What we see going on in North Africa and the Middle East, as well as recently in other far-flung places (such as Myanmar/Burma, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, etc.) on the globe, is a world-wide movement or demand for democracy. People have simply become fed up with the rule of corrupt and arbitrary governments, whether they are military dictatorships, royal families, or simply once popular, even supposedly revolutionary regimes, gone bad. People around the world are demanding governments that are, in Lincoln’s famous words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and they are about to settle for nothing less.
Is such a dream ever possible? And if so, how might it come about?
The first step, it would seem, was to try to get the various countries, whatever their form of government, to quit their squabbling, or at least to try to settle their differences by means of submitting them to international arbitration or in “justiciable cases” (that is, where international law had been already established) to the decisions of a world court. This idea, first backed by political leaders, especially in Great Britain and France back in 1914, came too late to prevent the disaster of World War I. However, mostly because of the strong backing of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, after U.S. troops broke the stalemate on the Western Front, the League of Nations was finally born in the aftermath of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
However, it soon became obvious that whatever chances the League of Nations might have had toward insuring world peace were fatally undercut, first, by the lack of any means of effective enforcement of its decisions, and second, by the ability of any nation that had joined to simply quit (which Germany and Japan both did in 1933, followed by Italy in 1937) whenever they didn’t like whatever was decided -- a form of non-cooperation that was established by the refusal of the U.S. Congress to join the League of Nations in the first place.
Would the League of Nations been able to have prevented World War II had the U.S.A. been a member? That is certainly a debatable question. But practically speaking, the world’s opinion in that regard seems to have been leaning that way when the League’s successor, the United Nations Organization was founded in San Francisco in 1946, and chose New York, instead of the old League of Nations establishment in Geneva, Switzerland, as its permanent headquarters. In doing so, the message was clear. Either the U.S.A. must take a leading role, or the UN, like the old League of Nations, would turn out to be a failure.
The verdict is still out. After some significant successes (such as the defense of S. Korea), stubborn impasses (the Israeli-Palestinian and Cyprus stalemates) and woeful failures (the Rwanda genocide), today, in the joint action being taken in Libya, the effectiveness of the UN is again being put to the test. The joint resolution passed by the Security Council (with abstentions by Russia, China, and Germany) calls for all necessary actions to safeguard the lives of civilians. But to what end? Will Libya end up like a Saharan version of Korea, with a military dictatorship in the west and chaotic attempts at a democracy, pitting true liberals against Islamic fundamentalists, in the east?
All this suggests that the real role of the UN is not to become some sort of “world government” but rather an international agency to insure that every country or nation in the world, no matter how large or small, is truly a democracy where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up by the UN back in 1948, is not only respected but enforced. “Subsidiarity” – the principle of allowing people to manage their own affairs according to their capacity to do so – must be respected, but within the bounds of the guarantees of these basic human rights, even when democratic majorities might be inclined to do otherwise. Without the ability to enforce that fundamental guarantee, a UN “with teeth” – something that even Pope Benedict XVI has spoken about – the UN, like the toothless League of Nations before it, will fail. Whether it does or not, will be largely up to us, the world’s oldest still-successful democracy, the U.S.A.
R W Kropf 3/22/11 World Democracy.doc 11-03-22.html