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From despotism to democratic rule

Post the Iraq debacle Dan Elton suggests a future for a revamped United Nations

The world has fallen apart; the centre has not held*. The US seems to have abandoned its great gift to the world, the United Nations and become a despot. Many would argue that it is an enlightened despotism. Despite being anti-war myself, some of those people who supported it cannot be dismissed as NeoCons or traitors to their political roots, Anne Clwyd being a good example. But the US is still a despot. If the administration had believed it had enough of a collective security mandate to go ahead in Iraq, it would have never tried to get ‘the second resolution’. As far as international relations is concerned, we now live in an empire of men, not of laws. That is, the arbitrary rule of the United States.

The problem with arbitrary rule is that it lends no moral weight to what you are doing. It may be that ‘We got the bomb and that was good/ ‘Cos we love peace and motherhood’ as Tom Lehrer sang, but the problem is that everyone else loves peace and motherhood, and they know it. As the US destroys one global institution after another: the UN, SALT 2, and other non-proliferation treaties, everybody gets the fear. The fear that all the other members of the world believe that they are justified in doing the same and so are forced to go down the unilateral route themselves.

Those in the US who actively want to abandon the UN have one very strong argument. The UN is only made up of the sum of its parts and some of its parts aren’t very nice. What right do unelected fascistic dictatorships have to dictate, to their own people and those of the rest of the world, which direction this planet should take? And furthermore, wars of liberation must be possible. For those of us who are democratic and Marxist, we have no other ideological choice. Of course it should be regulated, it should not include cluster bombs, attack civilian targets, or, God forbid, deploy nuclear weapons. But regime change, be it internal or external, is always going to be a bloody business. Looting, lawlessness and death will always occur. You may believe that it is not worth the bloodshed. But at that point you leave the fold of democrats and join those of conservatives. In many ways it is not an ignoble position and there have been many great proponents such as Edmund Burke and David Hume. But for all practicality, you are a democrat no more.

So what is left for we democrats? We need a body that has the legitimate mandate to free people who face a clear and present danger of genocide, or whose lives have become intolerable (which in practical measurable terms, may amount to the same thing). We need a body that can give us a sense of collective security, but not of being dictated to by a pack of scoundrels. Such a body could look like this: there would be an end to permanent members on the security council. The number of votes a nation got would be proportional to its population and its democratic nature. After all, a nation can only claim to represent its population if it is democratic. ‘Democracy’ would be measured by ‘democracy inspectors’ using criteria as laid out by a revised UN charter. There would be a certain minimum number of votes a nation could exercise, no matter how low its population. But there would also be a certain minimum ‘democracy rating’ it would have to achieve to have any votes at all.

The effects of such a system would be startling. Nations would have an incentive to become more and more democratic in order to increase their power. The biggest stumbling block to such a settlement could be China, but it may be possible to buy it off on the grounds that once democratic it would command more votes than any other nation. In reality as well, the permanent members would have to stay as well. In order to maximise power it would also lead to countries merging; war between states may always be inevitable, but within them may be avoidable. Imagine a democratic African Union with peace within its borders. There was a New Internationalist issue fairly recently about the prospects for Pan-Africanism. It felt patronising that a magazine mostly written for and by Caucasians should be rabbiting on about what Africans must really choose or decide not to choose for themselves. But the rules of the international game are always rigged by the powerful, and leaving the rules as they are is just an active decision as changing them. So why not set up an international system conducive to regional integration.

Perhaps the one beacon of hope in all this is that the US has the ideological resources to commit to such a plan. The UN, in reality, is the child of Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman. The US supplies us perhaps with the most beautiful political tract ever written, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all… are created equal… to secure rights, Governments are instituted… deriving their powers from the consent of the governed”. The principles upheld in the Declaration of Independence writ large, are those that inspired the U.N. to be formed. Even the Bush administration has started taking tentative steps to reinvest moral weight into the UN, by rejoining UNESCO.

It is difficult to write an article at the moment without thinking about Lord of The Rings. At one point in the final episode, a hobbit (I apologise that I can’t remember which one), turns to Gandalf and asks whether Frodo and Sam have much chance in completing their quest. Gandalf replies that they never had much of a chance. It may be that there is not that much chance of true collective security and global democracy in our lifetime. Maybe the U.S. will always be led by realpolitik, by its ruling class, by the fear that is the price of being the hegemon. But it’s the best shot we’ve ever had.

*Apologies to WB Yeats ‘The Second Coming’