Major League Debate

G. John Ikenberry, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Robert Kagan respond to Thomas Carothers's critique of the proposed "League of Democracies."

We have great respect for Thomas Carothers’s work on strengthening democracy and the rule of law. However, he misstates our proposal for a "Concert of Democracies" in three ways ("A League of Their Own," July/August 2008).

First, though Carothers recognizes that we do not intend a Concert of Democracies to replace the United Nations, he overlooks such a concert’s potential for reforming it and other global institutions. One of the things that all members of a Concert of Democracies — which could include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, and many other states — would agree on is that the circles of global decision-making need widening. If the concert gained sufficient credibility — or political legitimacy — it could speak with a collective voice on great issues of the day when the United Nations failed to do so, providing an additional incentive for reform.

Second, Carothers assumes that the concert’s members would be carefully vetted for their willingness to do America’s bidding. Our vision is radically different. We do not for a moment expect liberal democracies to align harmoniously on international issues. On the contrary, we believe that the overwhelming opposition of friendly democracies around the world during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq would have had far greater resonance in American public opinion than the opposition of the Security Council.

Third, and most important, tackling the challenges of the 21st century will require a wide array of institutions. The experience of the past century suggests that democracies are unusually capable of working together not only to solve common problems but also to champion a world of inclusive and multilateral rules and institutions. As Carothers himself recognizes, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Union, and NATO all coexist with and support global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The burden is on him to explain why a world that also included a Concert of Democracies supported by countries both North and South would be so bad.

— G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter
Professor and Dean,
The Woodrow Wilson School
The Princeton Project on National Security
Princeton University
Princeton, N.J.


No one dissects an idea with greater rigor than Tom Carothers. But, in his critique of the idea of a League of Democracies, he has wielded his scalpel a bit too vigorously.

First, if other major democracies don’t wish to join such a league, there won’t be one. It isn’t something the United States should or could impose. Today we don’t know what answer other democracies might give. I am more optimistic than Carothers is, based on my own conversations with foreign officials. But is there any harm in asking the question? If other democracies did want to join, that would go a long way toward validating the concept and, in my view, would answer most if not all of Carothers’s objections.

As for the complaint that a collection of democracies would not necessarily perceive all its interests in common, that is certainly true. However, if that is the test for a successful international organization, I can think of very few that would pass, least of all the United Nations (which, by the way, a League of Democracies is not intended to replace). Would Carothers have us disband the G-8?

Even in the two existing leagues of democracies, NATO and the European Union, there are frequent occasions when nations do not agree with each other. Yet they survive and even prosper.

One of the hopes of a league of democracies, however, is that democratic nations such as India, Indonesia, and South Africa, which still often act more like postcolonial powers, might be inclined to think more like democracies if they were members of an international association of like-minded peoples. I honestly can’t see the harm in trying.

— Robert Kagan
Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Brussels, Belgium

Thomas Carothers replies:

I appreciate these thoughtful responses to my article. Both replies take issue with my skepticism that a broad group of democracies would work together more effectively on a wide range of issues than existing international institutional groupings. Yet John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter seem to be unsure themselves. They state that a concert of democracies "could speak with a collective voice on great issues of the day," while also noting that "[w]e do not for a moment expect liberal democracies to align harmoniously on international issues."

I am genuinely puzzled by their argument that such a concert might have constrained the United States in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. Many democracies, including close U.S. allies, made crystal clear their opposition to the war, with little discernible effect on U.S. plans. I doubt this would have been different had they been members of a concert (which would in any event have been divided on the issue).

Robert Kagan acknowledges that a broad group of democracies would often not dovetail, but he notes that NATO and the European Union prosper despite internal disagreements. Those organizations are more limited, however, in regional makeup and substantive focus than the proposed league. Kagan hopes that rising Southern democracies would act less like "postcolonial powers" as members of a league. Yet these countries’ fierce attachment to sovereignty, often in opposition to American ambitions (evidenced, for example, by South Africa’s siding with China and Russia to vote against the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Zimbabwe) isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s on the rise.

As to what harm there could be in simply experimenting with a league, should a new American administration expend its precious initial diplomatic capital pushing a grand idea that has so far elicited little applause abroad and has significant chance of failure?

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