Friday, 23 May 2008

23 May 2008

There’s a rather interesting debate under way – just below the radar for now, but attracting increasing attention among foreign policy scholars and analysts – about whether the world needs a more effective institution than the United Nations.

The problem with the UN, according to its critics, is that any old nation can join – and every member has a vote. Yes, including Burma, Zimbabwe, north Korea and sundry other places whose governments don’t exactly meet with universal approval.

So why not set up another body, whose members would have to pass certain agreed political standards? The US Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, has been championing the idea of what he calls a “League of Democracies”.

This is what he said in March: "If I am elected president, I will call a summit of the world's democracies in my first year to seek the views of my democratic counterparts and begin exploring the practical steps necessary to [create a League of Democracies] …This organisation could act when the UN fails to act—to relieve human suffering in places such as Darfur, combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises, provide unimpeded market access to those who endorse economic and political freedom, and take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems."

But he’s not the only one toying with the idea – so is Barack Obama, and according to the Financial Times, so too is the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who it quotes as saying: “You can see the dangers. You don't want to set up something which undermines the ability of the international system to get to grips with difficult issues. Equally though . . . should people with the same values work effectively together? The answer must be yes.”

The FT’s foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman is not impressed. “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. They are also suspicious of America's democratic evangelism.”

So is it a non-starter? I’m not so sure. Look at NATO, for example, which expects of its members that they will have achieved what it calls “certain goals in the political and economic fields”. These include “settling any international, ethnic or external territorial disputes by peaceful means; demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of their armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility.”

Or take the European Union, which has what it calls “Copenhagen criteria” which need to be adopted by all aspiring EU members: “Membership requires that a candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and, protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.”

So there’s nothing all that outrageous about international institutions setting out rules for membership. The big problem with the “League of Democracies” idea, it seems to me, is that it risks once again dividing the world into two blocs of nations, much as it was during the Cold War. In one bloc, much of north and south America, Asia, and nearly all of Europe (not including Belarus), plus some of Africa; in the other bloc, Russia, China and all of the Arab world, where there isn’t a single functioning democracy (Lebanon and Palestine come closest, but neither is in great shape at the moment).

I put these thoughts on my blog a couple of days ago, and there have already been some interesting responses which you might like to look at. And we hope to be discussing the idea on the programme one night next week, so do listen out for it.

I think I can safely leave the Crewe and Nantwich commentary to others, except to say this: the last time the Tories won a by-election seat from Labour was Ilford North in 1978. I was there – it was the first British election I covered, and Tessa Jowell was the losing Labour candidate. A year later, Margaret Thatcher was swept to power.

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