Special Report

Spreading Democracy

We are at present engaged in what purports to be a planned reordering of the world by the powerful states. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one part of a supposedly universal effort to create world order by "spreading democracy." This idea is not merely quixotic -- it is dangerous. The rhetoric surrounding this crusade implies that the system is applicable in a standardized (Western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today's transnational dilemmas, and that it can bring peace, rather than sow disorder. It cannot.

Democracy is rightly popular. In 1647, the English Levellers broadcast the powerful idea that "all government is in the free consent of the people." They meant votes for all. Of course, universal suffrage does not guarantee any particular political result, and elections cannot even ensure their own perpetuation -- witness the Weimar Republic. Electoral democracy is also unlikely to produce outcomes convenient to hegemonic or imperial powers. (If the Iraq war had depended on the freely expressed consent of "the world community," it would not have happened.) But these uncertainties do not diminish the appeal of electoral democracy.

Several other factors besides democracy's popularity explain the dangerous and illusory belief that its propagation by foreign armies might actually be feasible. Globalization suggests that human affairs are evolving toward a universal pattern. If gas stations, iPods, and computer geeks are the same worldwide, why not political institutions? This view underrates the world's complexity. The relapse into bloodshed and anarchy that has occurred so visibly in much of the world has also made the idea of spreading a new order more attractive. The Balkans seemed to show that areas of turmoil and humanitarian catastrophe required the intervention, military if need be, of strong and stable states. In the absence of effective international governance, some humanitarians are still ready to support a world order imposed by U.S. power. But one should always be suspicious when military powers claim to be doing favors for their victims and the world by defeating and occupying weaker states.

Yet another factor may be the most important: The United States has been ready with the necessary combination of megalomania and messianism, derived from its revolutionary origins. Today's United States is unchallengeable in its techno-military supremacy, convinced of the superiority of its social system, and, since 1989, no longer reminded -- as even the greatest conquering empires always had been -- that its material power has limits. Like President Woodrow Wilson (a spectacular international failure in his day), today's ideologues see a model society already at work in the United States: a combination of law, liberal freedoms, competitive private enterprise, and regular, contested elections with universal suffrage. All that remains is to remake the world in the image of this "free society."

This idea is dangerous whistling in the dark. Although great power action may have morally or politically desirable consequences, identifying with it is perilous because the logic and methods of state action are not those of universal rights. All established states put their own interests first. If they have the power, and the end is considered sufficiently vital, states justify the means of achieving it (though rarely in public) -- particularly when they think God is on their side. Both good and evil empires have produced the barbarization of our era, to which the "war against terror" has now contributed.

While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by transferring institutions across borders. Even within the ranks of territorial nation-states, the conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent, and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus -- be it religious, ethnic, or both -- is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case with democratic institutions in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). "Spreading democracy" aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989, a bleak prospect.

Beyond its scant chance of success, the effort to spread standardized Western democracy also suffers from a fundamental paradox. In no small part, it is conceived of as a solution to the dangerous transnational problems of our day. A growing part of human life now occurs beyond the influence of voters -- in transnational public and private entities that have no electorates, or at least no democratic ones. And electoral democracy cannot function effectively outside political units such as nation-states. The powerful states are therefore trying to spread a system that even they find inadequate to meet today's challenges.

Europe proves the point. A body like the European Union (EU) could develop into a powerful and effective structure precisely because it has no electorate other than a small number (albeit growing) of member governments. The EU would be nowhere without its "democratic deficit," and there can be no future for its parliament, for there is no "European people," only a collection of "member peoples," less than half of whom bothered to vote in the 2004 EU parliamentary elections. "Europe" is now a functioning entity, but unlike the member states it enjoys no popular legitimacy or electoral authority. Unsurprisingly, problems arose as soon as the EU moved beyond negotiations between governments and became the subject of democratic campaigning in the member states.

The effort to spread democracy is also dangerous in a more indirect way: It conveys to those who do not enjoy this form of government the illusion that it actually governs those who do. But does it? We now know something about how the actual decisions to go to war in Iraq were taken in at least two states of unquestionable democratic bona fides: the United States and the United Kingdom. Other than creating complex problems of deceit and concealment, electoral democracy and representative assemblies had little to do with that process. Decisions were taken among small groups of people in private, not very different from the way they would have been taken in non-democratic countries. Fortunately, media independence could not be so easily circumvented in the United Kingdom. But it is not electoral democracy that necessarily ensures effective freedom of the press, citizen rights, and an independent judiciary.

Special Report

Business as Usual at the U.N.

For the United Nations, relevance may be almost as perilous as irrelevance. In the span of a year, the Bush administration went from taunting the world body to begging for its help. A beefed-up U.N. team will soon arrive in Baghdad to advise the Iraqi government on reconstruction, social services, and human rights and directly assist with elections. At the same time, U.N. peacekeeping missions are sprouting or expanding in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Ivory Coast. Indeed, by the end of 2004, more blue helmets will likely be in action than at any time in history.

Although some U.N. backers revel in the growing global reliance on the world body, now is no time to get smug. These weighty responsibilities are landing on the shoulders of an organization that national governments have deliberately kept weak. The United Nations' 60-year-old machinery has never seemed so ill-equipped for its work, and its credibility has plummeted. As the major powers fight terrorism and dwell on homeland security, they will hand the United Nations essential but thankless tasks they might once have tackled themselves (or just ignored). Without major changes, the United Nations may well buckle under the growing strain.

The idea that the United Nations can stumble along in its atrophied condition has powerful appeal in capitals around the world -- and even in some offices at U.N. headquarters. But believing that the status quo will suffice is dangerous.

Regrettably, most of those who could change the organization have an interest in resisting reform. None of the permanent Security Council members wants to give up its veto; smaller powers delight in their General Assembly votes, which count as much as those of the major powers; repressive regimes cherish participation in United Nations' human rights bodies, where they can scuttle embarrassing resolutions; and the Western powers whose troops and treasure are needed to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping have other priorities. Even within the U.N. bureaucracy, many veterans shy away from dramatic reform -- it has taken them decades to become masters of the old procedures, and change is risky. And while U.N. officials, including the secretary-general, are quick (and correct) to blame the member states for the constraints they face, they too rarely find the courage to spotlight those specific states whose obstinacy, stinginess, and abuses undermine the principles behind the U.N. Charter.

Much U.N.-bashing is, of course, unfair. The United Nations is in many respects just a building. It is a place for states to butt heads or to negotiate as their national interests dictate. And, on the operational side, the organization performs many indispensable tasks -- feeding, sheltering, and immunizing millions, and even disarming the odd Iraqi dictator. But the organization's reputation rises and falls these days based on the performance and perceived legitimacy of three of its most visible components -- the Security Council, the Commission on Human Rights, and the peacekeepers in the field. Each is in dire need of reform or rescue.

Permanent membership on the Security Council -- granted to the Second World War victors (plus France) -- is woefully anachronistic. Britain and France can't fairly claim two fifths of the world's legal authority. The permanent five members once spoke for close to 40 percent of the world's population. They now account for 29 percent. The world's largest democracy (India) is excluded; so are regional powerhouses such as Nigeria and Brazil, not to mention the entire Islamic world. It is the permanent members who decide when atrocities warrant humanitarian intervention, but this decision is made by two of the planet's worst human rights abusers (Russia and China) and one country (the United States) that exempts itself from most international human rights treaties. While still coveted in some cases, the council imprimatur is fast losing its sheen.

The Commission on Human Rights, the 53-state forum based in Geneva, has become a politicized farce. Because the commission takes all comers (seats are allocated on a regional basis), some of the world's most vicious regimes are members. Libya chaired the 2003 commission, and this year's commission extended membership to Sudan, which is busy ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of Africans in Darfur. Until membership comes with responsibilities, the commission will shelter too many human rights abusers and condemn too few.

When the states on the Security Council tell the secretary-general to put boots on the ground, his peacekeepers often face impossible assignments. They march into some of the world's most treacherous conflict zones, but only those where major Western economic and security interests are not at stake. Not coincidentally, the peacekeepers invariably lack the wherewithal to actually keep peace. In the 1990s, peacekeepers who were chained to Serbian lampposts became poster boys for the international community's impotence, as Western powers dispatched lightly armed troops to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia without the mandate or means to stop genocide. To accommodate the unexpected surge in demand for peacekeeping in the last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who likes to joke that "S.G." stands for "scapegoat") has appealed for more troops, intelligence resources, and logistical support -- and the ability to call upon reinforcements if needed.

Funding for peacekeeping missions has increased somewhat, but another $1 billion is needed. Even more important, the United Nations must be able to recruit soldiers from the major powers, which have coughed up only a few hundred troops in recent years. The countries that do contribute significant forces -- including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay, and Nigeria -- are often lured by the cash and military hardware they receive just for turning up. No wonder command and control of these forces often melts down. If the major powers continue to deploy peacekeepers on the cheap, the Security Council will again set up the United Nations for failure -- and endanger the millions of desperate civilians who have no choice but to rely on the baby blue flag.

To a large extent, the United States and other member states get the United Nations they want and deserve. But proponents of U.N. reform should view the quagmire in Iraq as a moment of opportunity. Rather than regarding the United Nations' new centrality as evidence of success, the secretary-general must talk some sense into the member states, who stubbornly persist in believing that a hobbled United Nations can meet the 21st century's deadly transnational challenges.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations' second secretary-general, liked to say that the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. Even escaping hell requires an international organization that is up to the job.