, societal networks would complement inter-governmental cooperation to deepen the sense of common destiny and purpose among the genuine democracies of the world.


The United States faces an historic challenge. We no longer live in an era where problems stay “over there.” In an age of global politics they can come over here at an alarming rate. As we saw on September 11, our great wealth does not make us immune—in some ways, we are a more attractive target because of it. And as we are seeing now in Iraq, our great power does not automatically make our policies successful. The premium now is on finding ways to systematically generate effective multilateral cooperation. The way to make that happen is to mobilize the collective strength of the world’s democracies.

The political argument for seeking to construct a Concert of Democracies is compelling, too. In the United States such a policy goal addresses deep dissatisfaction with the obvious failings of the United Nations, and it satisfies a powerful yearning on both the Left and the Right to promote America’s values while securing its interests. After World War II, Americans recognized that their overwhelming power would be more acceptable, and thus more effective and lasting, if it were folded into alliances and multilateral institutions that served the interests and purposes of many countries. We accepted that the price for active cooperation from others was to give them some say over how to proceed. But our willingness to do so weakened over time as Americans came to resent the ability of non-democratic states to determine or obstruct the direction of policy. We are rightly upset when China and Russia block efforts to prevent genocide or “mere” systematic mass murder in Darfur or Kosovo, when serial human rights abusers such as Libya and Cuba sit in judgment over the human rights record of other nations, or when countries such as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran—all of which have violated their non-proliferation commitments—have a major say over the direction of global arms control and disarmament policies. A Concert of Democracies offers Americans a return to the basic bargain of old—one that ensures the willing cooperation of like-minded states in return for giving those states an increased say over the direction of common policy.

By re-striking the bargain the United States once had with its postwar partners, the creation of a Concert of Democracies also gives Washington a way to regain the trust of those countries that matter most to the American people—our fellow democracies. The Bush “revolution” has clearly shaken the confidence that our friends once had in our ability to use our great power wisely. As the recent criticisms of American foreign policy emanating from the British Conservative Party attest (with its new, young leader calling Bush’s foreign policy “simplistic” and its neoconservative foundations a “failure”), even our closest partners are working to distance themselves from Washington. The result is diminished American influence. Unless that trend is checked, the United States will find its overseas burdens growing even as its capacity to shape world events shrinks. By contrast, a Concert of Democracies gives America’s democratic partners in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America something they have long wanted: an America that again plays by the rules rather than selectively ignores them.

A Concert of Democracies will take time to construct. The very idea challenges traditional ways of conducting international relations. It requires us to think in different categories—to determine partners not only on the basis of relative power but also on the way they are governed. Allied leaders will need to be persuaded that Washington’s engagement is genuine and not a ruse to manipulate them. Many countries will have a vested interest in protecting existing institutions from potential challenges. Numerous foreign policy experts will play their version of “Zeno’s Paradox” and argue New Englander-like that you cannot get there from here. Yet before we despair of mobilizing the world’s democracies, it is worth asking if we can afford not to try. The failure to meet the historic challenge that confronts us will not mean a return to an acceptable status quo; it will mean a recipe for continued drift and division in world politics, and inadequate and ineffective responses to the many problems that now transcend international borders. If we don’t press forward, we will fall back. That is our real choice.



The Editors have invited comments on “Democracies of the World, Unite.” The first group follows: Gary Hart, Francois Heisbourg, Richard Perle, Christoph Bertram and Anthony Lake. Other comments, with a reply by Daalder and Lindsay, will appear in the Spring (March/April) 2007 issue.

1. When we first proposed this idea in a May 2004 Washington Post op-ed, we called for an “Alliance of Democracies”, which led some to suppose that we had a military organization in mind. Our concept is broader than that, hence “concert” instead of “alliance.” G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter have also called for the creation of a “Concert of Democracies” in the final report of the Princeton Project on National Security, Forging a World Under Liberty and Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century (September 2006). 2. Rice, “The Promise of Democratic Peace”, Washington Post, December 11, 2005. 3. For example see Richard Haass, The Opportunity (PublicAffairs, 2005); Michael Lind, The American Way of Strategy (Oxford, 2006); and Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006). 4. Fukuyama, “The Paradox of International Action”, The American Interest (Spring 2006). 5. Robert Kagan, “A League of Dictators?” Washington Post, April 30, 2006. 6. See Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2004). 7. On “competitive multilateralism”, see Ruth Wedgwood, “Give the United Nations a Little Competition”, New York Times, December 5, 2005. On the related concept of “multi-multilateralism”, see Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, 2006).

2. Rice, “The Promise of Democratic Peace”, Washington Post, December 11, 2005.

3. For example see Richard Haass, The Opportunity (PublicAffairs, 2005); Michael Lind, The American Way of Strategy (Oxford, 2006); and Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World (Pantheon, 2006).

5. Robert Kagan, “A League of Dictators?” Washington Post, April 30, 2006.

6. See Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2004).

7. On “competitive multilateralism”, see Ruth Wedgwood, “Give the United Nations a Little Competition”, New York Times, December 5, 2005. On the related concept of “multi-multilateralism”, see Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy (Yale University Press, 2006).

Ivo Daalder is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University in Florence, Italy. James Lindsay is director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. They are the authors of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (2003) as well as Restoring Trust: The Challenge for American Global Leadership After Bush (John Wiley, 2007).