Saturday, March 27, 2004

Democracy Caucus in the UN? 

I haven't really read the libertarian magazine Reason before, but a recent story (reprinted from National Journal caught my eye.

The article documents the apparently-unstoppable movement toward some kind of democracies-only club within the UN, and possibly, in the future, outside that body, as well as the across-the-political-spectrum support it seems to have received in the US and abroad (in other democracies).

While it isn't clear to me that this will end up being anything other than a forum for the occasional conversation, the idea is intriguing, though possibly, counter-intuitively, dangerous. Why? Take a look at the "Democratic Peace" literature in political science, which has arisen to try to explain the observation that democracies rarely, if ever, have gone to war against one another. [I should note here that whether or not there really is a democratic peace (and not just a statistical coincidence) is still up for debate.]

In any case, a quick review of this literature suggests that the proposed Community of Democracies closely resembles Kant's 1795 idea of an organization to promote "Perpetual Peace" worldwide. Sounds great, right? Well, yes, in the long run, if Kant (and democratic peace theorists) are correct. But in the short run, Kant and his acolytes expect plenty of wars between the democracies and non-democratic states. Could the proposed Community of Democracies actually lead to more wars?

The key question is how the democratic peace works (if indeed it really exists). Some theorists expect to see a "separate peace" among democracies because of mutual respect for the foundations of each others' states, or mutual experience in resolving differences through democratic (i.e. negotiated) means. The opposite dynamic (disrespect, mistrust, and a lack of common rules for conflict resolution) is thought to hold between democracies and authoritarian states. If this view is correct, then short-circuiting the UN for what is sure to be an easier forum for group action can only exacerbate tensions between democracies and non-democracies.

The other idea of how the democratic peace works is more complicated, but the basic implication is that democracies are just less likely to start wars in general, not just against other democracies. The mechanisms usually have to do with the incentives facing politicians, which are quite different from the risk-encouraging incentives facing dictators. In any case, to the extent that this latter school of thought is correct, the new Community of Democracies can only help increase peace, particularly if the prospect of membership in this club makes being a democracy a more attractive option.

Finally, I should note that some evidence appears to show that newly-democratized states are the most aggressive group of all.

In any case, this is all very far off at this point. But a quote from the article cited above suggests that we'd do well to consider our options carefully:

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically.

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