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Political Science 203: Introduction to International Relations


Adding to Matt’s commentary on the Daalder/Kagan Democracy League for America plan, it’s important to remember that the framers of the UN Charter included the Security Council for a reason. Apart from the problem of disagreements between democracies and the difficulty of determining what precisely constitutes democratic eligibility for membership (does Russia count? Why not? And when precisely should we have suspended their membership?), the fact is that authoritarian countries have a) some foreign policy legitimacy, and b) considerable capacity to undermine whatever pleasant intervention we’re running if they haven’t been consulted.

Thinking about the legitimacy of non-democratic regimes leads us into a lot of thorny questions, but I think it would be quite wrong to assert that the foreign policy preferences of China, Egypt, or the Soviet Union should be considered illegitimate because of the nature of the regimes. This is essentially the argument that the “League of Democracies” rests upon; non-democratic states don’t have legitimate foreign policy interests, and thus oughtn’t be represented. But it’s not clear that authoritarian regimes don’t, in the case of foreign policy, represent the interests of their populations at least to a degree. The relationship between Soviet foreign policy and the collapse of the USSR is complex, but it’s clear that the Soviet Union didn’t fall because its foreign policy was per se unpopular. Brutalizing small neighbors continues to be a winning foreign policy position in Russia, and while the war in Afghanistan became progressively more unpopular, there’s no evidence it started that way; in any case, it can hardly be argued that disastrous military interventions in random Asian countries are exclusive to Communist dictatorships. In China, divergence between popular opinion and CCP foreign policy is also unclear, and there’s good reason to think that, in fact, the CCP is pursuing a less hawkish approach regarding Japan and Taiwan than popular opinion would suggest. Finally, does anyone still believe that if Egypt became democratic tomorrow that its foreign policy would become more pro-Israel? Of course, liberal democracy is about more than response to popular opinion, but it’s nevertheless wrong to pretend that genuine policy differences won’t exist between democracies.

Moreover, the structure of the Security Council has also always been about more than legitimacy. The Security Council is the arm of the UN most attuned with traditional realist concerns, concerns that elevate the interests of great powers over the rest of the world. This structure is normatively indefensible but practically indispensable. Part of the point of the Security Council is to prevent international action that will, by necessity, draw the great powers into conflict. Whereas Daalder and Kagan think about how China can block “good” interventions, the framers of the Security Council thought about how “good” interventions that don’t achieve the consensus of the great powers can lead to additional chaos and destruction. As conservatives never tire of arguing, even small, weak authoritarian countries like Iran and Syria can foul up what would otherwise be a perfectly good intervention. Soviet absence from the Security Council in 1950 and the farcical exclusion of the PRC produced open war between four of the permanent members, and Russian intransigence during the Kosovo War nearly derailed the entire operation. I happen to think that both the Korean and the Kosovo wars were justified, but it’s nevertheless desirable to maintain an organization dedicated to the prevention of great power war, whether those great powers are democratic or not.

Cross-posted to Tapped.

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