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POLITICS-US: New Calls for a More Tolerant Intl Order

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Mar 19 2009 (IPS) - The U.S. should stop focusing on universalising Western democracy and instead work on constructing an international order that grants full legitimacy to responsible non-democratic states, argues an influential new paper that has become widely discussed in Washington foreign policy circles.

“The Autonomy Rule”, written by former National Security Council staffer Charles Kupchan and Adam Mount, both now at Georgetown University, has been making the rounds since it was published in the journal Democracy earlier this month.

The article has sparked the latest round in a series of debates between liberal internationalists, realists, and neoconservatives about how to balance considerations of sovereignty with human rights, and how to deal with non-democratic powers such as China and Russia, in the wake of the perceived failure of the Bush administration’s ambitious “freedom agenda”.

“For neoconservatives, non-democracies must be defeated; for liberals, they must be seduced,” Kupchan and Mount write in the article. “Both believe that Western values must be universal values – and that their dispersal represents the most important form of progress.”

But in an era in which the relative power of the U.S. and the West is in decline, the authors argue, Western powers cannot hope to enforce their principles as the “primary anchor” of the international system as a whole.

They argue for an “autonomy rule” signifying that “the terms of the next order should be negotiated among all states, be they democratic or not, that provide responsible governance and broadly promote the autonomy and welfare of their citizens”.

Kupchan and Mount’s argument was intended in large part as a rejoinder to the notion of a “League of Democracies”, a body intended to supplement (or replace) the U.N. that would exclude China and Russia as well as states like Iran and Syria.

The idea of a League (or Concert) of Democracies was originally proposed by liberal internationalists such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, now director of policy planning at the State Department, and Ivo Daalder, slated to become U.S. ambassador to NATO.

However, it gained more prominence last year when it was taken up by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, under the influence of his neoconservative advisor Robert Kagan. Kagan’s most recent book, “The Return of History and the End of Dreams”, posits that the twenty-first century will be dominated by struggle between the forces of democracy (led by the U.S.) and autocracy (led by Russia and China).

The idea’s critics argue that it is rooted in an overly Manichean and confrontational approach to international politics. Steve Clemons, who moderated a panel on Kupchan’s and Mount’s work Wednesday at the New America Foundation, claimed that most of the liberal internationalists originally associated with the idea have backed away from it, recognising it as “a Trojan horse for killing the U.N.”

Kupchan and Mount instead argue that all states that “broadly promote the autonomy and welfare of their citizens” should have a place at the table – a criterion which they have said that China and Russia meet. They also call for an increased respect for the sovereignty of all such states.

They do, however, accept the notion of a “responsibility to protect” that could override the sovereignty of the most egregious human rights offenders; the “predatory regimes” they single out are Sudan, North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

The two argue for U.N. reform, but more importantly for increased devolution of power to regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU).

In the wake of the global economic crisis, Kupchan and Mount also call for the West to scale back the neoliberal economic policies that it has pushed for the past two decades under the aegis of the “Washington Consensus”, and to recognise that “a more pluralist international system…will include states that pursue a wide array of approaches to the management of their economics.”

The authors’ proposals – particularly their opposition to making regime type a criterion for international legitimacy and their calls to increase respect for state sovereignty – are typically associated with the realist school of foreign policy.

Realism appears to have made a resurgence in recent years, following the perceived dominance of neoconservatives in the early Bush administration and liberal internationalists in the Clinton administration. The current secretary of defence, Robert Gates, and national security advisor, James Jones, are both generally regarded as realists.

Kupchan and Mount, however, resist the realist designation and prefer to call themselves liberals. “We believe that it is better to move to an international order that is based upon a set of normative principles – even if they have a more realist flavour – than simply to move toward a competitive anarchy in which countries are motivated by a starker conception of national self-interest,” Kupchan said at the New America Foundation event on Wednesday.

The event also featured two critics of Kupchan and Mount representing rival ideological persuasions. Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project and Eli Lake of the Washington Times served as unofficial spokespersons for liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, respectively.

Kleinfeld disputed the idea that issues of welfare and development could be separated from democratisation, arguing that democracies have a far better track record than non-democracies in improving the lives of their citizens. “We establish welfare through democracy, not by giving up democracy,” she said.

She also took issue with Kupchan’s and Mount’s assumption of continued U.S. decline. “Instead of saying ‘our power’s declining, let’s give up some of the power we have left’, we should ask what we can do to regain some of the power that we’ve lost”, she said.

Lake argued that the problem with the status quo was not that it showed too little respect for non-democratic powers but that it showed too much. “One of the reasons the international system it broken is because of an excess of respect for closed systems,” he said.

He also argued that a less moralistic foreign policy would be unlikely to catch on due to U.S. domestic politics, noting that it would be “very difficult for a member of the Senate or a presidential candidate to talk about this as American foreign policy.”

In response, Kupchan reaffirmed his and Mount’s commitment to democracy as an ultimate goal. “What we’re saying isn’t give up on democracy, but rather let’s practice a little of what we preach. Why should we be diverse and pluralistic and tolerant at home, but so much less so abroad?” he asked.

“Let’s be a little bit more humble about what it is that other people want and how much we think that we’ve found the solution.”

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