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Voting Bloc

In Geneva, the U.N.'s successor may be testing its wings

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Imagine a better Washington. Imagine a conservative Republican administration working hand in glove with liberal congressional Democrats on a foreign-policy initiative designed to strengthen the United Nations while simultaneously increasing America's clout there. Imagine both parties and both branches bringing this initiative to fruition smoothly and unfussily, during an election year. Say, this year. Say, right now.

Pinch yourself. It is happening.

Since 1996, a handful of foreign-policy wonks have been kicking around the idea of a "democracy caucus" at the U.N. Two administrations, first Bill Clinton's and then George W. Bush's, took quiet but significant steps in that direction. Now, according to Bush administration officials, the concept will be test-flown at the six-week meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that began on Monday in Geneva.

Reached at his Chicago law office shortly before his departure for Geneva, Richard S. Williamson, the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Commission, said, "It's our hope, going to Geneva, to have two or three working sessions of the Community of Democracies—the democracy caucus, if you will." Asked if the meetings would be simply organizational or social, as earlier ones have been, he said: "We want to move beyond that. We are hopeful there will be meetings to discuss particular agenda items at the commission meeting and seek to find a common approach to them." Losing no time, the democracy caucus convened over breakfast in Geneva on Wednesday.

To understand the significance of what is happening here, a little background.

The United Nations' credibility and effectiveness are tattered, a fact that is not news to Americans. According to polling by the Gallup Organization, 60 percent of Americans rate the U.N. as doing a "poor job in trying to solve the problems it has had to face." The reasons for disenchantment go deeper than last year's tiff over the Iraq war. The most fundamental is that the United Nations is built on an obsolete premise: that countries governed by their people and countries governed by thugs, thieves, or tyrants should meet on equal terms, one vote each.

In 1945, when the U.N. was born, most of the world was non-democratic, and so a "league of democracies" would have been a rump group. Today, however, more than 60 percent of the world's countries are electoral democracies. Today it is absurd for Burma to vote as the moral and legal equivalent of Belgium; more absurd for Cuba and Zimbabwe to be members in good standing of the U.N. Human Rights Commission; and more absurd still for Libya to chair that commission, as it did last year.

To add injury to insult, democracies at the U.N. are disproportionately weak. The U.N. is dominated by a cluster of regional and ideological caucuses. African countries, for example, are pressured to vote together, with undemocratic governments often calling the shots and democracies going along to get along. Tyrants thus routinely exempt themselves from human-rights resolutions, while log-rolling ensures that condemnations of Israel sail through.

In 1996, a private group called the United Nations Association of the United States of America floated the idea of a caucus solely for democracies. With 120 or so nations (out of 191 U.N. members), such a caucus could serve as a powerful counterweight to the traditional caucuses.

Late in the second Clinton administration, with a push from the State Department, the democracies began to organize. In 2000, 106 democracies gathered for the first meeting of an informal group they called the Community of Democracies. It had no permanent staff or formal powers, but it did produce an endorsement, in principle, of a democracy caucus at the U.N., a stance that the community reaffirmed in a second meeting in 2002 and, most recently, at a U.N. meeting last fall.

The Bush State Department then began lobbying Community of Democracy nations in a series of diplomatic lunches. "And these lunches with ambassadors from all different geographical regions—but all democracies—talked about all kinds of ideas, including this one," Paula J. Dobriansky, the undersecretary of State for global affairs, said in an interview. "Overall, it was very clear that other democratic countries from various regions embrace this idea and feel it could be of great value at the U.N., that it can bring together and highlight issues relevant to democracy."

All of that was groundwork. What had yet to happen was for the caucus to meet at the U.N. to do actual business: devise common positions, advance resolutions, eventually vote as a bloc on nominations and policies. It is this operational coordination that the administration hopes will now begin in Geneva, under the leadership of Chile, which currently heads the Community of Democracies' steering group.

Predictions are risky, but where you see an acorn, it is not crazy to foresee an oak. With a little light and water, the democracy caucus will inevitably grow. In time—you heard it first here—it may overshadow the U.N.

In New York, gaining leverage at the U.N. serves the interests of America and all of the other democracies. In Washington, a democracy caucus appeals to conservatives who want America to influence the U.N., and it appeals to liberals who want the U.N. to influence America. "It's a way, in my opinion, of preserving the United Nations as a valuable institution, so it does not follow the path of the League of Nations," says Max M. Kampelman, who was a senior diplomat in the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Moreover, democratic countries have come to appreciate, as never before, that undemocratic countries are a direct security threat. President Bush is touting a "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East," and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, earlier this month, said: "The best defense of our security lies in the spread of our values." As it amasses influence and prestige, the Community of Democracies could help isolate intractable dictatorships while giving wavering countries an incentive to democratize, much as NATO and the European Union have done for the former Soviet satellites.

On Capitol Hill, support is strong in both parties. In 2003 the House overwhelmingly passed a bill, still awaiting Senate action, requiring (among other things) that the U.S. seek a democracy caucus. "It's a very high priority for a number of us who want to push it through," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., who is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, and whose co-sponsor is House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif. In the Senate, Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations, is sponsoring a similar resolution.

Partisanship is nowhere to be seen. The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, supports the idea, and, said Lantos, "There is not the slightest doubt in my mind, although I haven't talked to him about it, that John Kerry will be just as enthusiastic."

Jimmy Carter and Scoop Jackson, together at last! Rarely have liberal idealism and neoconservative realism converged so completely. That confluence assures the democracy caucus a future, regardless of which party is in charge.

But how big a future? Democracies can be a fractious bunch, as the United States found in its collision with France last year. "It's not a guarantee," Williamson said of the democracy caucus. "But it's going to help."

Eventually, officials say, the United States would like to see the caucus shape policy not just in the Human Rights Commission but throughout the U.N. system. As of now, that seems ambitious. Getting the democracies to coordinate their committee nominations is about as big as anyone is thinking.

But consider the long-term potential. By the time the Community of Democracies becomes strong enough to act coherently inside the U.N., it will also be strong enough to act coherently outside the U.N. It will contain most of the world's countries, including most of the strong ones. It will be unencumbered by the vetoes of tin-pot tyrannies. As it gains confidence and skill, it will attract money and authority. It may sprout an aid budget, a relief program, a peacekeeping arm, perhaps treaty powers.

In other words, the Community of Democracies may begin as a voice within the U.N. but go on to become a competitor to the U.N. Perhaps—one can dream—it may someday be the U.N.'s successor.

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically. But a community of democracies—that might just work. It already works in NATO and the E.U. The new community is a fledgling, but many readers of this article may live to see it soar.