An Army of Conscience: Democracies Should Unite to Overcome UN Failures

Editor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part series exploring the UN’s inability to fulfill its mission—and the need for the world’s liberal democracies to consider other options to defend themselves and keep the peace. To read part one, click here; to read part two, click here.

In part two of this series, we described the West as an ever-evolving community of shared values. Given the UN’s long record of failure, perhaps it’s time to formalize this community and bypass the UN’s roadblocks to legitimizing concerted international action.

“The world’s democracies should unite in an Alliance for Democracy to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression,” argues Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general and former Danish prime minister.

Ivo Daalder, who was a US emissary to NATO during the Obama administration, has similarly sketched the outlines of a formalized democratic partnership, labeling his idea an “Alliance of Democracies” or a “Concert of Democracies.”

Robert Kagan, too, has written about the need for “a concert of democracies” that would enable liberal democracies to “protect their interests and defend their principles.”

The late Senator John McCain championed “a worldwide League of Democracies” to “advance our values and defend our shared interests.”

Even President Donald Trump—who’s no fan of international institutions—has spoken of “a coalition of strong and independent nations…to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.”

This is not a new idea.

Although he is often criticized for being overly idealistic, President Woodrow Wilson realized that “a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations. No autocratic government could be trusted to keep faith within it or observe its covenants.” It’s a pity the UN’s founders didn’t heed Wilson’s insight.

Winston Churchill was a founding father of the UN, but his words of warning about the organization—that America and Britain would need to ensure “that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words”—suggest he had his doubts. And his lifelong commitment to action suggests he would not allow Russian or Chinese intransigence, or the UN’s pale-blue soup of moral relativism, to prevent responsible powers from addressing threats to peace.

In 1992, as Yugoslavia descended and the UN dithered, President Ronald Reagan admitted, “I did not always value international organizations, and for good reason. They were…nothing more than debating societies.” He hoped that would change as the Cold War melted away—and that the post-Cold War UN could forge “an army of conscience” to prevent the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and Kim Jong-il from threatening their neighbors and brutalizing their subjects. But like Churchill, Reagan had his doubts. So, he called on democratic powers to rise to the occasion. “Just as the world’s democracies banded together to advance the cause of freedom in the face of totalitarianism,” he asked, “might we not now unite to impose civilized standards of behavior on those who flout every measure of human decency?”

Tasks

By maintaining some semblance of international order, ad hoc partnerships of democratic powers are doing what the UN was created to do.

The US-British-French airstrikes against Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure in April 2018 are a recent example of international policing—and perhaps an indication that two of America’s closest allies have joined the US in concluding that the UN Security Council (UNSC) simply cannot fulfill its core mission of addressing threats to peace.

Coalitions of democratic partners police the Strait of Malacca and Bay of Bengal (India, Japan, the US), northwest Africa (France and the US), the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz (Australia, Britain, France, Italy, and the US), the South and East China Seas (Australia, Britain, France, Japan, and the US).

The Combined Maritime Forces is a partnership of 31 nations (20 of them representative democracies) that contribute naval and air assets, basing, or personnel to operations focused on security in the Persian Gulf, counterterrorism, and counter-piracy.

Formed in 2003 by 11 democratic allies in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, the Proliferation Security Initiative today enfolds dozens of seafaring democratic powers that collaborate “to stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors”—by force if necessary.

Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the US formed the backbone of anti-ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq.

The Iraq War, which ended Saddam’s repeat-offender regime, was prosecuted by a coalition of 38 nations—most of them liberal democracies—that acted without explicit UN approval.

International intervention in Kosovo, which ended Milosevic’s final ethnic cleansing campaign, was authorized and conducted not by the UNSC, but by a community of democratic states known as NATO.

Some will point to this list to argue there’s no need to formalize such activity under a new international umbrella. That ignores the very real concerns many in the West have with military intervention not formally sanctioned by some sort of international body. As a consequence, many of these efforts are last-ditch attempts or are under-resourced.

Others will argue that an easier solution might be to transform NATO into a global gendarme. But Russia’s actions in Ukraine have forced NATO to return to its core mission of deterring Moscow and defending the North Atlantic area.

Still others will say that formalizing a partnership of democracies will lead to the formation of an opposing bloc of autocracies. Such a bloc already exists. Russia and China serve as patrons and protectors of oppressive regimes in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, and Belarus.

Action

The UN’s failure to act suggests that a body of like-minded partners would be more effective than a come-one-come-all open house, which means any formalized partnership of democracies would need to be an invitation-only club. Daalder and James Lindsey of the Council on Foreign Relations argue membership should be restricted “to countries with entrenched democratic traditions.” Their starting point is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Enfolding some three dozen democracies with market economies, the OECD includes members in the Americas, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific.

This partnership of democracies should not be constrained by consensus. “The UN bureaucracy, along with others who seek a peaceful world, worship consensus,” Robert Kaplan sighs. “But consensus can be the handmaiden of evil.” If nothing else, the litany of UN failures detailed in the first installment of this series—most of them sins of omission—underscores Kaplan’s point. “No democracy requires unanimity to act domestically, and no community of democracies…should require unanimity to act internationally,” Henry Nau adds.

Instead of the constraints of consensus, a partnership of democracies could authorize action by three-fifths or two-thirds vote. Different members could then lead coalitions of the willing to carry out what the UN calls “the maintenance of international peace and security,” with the imprimatur of international legitimacy. In short, this partnership of democracies would be a “force for action,” in Churchill’s words, its members working to address threats to peace, promote liberal order, and defend their values—values that, by definition, the world’s autocracies do not share.

A partnership of democracies would not be without its tensions or limitations. After all, the diplomatic train wreck at the UN before the Iraq war was the result of friction between two liberal democracies: the US and France. However, allowing for action without unanimity would encourage coalition building and compromise, rather than obstruction and mischief.

The UN could still serve as a place where all the world’s governments are represented. UN sub-agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization—organizations whose goals the big powers generally agree on—could continue their work.

Swords and Plowshares

The courtyard of the United Nations contains a sculpture titled “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares”—a reference to Isaiah 2, which looks forward to a day when “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Ironically, the sculpture was a gift from the atheist Soviet Union.

To be sure, people of faith pray for that day, but we know it will not be hastened by UN resolutions or UN observer missions. It will not come until Christ returns to make all things new. As the rest of that passage from Isaiah makes clear, mankind will beat its swords into plowshares only because “the God of Jacob…will teach us His ways, so that we may walk in his paths… He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.” Only then will mankind live in peace.

This is not a license to fatalism. We should strive for peace. After all, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” However, we must deal with the world as it is and fashion solutions that protect innocents, promote justice and defend the shared values of liberal democracy. The UN has failed to do that for more than seven decades. Worse, it has hindered responsible powers from playing that legitimate and necessary role. Perhaps it’s time to try something new.

Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

Photo Credit: United Nations security members from Nepal maintain a clear drop zone prior to pallets being air-dropped into Mirebalais, Haiti, Jan 21, 2010. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

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