A League Apart

Someting worth an effort, needing the will to make a success.
League of Democracies
We scoured the papers and searched the Internet but couldn't find many references yesterday to the fact that Condoleezza Rice was in Chile leading the U.S. delegation to the fledgling Community of Democracies. Perhaps that's because this story doesn't fit with the prevailing diplomatic narrative of a cowboy America that refuses to play nicely with other nations.

We'll even go out on a limb with this prediction: While most of the 120 or so countries represented in Santiago may not envisage it yet, this Community could one day overshadow Kofi Annan's dictator-friendly talk shop on New York's East River.

The United Nations was conceived as a place where tyrannies and democracies could and should sit together on equal terms. That may have made sense in the aftermath of World War II, when free countries were in the clear minority. But nowadays that increasingly outdated premise results in such spectacles as Libya chairing the U.N. Human Rights Commission. It's also a problem that Mr. Annan's proposed reforms -- which feature enlargement of the Security Council -- do little to address.

Enter the Community of Democracies. It actually began with a small group of 10 countries in 1999 on the Clinton Administration's watch. It has since grown through meetings in Warsaw and Seoul, as well as on the fringes of the U.N. Among the agenda items this week in Santiago are the establishment of a formal Democracy Caucus at Turtle Bay. Another is agreement on a formal definition of what it means to hold free and fair elections.

One of the virtues of this assembly is that it's not a bureaucracy. It has no permanent secretariat. It also hasn't claimed, in Mr. Annan's famous words, a "unique legitimacy" to authorize the use of force or anything else. But that's because it doesn't have to claim legitimacy.

A free and fair election is by itself a legitimizing force, and an assembly of such elected leaders can marshal a great deal of moral authority -- enough, perhaps, to gently force change around the world lest countries be stigmatized by being left out of the club. We can all hope it might do to Arab despotism what the 1970s Helsinki human rights process did to undermine the moral foundations of the Soviet empire.

To that end we'd urge the Community to be strict in its definition of democracy. To have moral force it has to be real, and the current invitee list seems a little long. For example, it includes Jordan, which has its appeal as a moderate Arab state but is ruled by a hereditary monarch. Assuming the Community can settle on and stick to principle, there is no reason it shouldn't become a major new force in international relations -- a complement to the U.N., and perhaps even its successor if that body remains corrupt and dysfunctional.

It's notable that the new Secretary of State chose to attend this event amid all of her other obligations. It suggests once again that the cliché about a "unilateral" America is false. The real difference is between a multilateral diplomacy that works to promote freedom, and one that is unwilling to distinguish between the legitimacy of Saddam Hussein and Jalal Talabani.

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