I posted earlier this month briefly supporting the idea of a league of democracies. In today's Guardian Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general, argues the case against it. I shall consider his main arguments in turn.
The first of them is that the creation of a league of democracies would amount to moving on from the UN, or - as he also puts this - to subtracting the world's democracies from that international body. But one doesn't have to conceive the initiative in this way. It's a well-understood matter of everyday politics that individuals and groups often concert their actions with others with whom they see themselves as sharing certain commitments or interests, and there's no reason why the same thing should not apply at the level of the international community. A league of democracies doesn't have to be seen as an alternative to the UN; it can be an organization existing in addition to the UN, its member countries acting together, when they see fit, whether inside or outside the wider body.
A second concern of Tharoor's is that a league of democracies could be seen as a vehicle of external intervention in the affairs of one country or another when there is a crisis putatively demanding such intervention and the UN fails to act. I've argued here before that intervention can sometimes be justified without UN authorization. But the case for a league of democracies and the argument over the conditions for justified intervention are separable. One could support the former even believing that the UN should be the one and only arbiter when it comes to military intervention. A league of democracies could concert its actions in other ways than militarily: trying to exert political influence; hoping to serve as a political example.
Sharoor is sceptical how effective a league of the sort envisaged could be, given that democracies have other affinities that are important to them than those they would share with members of the league itself. But this, again, is a normal phenomenon of political life - sharing some interests and priorities in one direction, others in another, and so on. It's not clear why the point has any force. In a way it should even quiet the worries of opponents of a league of democracies. If these alternative affinities outweigh the democratic affinities, it is unlikely to get off the ground.
Then he's concerned that a league of democracies might reinforce the sense of rejection of the non-democracies. It's not clear to me why that is a sensibility any democrat should care about. As I said in my previous post, this isn't so much a matter of rejection as it is one of self-exclusion. An organization devoted to certain principles is not obliged to admit those who don't share them.
Finally, Sharoor rather begs an important question by predicating the UN's 'legitimacy across the world... not in the democratic virtue of its members, but in its universality'. There are different forms of legitimacy, and universality doesn't always confer this. The UN Human Rights Council is a joke. The UN's standing by to genocide hasn't enhanced its reputation either. Democracy itself doesn't always confer legitimacy - as opponents of torture can understand quite straightforwardly, knowing as they will that democratically elected leaders or assemblies cannot make torture legitimate. Equally, no international body, however universal, can make inaction in the face of genocide legitimate. So we struggle along juggling the complexities and the competing criteria of right and wrong and what is possible and what is prudent. Universality of membership has some moral force; democratic legitimation has a moral force all its own. It is one that we should be in favour of strengthening.