A UN Agency on Democracy

Conservatives have typically been skeptical of the United Nations. But the Russian annexation of Crimea has shown yet again the need for a United Nations Agency on Democracy. Yes, an expansion of the role of the United Nations would be good for the world and the United States.

Sometimes we forget how lucky we are in the U.S. Each of our states joined voluntarily and our borders were agreed upon a century ago. This is hardly the case in much of the world – many borders around the world were set by the controlling empire, and often these borders were arbitrary and even capricious. Ethnic groups were split and sometimes disparate cultures were joined into a single country. The situation in Crimea reflects this capriciousness. For centuries it had been part of Russia. Then in 1954 the leader of the old Soviet empire transferred it from Russia to the Ukraine. The Crimeans weren’t given a choice, it was just done. At the time it was a meaningless decision since both were part of the empire. But now, sixty years later, the meaningless decision has significant meaning to Russia, both strategically and historically.

That Crimea becomes part of Russia doesn’t really matter to the U.S. We don’t have a strategic interest in the area and the Crimeans hadn’t democratically vote to become part of the Ukraine. But because we do support international law and respect for national borders we have been forced to take a stand on the annexation. This is where the United Nations Agency on Democracy would have been helpful.

When Russia first began forcing the issue, under the guise of self-determination for the Crimeans, a U.N. agency would have been the perfect vehicle for the world to express its concerns and apply pressure. Instead of allowing the Russians to oversee a hasty referendum on joining Russia, the world could have pushed to have the U.N. agency oversee and operate the referendum. The U.N. could have controlled the balloting process to make sure it was reasonably fair and that the votes were counted correctly.

It’s very likely that Crimea still would have chosen to join Russia; Russia has a far bigger checkbook and is only slightly less democratic than the Ukraine. If the election had taken place under U.N. oversight, we would have been far surer that it reflected the will of the people, not the presence of Russian soldiers. And the United States wouldn’t have been forced to take a position on something that is not of strategic importance to our country.

A U.N. Agency on Democracy would serve many useful purposes. The U.N. has agencies to promote human rights, fight poverty and protect the interests of children. Democracy is undoubtedly the best tool for address all of these issues; if a country’s government is democratically elected its resources are more likely to be directed toward improving the quality of life for its citizens.

Democracy is slowly spreading around the world but by no means is the movement always forward, as Russia illustrates. Putin was democratically elected the first two times around, by reasonably fair elections. It’s a shame that once in power he lost confidence in voter’s ability to pick wisely and started undermining the democratic process. However he is hardly the first leader to appreciate democracy more as a candidate than an office holder. In Egypt the newly elected prime minister quickly began behaving autocratically. A fragile situation became a coup and democracy took a significant step back.

The United States has a strong incentive to support the spread of democracy – it is consistent with our beliefs and leads to a safer world. But we are regularly confronted with situations where our strategic interests don’t coincide with our philosophic interests, and as importantly where we aren’t best positioned to apply pressure. The world needs a vehicle to call out nations that disrespect democracy – we need the United Nations to take that role, speaking for the international community. Conservatives have typically been skeptical of the United Nations as an infringement on national sovereignty. But the UN has never had any real power to decide events in its member nations. Instead, its role has been to shine a spotlight on challenges of a given international situation. A U.N. agency on democracy wouldn’t have any real power either, but it could certainly help shine a spotlight on the progress of democracy. And that would be good for the world and the interests of the United States.

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