A democratic alliance to promote human rights

[The following was originally published on Democracy Without Borders]

Recently United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for “a new alliance of democracies” aimed at confronting China. This put democratic globalists in a difficult position. If you want global democracy, then surely an alliance of democracies confronting the lone authoritarian superpower is a good thing? But US imperialism is also an obstacle to a fairer, more equal world order.

Democracy Without Borders has already published one blog about this by Sven Biscop which focuses on this second concern, asking (from an entirely eurocentric perspective) whether this would be an alliance “with the US” or “for the US?”. This is an entirely valid concern, but overall this response is inadequate.

Biscop compares the proposal to the “Coalition of the Willing”, which the US assembled to back it’s invasion of Iraq, outside UN auspices. But this coalition did not require its members to be democracies. The US was, as it usually is, happy to work with dictatorships. Biscop ignores this, and the broader hypocrisy of US foregn policy.

US officials only object to human rights abuses when it suits them, but for Biscop — and much of the global commentariat — it seems that this is too often. Fundamentally, they too support a foreign policy position which is human-rights-agnostic.

At one point Biscop says “China is an authoritarian state … The EU and the US have to speak up for human rights” but his resistance to authoritarianism lasts only one sentence, and is shrugged off in the next, saying “because China is a great power, Europe and America … have little leverage.”

According to this view, it seems, conflict must be avoided at all costs. Trade must be allowed to flow, presumably including goods made by forced labour in the Uiger concentration camps. To the extent his piece is an attack on Pomeo’s cynical proposal, it is correct. To the extent it is a defence of the status quo, and an argument for appeasing authoritarians, tolerating their brutal intolerance, it is profoundly wrong.

Neither Pompeo nor Biscop try to imagine how a genuine a democratic alliance might function. But we can.

First, stop helping dictators

The very first step would not be to challenge, but merely to stop helping, authoritarian oppressors. Many dictatorships depend on the backing of established democracies to gain and maintain power.

For example in 2013 the US could have backed the elected government of Egypt and prevented the coup which brought the military strongman Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. The US supplies vital training and equipment to the Egyptian military, worth over a billion a year, as well as priceless geo-political support. It can not be seen as neutral. Looking for a reliable partner who would not have to justify their foreign policy posture to the Egyptian population, they chose the military strongman over the democratically elected president.

Unfortunately this move, overseen by the supposedly liberal President Barack Obama, is typical of US foreign policy, which goes to great efforts to subvert democracy and install, maintain and preserve dictatorships across the world.

Other elected governments overthrown by the United States or with its unambiguous assistance since the end of the Second World War include such as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Greece (1967), or Chile (1973).

This is only a partial list, containing some of the most unambiguous historic cases, where unclassified documents show the US was actively working against foreign governments whose electoral legitimacy was clear. Many murkier cases exist, where the legitimacy of the government removed is more questionable, or the US role is less well documented — though it may be confirmed in the future by subsequent declassifications of relevant documents.

The tendency is for the US to back the right against the left which creates an environment where right wing coups can assume US support and diplomatic cover.

Hence the US (and its developed democratic allies) also bear a significant degree of responsibility for the fate of the Honduran government of President Manuel Zelaya, removed from power in 2009 with, at minimum, US acquiescence, the extremely questionable impeachment of Brazillian president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, and the fall of Bolivian government of Evo Morales, who resigned in 2019 following demands by the military (with whom the US has significant leverage through training and equipment supply).

As an absolutely prerequisite for the establishment of a credible democratic alliance, this behaviour must stop. The US must adopt, in word and in deed, something like the “progressive baseline” of democracy and human rights promotion proposed by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

Should this occur space would begin to be cleared for a grand democratic alliance to form.

Where to start?

An existing alliance like NATO could make membership conditional on meeting democratic and human rights standards (which would entail, for a start, expelling Turkey) and then expand to include any nation that met those democratic standards (as proposed by the Campaign for a World Democratic Security Community). Or the anti-Huawei “D10” recently proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, of the UK as a way for democratic countries to counter China’s edge in 5G technology (and therefore telecom-espionage), might form the kernel. There are also diplomatic efforts like the Community of Democracies and the Streit Council which explicitly aims for the creation of an “international order of, by and for the people”. Both of these efforts emerge from eastern Europe in the immediate post-soviet era, and perhaps are tainted by an implicit eurocentrism, and an aftertaste of NATO triumphalism. The CoD’s website boasts of US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s involvement in the Community of Democracies, as if this were an uncontroversially good thing, as if she were not famous for saying that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it”, while defending US enforce sanctions on that country.

One initiative that actively seeks to leave this baggage behind, and rescue democracy from the wreckage of US foreign policy is the “Human Union” proposed by Australian activist Lyndon Storey, which calls for a new alliance, and stresses that it need not be western led. Japan, Uruguay and Botswana, for example, could form a loose union that would grow in membership and degree of integration until it became a global union of democratic states. Big, powerful western democracies like the US and UK could still join, but as equals, and on terms set by this broader community (including abandoning their authoritarian allies). The exact nature of this integration should not be laid out in advance, but would be negotiated between the parties along the way, as would the precise preconditions for entry — but the goal should unambiguously be the exclusion of authoritarian human rights abusers.

Whatever the origin of the organisation, it should focus on a long term goal of promoting a global political system based on democracy and human rights, rather than just reacting to the threat posed by one authoritarian actor, such as China.

An economic community of democracies

This alliance could form an economic community, where democracies closing ranks, granting each other preferential market access, and excluding authoritarian nations. The OECD could conceivably form the basis for this, if it became more aggressive in its promotion of democratic values, and helped establish preferential trade access between its members. Part of this reorientation as a bulwark against authoritarianism could be the inclusion of Taiwan.

Contrary to what some may say, such a strategy is extremely viable. In terms of population, democracies make up just less than half of the world. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, full democracies make up 4.5%, flawed democracies (a category which, since 2016 includes the United States) makes up 43.2%. Hybrid regimes make up 16.7% and authoritarian regimes make up 35.6%.

In terms of economic power, though, measured here through by the IMF, the democracies clearly have the upperhand.

This is based on nominal GDP, which measures economies in terms of international dollars. It is thus the correct measure when it comes to international heft, but often in these discussions Purchasing Power Parity is used. This is either a result of ignorance, or a way of overstating Chinese power, understating our capacity -and therefore obligation- to act. In nominal terms the United Statesof America controls 24.5% of World Product. The EU controls 21.4%. The People’s Republic of China controls 16.2%.

Yet China alone is responsible for 61.9% of the economic activity in non-democratic states. Whereas the US only, represents 33.8% of the collective GDP of the democracies.

Democracies are not only stronger, their power is more evenly spread. Should the economic battle lines be drawn, there is no one country the democratic camp would rely on to the extent which the non democracies would rely on China.

We could do it, in other words, without the US. Maybe, if they won’t stop backing military juntas, we should.

Even without this superpower, the democratic nations have substantial leverage, and could use that — rather than military force or covert subterfuge — to promote human rights and democracy worldwide, culminating eventually in a democratic world order. There is no need for violence, and nothing stopping this values driven world order from emerging except a lack of political will.

Recovering journo. Still at war with bullshit. Cofounder of the Stone research transparency system. www.writeinstone.com

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