Friday, August 01, 2008

Mending the Broken Harness of Democracy

Trust the New York Times' David Brooks to put a highly spun gloss on a clearly stated problem. This time the columnist weighs in on the undoing of the cohesion that once marked the major democracies:

"...Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.

This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.

...the Doha failure comes amid a decade of globosclerosis. The world has failed to effectively end genocide in Darfur. Chinese and Russian vetoes foiled efforts to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. The world has failed to implement effective measures to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The world has failed to embrace a collective approach to global warming. Europe’s drive toward political union has stalled.

In each case, the logic is the same. Groups with a strong narrow interest are able to block larger groups with a diffuse but generalized interest. The narrow Chinese interest in Sudanese oil blocks the world’s general interest in preventing genocide. Iran’s narrow interest in nuclear weapons trumps the world’s general interest in preventing a Middle East arms race. Diplomacy goes asymmetric and the small defeat the large.

Moreover, in a multipolar world, there is no way to referee disagreements among competing factions. In a democratic nation, the majority rules and members of the minority understand that they must accede to the wishes of those who win elections.

But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy.

And so the globosclerosis continues, and people around the world lose faith in their leaders. It’s worth remembering that George W. Bush is actually more popular than many of his peers. His approval ratings hover around 29 percent. Gordon Brown’s are about 17 percent. Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda’s are about 26 percent. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi have ratings that are a bit higher, but still pathetically low.

This is happening because voters rightly sense that leaders lack the authority to address problems.

So, what would Mr. Brooks have us do? He endorses a League of Democracies, an idea conceived by several Democrats and embraced by John McCain. Like-minded nations unite to use their collective will to shape world events. What Brooks won't say is that he sees his nation, the United States, as entitled to the mantle of "world leader" it formerly enjoyed.

Washington, having made a horrible mess of its experiment in unipolar world dominance, now wants to invite its old friends to sign on to something resembling one side of the old Cold War. Let bygones be bygones. Return to the default mode. Brooks hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

"There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy."

Brooks is inadvertently describing his own nation. America has persistently rejected multilateralism, particularly through institutions such as the UN and the International Court of Justice, and has held itself above all others, including its traditional allies.

Before there can be any genuine, effective League of Democracies, America is going to have to step down from that undeserved, unearned perch. Washington is going to have to acknowledge that the order, even among democracies, has been permanently altered - that the economy of the European Union is far greater than its own and that the role of consensus is now greater than ever. If Washington chooses to lead, it can only do that with the consent of the others and it is going to have to earn that consent. A key to that is to regain the trust of the fellow democracies it treated with such disdain for the past eight years.

In other words, if Washington does want a new, meaningful and effective alliance with like-minded states, it has an awful lot of work to do to rebuild the essential foundations. If it continues to treat its political, diplomatic and international deficits as irrelevant, it will only perpetuate the disharmony that Brooks complains of.


Anonymous said...

League of Democracies = league of American client states.

Check out the story of how the world's first league of democracies, the Delian League, founded by Athens to wage war against the ancestors of today's Iranians and Iraqis 2,500 years ago, was transformed into the Athenian Empire.

The Mound of Sound said...

Good point, doz. Thanks. I suspect a neo-Delian League would suit Washington but I wonder if we've all gone far past that point over the past eight years.