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A Concert of Democracies

by John Yoo

Russia’s aggression shows the need to move beyond “collective security.”

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing pressure on Ukraine reveal more than the Obama administration’s national-security paralysis and a lack of strategic vision. Like the collapse of the League of Nations between the world wars, it marks the failure of the progressive dream of collective security. The pressing question is not whether Russia has violated norms against aggression — it has — but how the United States and its allies should respond so as to strengthen the international system. 

Only the United States can lead the world’s democracies to rebuild a world order that allows forceful measures to protect international peace and stability. Though far superior in economic and military might, the United States and its European allies have shrunk before Putin’s boldness. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula without firing a shot, is stirring up unrest in eastern Ukraine, and has massed troops on the country’s border. President Barack Obama has responded by sending a token force to Eastern Europe, imposing economic sanctions on a few of Putin’s supporters, and sending only food and non-lethal aid to Ukraine.

Russia’s successful aggression signals the crowning failure of the progressive approach to international affairs, which began with Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to outlaw war following World War I.

As the Versailles peace conference concluded, Wilson admitted, his physician recounts, that the terms were “very hard.” “But at the same time,” he believed, “everyone must realize that the Germans themselves had brought on this horrible war, and that they had violated all ethics of international law and international procedure, and had created a series of crimes that had amazed and shocked beyond belief all the people of the world.” Rather than a tool of great-power politics, war would become a crime in a world governed by international law that global institutions would enforce.

After the League of Nations collapsed in the inter-war years, FDR resurrected this idea of collective security as the governing principle of the United Nations. Russia has now brushed aside the U.N. Charter. In violation of Article II of that document, Russia resorted to “the use of force against the territorial integrity” and “political independence” of Ukraine. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it blocked any collective authorization of force, military aid, or even economic sanctions in response to the invasion. Europeans, especially the German and French governments, which opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq for lacking U.N. approval, do not seem to feel the same sense of outrage in this case. Fast forward a decade, and now European leaders reportedly are resisting tougher sanctions on the Putin regime and European intellectuals are pleading for respect for Russia’s historical sphere of interest.

Beyond further undermining the U.N. system, Putin’s latest land grab may signal the decline of the American post-war project. Between the end of World War II and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its democratic allies succeeded in keeping the peace in Europe. Once the tinderbox for wars that killed tens of millions throughout the world, Europe has gone more than six decades without direct conflict between the great powers. In the words of NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, the Atlantic Alliance was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

The United States spread this peace throughout the globe. The rate of death from inter-state wars has fallen lower in the last 50 years than at any time in the last five centuries. Several reasons contributed to the “long peace,” as John Lewis Gaddis has described the Cold War. Nuclear weapons deterred wars between the great powers. The balance of power between the superpowers kept small conflicts from expanding into regional or worldwide wars.

But equally important was the role of the United States in building and maintaining a world order that spread political and economic liberty. Much as the Royal Navy enforced a 19th-century Pax Britannica, America supported NATO in the West, defended Korea and Japan in the East, and contained Communist Russia and China. In underwriting European and Asian security, the United States has led more people to freedom and prosperity than have ever enjoyed them at any previous time in recorded human history.

Whether by fault or design, the Obama administration is bringing this age to an end. The Pax Americana is receding from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Asian allies such as Japan, Korea, and the Philippines openly worry that American security guarantees have little value. Washington’s spending cuts are preventing the U.S. armed forces from shouldering global responsibilities. The administration shifts responsibility for maintaining peace to regional players, even though collective security has never proven able to replace a hegemonic power. The fading of hegemony has usually prompted widespread war and economic destruction — American assumption of world leadership in the wake of Britain’s decline after World Wars I and II remains a rare exception.

But this development is not inevitable. The United States could avoid it by dispensing with collective security and enhancing the power of its democratic allies. It could lead a Concert of Democracies that would take steps, ultimately including the use of force, to respond to threats to world order: terrible human-rights disasters, aggressive rogue nations, the spread of WMD technology, and terrorist groups. Washington need not set up a permanent international institution, which would only replicate the failures of the U.N. and the League of Nations. Instead, it could set up an informal alliance of democratic nations to coordinate their efforts to maintain international peace and security.

History provides a guide. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, the great powers established a “Concert of Europe,” a cooperative system aimed at maintaining the status quo. The Concert, and the balance of power it expressed, enjoyed relative success in keeping a general peace for about a century, until the onset of World War I destroyed Europe. More recently, under the leadership of John Bolton, the Bush administration started the Proliferation Security Initiative, in which democratic nations cooperated to stop the spread of WMD and missile technology to rogue regimes. Other informal coalitions removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and Qaddafi from power in Libya.

A more permanent Concert of Democracies could achieve similar benefits today. Cured of collective security’s paralysis, the United States and its allies could openly confront nations that use aggression to seize power and territory. Such a system would rely on the great powers to maintain international peace, rather than blaming them as the cause of instability. Today’s international law, which criminalizes force used other than in self-defense, constrains only democracies and allows autocracies to run riot.

A new approach to global security would offer concrete responses to Russia’s aggression. The United States could terminate the New START treaty, which limited both nations to 1,550 nuclear warheads. Russia, which can no longer afford to project power globally, should not enjoy an arsenal comparable to that of the U.S., which has broader responsibilities to ensure peace. Russia cannot keep pace with the United States and would have to cut its nuclear arsenal anyway, so the agreement forces meaningful cuts only on the U.S. arsenal. Washington could restore anti-ballistic-missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Concerned about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the Bush administration promised to deploy the systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. President Obama canceled the program as part of his administration’s “reset” with Russia; redeploying it would be an important American commitment to NATO and raise the costs on Russia. These policies would require the Obama administration to turn away from its strategy of depending on international legal solutions and return to unilateral solutions or cooperation only with our allies.

A more fundamental and effective step would be to eject Russia from any meaningful role in global security. Along with China, Russia has used its veto on the Security Council to act as the defense attorney for oppressive regimes throughout the world. The United States cannot remove Russia from its permanent seat, but it can develop an alternative source of legitimacy for military force. The Ukraine setback is a chance to make a stand against nations that pursue aggression abroad and oppress their populations at home. This kind of new approach may not suit President Obama, but the security of the world hangs in the balance.

– Mr. Yoo is Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the recently published Point of Attack: Preventive War, International Law, and Global Welfare.

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