Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
The call to establish a "league of democracies" was one of the hottest policy proposals this past election season. Advocates contended that creating a club open exclusively to the world's liberal democracies would enhance the ability of like-minded states to address the challenges of the twenty-first century. Not since the 1940s, when the United States orchestrated the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods monetary system, have voices on both sides of the aisle called for such an ambitious overhaul of international institutions. Influential advisers to both Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) enthusiastically backed the proposal, and McCain explicitly endorsed the idea. "Rarely," as the journalist Jonathan Rauch has observed, "have liberal idealism and neoconservative realism converged so completely."
The proposal to launch a league of democracies has its merits. The size and diversity of the UN's membership hinder the organization's ability to coordinate timely and effective action. And whether the task at hand is containing Iran's nuclear program or stopping genocide in Darfur, China and Russia regularly block action by the UN Security Council. In contrast, liberal democracies are generally prepared to work together to pursue common interests. When it comes to political will, economic resources, and military strength, the world's democracies constitute a uniquely fraternal grouping of states.
Nonetheless, the next occupant of the White House should shelve the idea of establishing a league of democracies. Such a club is not needed to secure cooperation among liberal democracies -- they are already regular partners -- and it would draw new lines between democracies and nondemocracies, thus compromising their relations just when adapting the international system to the rise of illiberal powers is becoming a paramount challenge. Contrary to the expectations of its advocates, moreover, a league would expose the limits of the West's power and appeal, revealing the constraints on solidarity among democracies, eroding the legitimacy of the West, and arresting the global spread of democracy. With its marginal upsides and dramatic downsides, establishing a league of democracies would not be a wise investment for the next president, whose time and political capital will be severely taxed by an economic downturn at home and abroad and by conflict in the Middle East.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
The proposal to establish a forum open only to the world's democracies is not without precedent. In 2000, the Clinton administration launched the Community of Democracies to support democracy worldwide. Despite holding numerous working groups and four ministerial conferences, the group has remained a debating society and has little to show for its efforts. One of the reasons is that with over 120 members, including the likes of Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, it does not live up to its name. The initiative's meager results have prompted proponents of a league of democracies to call for more stringent criteria for membership and a much more ambitious set of objectives.
Although Republicans prefer to label the proposed institution a "league," whereas Democrats call it a "concert," advocates agree on the broad outlines of the idea. Participating states would take on codified commitments to work together to confront security threats, promote democracy and human rights, and advance economic integration. They would develop common military doctrines and improve collaboration among their defense, police, and intelligence establishments. The league would have a guiding secretariat and clear decision-making rules. Membership would be restricted to democracies that regularly hold free and multiparty elections and that guarantee the political and civil rights of their citizens. According to the political scientists Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, writing in The American Interest, roughly 60 countries would qualify for membership under these criteria.
Advocates of the league argue that, unhindered by obstructionist autocracies, the body would better respond to global challenges than existing institutions. Daalder and Lindsay point out that the world's 20 largest democracies account for roughly three-quarters of global defense spending. With autocracies out of the way, this "smaller group composed of like-minded states," they argue, would possess "the means to act swiftly and effectively." Moreover, its writ would not be restricted by a commitment to the inviolability of sovereignty, as the UN's is. Accordingly, the league could intervene in states that posed pressing security threats to other states or failed to protect the rights or safety of their citizens. Democrats tend to see a league as a tool for reforming the UN and as an alternative to it only if UN reform fails, whereas Republicans envisage the proposed body as a means of sidestepping a UN they deem irretrievably paralyzed by recalcitrant autocracies. But advocates on both sides of the aisle agree that it is time for the world's democracies to stand up to illiberal obstinacy.
The league would not just free up the world's democracies to act but also deepen ties among them. According to G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, co-directors of the Princeton Project on National Security, the body would "strengthen security cooperation among the world's liberal democracies." There would be little free riding by members because they could not blame inaction on stalemate at the UN. No longer, Daalder and Lindsay contend, would democracies "be able to shirk their responsibilities by hiding behind Chinese or Russian intransigence."
More generally, supporters of a league claim that because it would reflect the collective will of countries with representative governments, the organization would strengthen the moral foundations of the international system. As Tod Lindberg, of the Hoover Institution, argues, "The gold standard of legitimacy is not the unanimous Security Council resolution, but the agreement among governments possessing domestic democratic legitimacy." China's assent on a particular initiative does not add to that initiative's legitimacy, Lindberg insists, nor does its dissent detract from it.
The league, supporters claim, would also serve as a potent tool for spreading democracy around the world. According to Daalder and Lindsay, its "very existence would stand as a strong incentive for countries to embrace competitive elections, safeguard individual rights and uphold the rule of law." The appeal of membership in the league would promote democratization in the illiberal world, just as the allure of inclusion in NATO and the EU has in postcommunist Europe. If all goes according to plan, the stage would eventually be set for a Kantian "perpetual peace."
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
Despite these forceful arguments, however, the case for creating a league of democracies does not fare well under closer scrutiny. Most important, a global forum that denies autocracies a say in world affairs promises to deepen cooperation where it is least needed (among democracies that are already reliable collaborators) at the expense of cooperation where it is most needed (between democracies and nondemocracies). After decades of working together in a thick network of institutions, such as NATO, the EU, and the U.S.-Japanese security pact, many of the world's democracies have become trusted partners. It is this tested bond that makes the notion of a league of democracies appealing -- and unnecessary. An initiative that ekes out only a marginal increase in cooperation among already close allies does not merit being the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.
Instead, the United States and its democratic allies should invest in greater collaboration with rising autocracies, such as China, Russia, and the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Democratic teamwork will not be enough to meet today's challenges. Shutting down nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, fighting terrorism, curbing global warming, managing energy supplies, and building regional security orders in East Asia and the Persian Gulf will require the help of illiberal regimes. Guiding democracies and nondemocracies toward common ground and instilling the habits of cooperation between them are unquestionably more urgent than topping off solidarity among democracies.
Advocates of a league respond that closer cooperation among democracies need not come at the expense of their relationships with autocratic states. The national interests of China, Russia, and other illiberal regimes will compel them to work with the league, the theory goes, and the interests of democracies will induce them to reciprocate. "Our national interests," McCain argues, "require that we pursue economic and strategic cooperation with China and Russia, that we support Egypt and Saudi Arabia's role as peacemakers in the Middle East, and that we work with Pakistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda." But this assertion is a hedge, as is Daalder and Lindsay's claim that a league would not be "a substitute for all other forms of multilateral and bilateral cooperation, but a complement to them."
The league's supporters cannot have it both ways -- maintaining that the new body would bring momentous benefits to the cause of international cooperation while insisting that its negative side effects would be minimal. Either the organization is, like Bill Clinton's Community of Democracies, little more than a salon, or it meets the high expectations of its supporters and deliberately excludes autocracies from the inner sanctum of international politics, thereby encouraging them to chart their own course. Russia's blustery reactions to the enlargement of NATO and Kosovo's independence from Serbia, its forceful intervention in Georgia this past summer, and its teamwork with China to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are a hint of what might lie in store. The author Robert Kagan argues that a "league of dictators" is already taking shape, which is precisely the reason, in his view, that democracies must respond in kind. Kagan's concern is premature, but the surest way to turn it into reality would be to fashion an alliance of democracies -- against which illiberal states would be quick to balance.
THE LIMITS OF DEMOCRATIC SOLIDARITY
Advocates of a league both underestimate the potential for cooperation between democracies and autocracies and overestimate the scope of common interests among democracies. These misconceptions appear to stem at least in part from a misreading of recent history. McCain pines for the "vital democratic solidarity" of the Cold War and sees a league of democracies as a way to revive it. But yesterday's solidarity was the product of an alliance against an external threat, not of an alignment based exclusively on regime type. Although advocates of a league often treat Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as standard-bearers for their cause, both leaders envisaged a post-World War II order in which the great powers -- whether democracies or not -- would collectively manage the international system. Roosevelt wanted to establish the "Four Policeman," a global directorate comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. This concept informed the design of the UN Security Council, with China and the Soviet Union included as permanent, veto-wielding members -- hardly a club of democracies.
Roosevelt's preference for a great-power concert was based on realism, not naiveté. During the 1930s, France and the United Kingdom eschewed an alliance with the Soviet Union -- primarily for ideological reasons. Had Paris and London instead allowed strategic prudence to override their antipathy toward communism, World War II may well have been avoided, or at least shortened. Indeed, it was the alliance between the Soviet Union and the liberal democracies of the West that ultimately defeated Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
Not until the late 1940s, after it had become clear that the United States and the Soviet Union would be strategic rivals, did U.S. leaders abandon hopes of fashioning a cooperative postwar order and instead erect a network of alliances that set many of the world's democracies against the communist bloc. Still, throughout the Cold War, the United States maintained close partnerships with a host of unsavory regimes. China's government may have been autocratic and communist, but that did not deter President Richard Nixon from reaching out to Beijing, a move that significantly altered the course of the Cold War and helped set China on a path toward liberalization. Washington continues to work closely with autocracies even in the absence of the strategic imperatives of the Cold War rivalry. As long as the United States has troops in Iraq and an economy dependent on oil from the Persian Gulf, it will maintain strong ties with Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- some of the most illiberal countries on the planet.
Much as they underestimate the potential for cooperation between democracies and autocracies, proponents of a league overstate the ease of cooperation among democratic states. Although they have similar domestic systems, democracies often have diverging interests. In seeking to block the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, France and Germany broke with the United States on fundamental questions of war and peace. NATO, despite almost 60 years of experience, is struggling to maintain its unity. At the alliance's 2008 summit in Bucharest, Washington pressed for putting Georgia and Ukraine on the road to membership -- only to have the move rejected by its European allies. In Afghanistan, the solidarity of NATO is being sorely strained by stipulations restricting the participation of most national contingents to peacekeeping and reconstruction. The same goes for the EU, whose members have struggled to maintain a consensus on sanctions against Iran and failed to agree on whether to recognize an independent Kosovo.
If NATO and the EU, which are essentially miniature leagues of democracies with track records decades long, are confronting such tribulations, it is hard to see how creating a bigger club of democracies would make things better. The more global the organization, the more likely regional considerations will trump democratic solidarity. South Africa is a democracy, but its recent coddling of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean leader who clubbed his way to reelection, is a case in point. Latin America now counts many democracies, but most of them want nothing to do with U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba.
Not only are free and fair elections no guarantee of cooperation among democracies, but they also can impede it. The EU is perhaps the quintessential zone of democratic peace, but recent referendums in France, the Netherlands, and Ireland rejected institutional reforms aimed at tightening the bonds among the union's members. China may have contributed to the collapse of the Doha Round of international trade talks this past summer, but at least as important was the stalemate between the United States and India -- two democracies mindful of powerful economic interest groups at home.
THE LEGITIMACY TRAP
In making their case for a league of democracies in a co-authored Washington Post op-ed, Daalder and Kagan argue that "the most meaningful and potent form of legitimacy for a democracy such as the United States is the kind bestowed by fellow democrats around the world." Even if most Americans agree, many in the rest of the world do not. A league is likely to lack legitimacy not just among autocracies but also among Europe's democracies, for whom approval from the UN Security Council is the litmus test of legitimate action. As Gideon Rachman has written in the Financial Times, "Almost all of America's closest democratic allies have deep reservations about a league of democracies. The Europeans are committed to the UN and would be loath to join an alliance that undermined it."
European objections aside, advocates of a league are on shaky ground when they argue that international legitimacy derives primarily from democratic governments. If democracies are legitimate because they represent the will of their citizens, could a global body that spoke for less than half the world's population and represented less than one-third of the world's nations ever be considered legitimate? Should China's 1.3 billion citizens be doubly disenfranchised -- no voice abroad as well as no democracy at home?
Such logical tensions would weigh heavily on the league's standing. A recent study commissioned by the UN concluded that its personnel are increasingly targets of attacks because of the organization's perceived bias in favor of its most powerful members. If the UN has such credibility problems, the league's, as The New York Times' James Traub has pointed out, would be far more acute. Consider its potential engagement in the Middle East, a region that would probably have two members in the global body -- Israel and Turkey -- but no Arab representatives. Were the league to carry out a military intervention in the region, the Arab world would see it as the West against the rest -- and react with even more hostility than it did to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Acknowledging that "much of the rest of the world sees the involvement of a U.S.-led Atlanticist organization in other regions as illegitimate," Daalder and Lindsay, in advocating a league of democracies, effectively propose adding the remainder of the world's democracies to the Atlantic community, thereby creating a global NATO. But it is hard to imagine that the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would welcome the league's intervention in Myanmar (also called Burma), for example, just because the league included Southeast Asia's democracies. Indeed, Australia and New Zealand have been excluded from ASEAN mainly because they are seen as outposts of the West. Similarly, adding Africa's democracies to the league would not legitimate the body across a continent in which fewer than half the countries would qualify for membership. As the Carnegie Endowment's Thomas Carothers has pointed out, it would be "wishful thinking" to presume that the league's interventions in the developing world would enjoy widespread legitimacy.
Finally, it is likely that establishing a league of democracies would do more to tarnish the international reputation of liberal democracy than it would to burnish it. At present, the world's major democracies can blame their own inaction on the UN's structural deficiencies and the stiff-necked autocracies that populate the Security Council. China and Russia are the regular culprits; they are responsible for blocking tougher measures against Iran and Sudan, for example. But the Europeans, concerned about the economic and diplomatic consequences of more stringent sanctions against Tehran, are quietly relieved that Moscow is taking the heat for resisting U.S. pressure. Although China may not be particularly helpful in confronting the Sudanese government, the main impediment to Western military action in Darfur is not the UN; it is the reluctance of the United States and its democratic allies to assume the costs and risks of intervention. Were a league of democracies unwilling to act, and the UN unavailable to take the blame, liberal democracies alone would have to bear the moral burden. The world's democracies had better deliberate carefully before taking on pledges to engage in joint action that they may well fail to honor -- thus exposing the fragility of democratic solidarity.
THE MIRAGE OF DEMOCRATIC PEACE
Drawing on the success of NATO and the EU in spreading democracy in Europe, the league's proponents contend that the prospect of joining the new body would encourage illiberal regimes around the world to democratize. But the league would not enjoy a magnetic appeal comparable to the Atlantic institutions. In central and eastern Europe, the peoples that had long suffered under Soviet rule yearned for inclusion in the democratic West in the aftermath of the Cold War -- in no small part to gain protection against the potential resurgence of Russian ambition. In contrast, Moscow and Beijing, rather than looking for outside help with political reform, are dead set against a rapid transition to liberal democracy. They also tend to see the West as more of a threat than an answer to their security concerns. Moscow has already emerged as the leading challenger to the West's primacy, taking on NATO and the EU over the independence of Kosovo, the status of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, missile defense in Europe, Iran's nuclear program, and a host of other issues. Meanwhile, Beijing is busy building a multilateral framework in East Asia that seems intended to displace the United States as the hub of the region's security order. Both Russia and China are taking their own roads instead of following the West's lead, a dynamic that would only be reinforced by the new geopolitical dividing lines that a league of democracies would draw.
Plans to make the league a privileged trading group, another element of the proposal, also promise to alienate countries that do not initially make the grade. According to McCain, the body would offer market access exclusively to countries that "share the values of economic and political freedom." But such conditionality would undercut a key plank of the logic of democratization -- namely, that trade helps nurture a middle class, which is itself a building block of political reform. The league would enhance the prosperity of Norway when it is Pakistan and other illiberal countries that need access to developed markets.
Confidence about the league's ability to spread liberal democracy to the rest of the world reveals a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of the historical moment. Such optimism is predicated on the belief that the world is now at a way station on the road to democracy; that the West provides the sole viable model of development for nations around the world; that China, Russia, and their kindred spirits are the last holdouts but are soon to join the march of history; and that the league is meant to help them complete their transition. But the world is far from arriving at such a historical endpoint; it is heading toward continued diversity, not greater homogeneity.
McCain contends that today's illiberal regimes are "trying to rebuild nineteenth-century autocracies in a twenty-first-century world." They are not; they are building twenty-first-century autocracies. Sustained rates of economic growth and the surge in national wealth enjoyed by energy producers will give many of the world's autocracies remarkable staying power. China, Russia, and the oil-soaked sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf are co-opting and buying off their middle classes, not pursuing democratic reforms. Oil wealth, which accounts for 60 percent of Iran's national budget, may well underwrite the theocratic regime in Tehran for some time to come. Meanwhile, economic performance in the United States and Europe is poised to lag well behind that in China and Russia for the foreseeable future. China now holds about $500 billion of the United States' massive debt, roughly 20 percent of the total, and sovereign wealth funds from the Persian Gulf states are snapping up U.S. assets.
For now, state-led, authoritarian capitalism has at least as much appeal in many quarters of the globe as the democratic alternative. It should come as no surprise that a recent global survey of public opinion ranked Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao among the world's most highly regarded leaders. Another survey revealed that 86 percent of Chinese citizens polled were content with their country's direction, compared with 23 percent of Americans with the United States'.
The idea that a league of democracies would represent a pact for perpetual peace into which the rest of the world would soon enter is illusory. The liberal international order erected by the West may suit its founder, the United States, and its junior partners, but one size does not fit all. If a new global order is to emerge, Washington and Brussels will have to adjust to the preferences of rising autocracies, just as Beijing and Moscow have had to adjust to the West. Fashioning a peaceful order for the twenty-first century will require navigating a two-way street; the West cannot just make a take-it-or-leave-it offer. If the liberal democracies fail to understand that the coming world will be both multipolar and politically diverse, they will be heading down a dead end -- not, as they hope, blazing a path to the end of history.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON'T COME
Nagging practical questions about the league's structure have yet to be answered. How would the body select its members? How would it operate? What would happen if the United States were overruled by its democratic partners? Supporters of the project would have to answer these difficult questions if the proposal were to merit the effort. But it does not, and most of the world's democracies have realized as much. If the United States builds a league of democracies, very few countries will be waiting at the gate.
After the ideological excesses of the Bush administration, the United States cannot win back its good standing abroad with grand schemes foisted on an unwilling world. Rather, decision-makers in Washington should opt for pragmatism, competence, and sobriety. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, they should be mindful of the limits of U.S. power and the dangers that accompany efforts to recast the world in the United States' image. To be sure, the West should continue its efforts to spread liberal democracy, strengthen the rule of law, and enforce the protection of human rights. But democracies should pursue these important goals as they usually have -- through example, economic incentives, diplomatic engagement, and regional integration.
Washington must learn to live patiently and comfortably in a multipolar world of diverse regimes. To do so, it should pursue a three-track strategy to reform existing international organizations. The three priorities should be building up the capacity of regional institutions so that they can better respond to local crises, enlarging the UN Security Council so that it better represents the world's new distribution of power, and transforming the G-8 (the body of leading industrialized states) from a rudderless discussion group into a purposeful concert of great powers.
Advocates of a league of democracies rightly argue that international institutions can be slow and ineffective. But reforming regional institutions, not just global ones, has the considerable potential to provide more rapid political and military action. Proximity still matters, and the states most directly affected by developments in their regions are the ones most likely to incur the risks and costs of responding. NATO and the EU are the premier examples, but bodies such as ASEAN, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the African Union, and the South American trading bloc and defense pact recently proposed by Brazil have much untapped potential. Through economic assistance and technical training, the United States and its allies should help regional organizations build up their capacities for diplomatic intervention, peacekeeping, and the promotion of human rights. The efficacy of informal groupings such as the six-party talks on North Korea and the "contact group" for the Balkans also point to the need for greater reliance on task-specific coalitions.
Advocates of a league are also right to argue that international legitimacy matters. But the best way to enhance the legitimacy of the international system is to reform the UN Security Council, not sidestep it. Although it will be no easy task, the Security Council should be enlarged. The most plausible proposals under consideration envisage new seats for Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan, plus one or two for states from the Islamic world and Africa (such as Egypt, Nigeria, or South Africa). Even if a few illiberal regimes made the cut, expanding the Security Council would still increase the representation of democracies in its deliberations. It would give democracies more weight in global governance and provide an opportunity for the council's democratic members to form a sizable caucus within the body, all while enhancing the Security Council's legitimacy by bringing more nations and regions to the table. Although China and Russia would still wield veto power, autocratic members of the Security Council would find themselves decisively outnumbered and more regularly exposed to the persuasive pressures of the democratic majority.
Finally, a third key goal must be to reform the G-8, turning the forum into a core group in which the world's most powerful can get down to business. An enlarged Security Council might be more representative, but it would also be more unwieldy. In contrast, a smaller but more ambitious G-6, consisting only of the United States, the EU, Japan, Russia, China, and India, could serve as a concert of great powers, building consensus and facilitating cooperation between democracies and autocracies.
This plan for reforming existing institutions not only is mindful of the imperative of great-power cooperation but also would yield many of the advantages that the proposal to establish a league of democracies seeks but would fail to accomplish. History may well prove to be on democracy's side. But at least for now, democracies will have to work with rising autocracies if they are to tackle global challenges.