Opinion: Democracies unite! | Opinion | DW | 11.12.2019
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Opinion: Democracies unite!

If liberal democracies that respect human rights and are based on the rule of law want to be role models for repressive countries, they should come together in a new institutional form, says Alexander Görlach.

At the present time it seems outrageous to speak out on behalf of a new multilateral institution. The current trend is moving in the opposite direction, with so-called "strong men" around the world propagating a return to the rule of the strong over the weak. To these populists, this means that international rules-based agreements, as well as the institutions that uphold and enhance them, have become obsolete. They badmouth the so-called "elite," which — unsettled by the approval the autocrats are receiving — in turn paralyzes the institutions through stagnation and thus indirectly underpins the populists' assertion that these multilateral institutions are of no use to "average people."

The European Union is being weakened by political forces driving the alliance's demise from within, for example from within Parliament. A few national governments have gone so far in their rejection of European values that it actually seems impossible for them to remain in the EU. The European community keeps them in the fold, however, because it is assumed that it is better to keep opponents close rather than booting them out.

Children of the Cold War

NATO, too, is in crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron diagnosed it as suffering from "brain death"; he was vehemently contradicted. But the conflict has revealed that lack of agreement about the present and future of the defense alliance.

Both confederations, NATO and the EU, were created during the Cold War. They reflect the spirit and conflict of that time in their structure and in the narrative that holds them and their members together. After the Soviet Union, the common threat, fell apart, those nations involved should have worked together to reform the institutions and make them fit for the new era.

Jens Stoltenberg gestures at the microphone in front of NATO icons (Reuters/F. Lenoir)

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, has defended the relevance of the alliance in the current age

Read more: Why has French President Macron taken the lead in NATO-bashing?

The United Nations has also been affected by the end of the bipolar world. The current dividing lines no longer run between the free and communist worlds, but between countries whose order is based on the recognition of human rights and those in which these same human rights are constantly being trampled on. In this global assembly, Russia and China have the power to torpedo every constructive idea and demoralize all other actors who want to work well in the long term.

New institution needed

What we need today is a new institution, a union of all democracies that are already called "like-minded countries" in diplomacy, but which so far lack an official home base.

The people of Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Mongolia, Uruguay and South Africa have more commonalities than differences between them. Their nation states rely on the recognition of human rights and on a legal system that is built on these rights. The legitimacy of these states is based precisely on this recognition of human freedom and its integrity. It is reflected in the view that everyone has civil and social rights.

A prison in China's Xinjiang region where mostly Muslim Uighurs are believed to be held (Getty Images/AFP/G. Baker)

A prison in China's Xinjiang region where the state is thought to be holding mostly Muslim Uighurs

There may be different cultural variations of this belief system, but generally, it is true that a Spaniard who travels to Japan, or a Taiwanese person who comes to Germany (and vice versa) enjoys the same rights and protections in these respective countries. This is not the case in the People's Republic of China, Russia or Turkey. Here, the ruling party or the state apparatus can take arbitrary actions without the persons concerned being entitled to a fair constitutional procedure, as we understand it.

Freedom is sovereignty

Nationalists, who lament the loss of sovereignty, are getting it wrong. The subject of every constitution is the individual human being. In the liberal world order that we — still — live in today, individual sovereignty has increased to an extent that our ancestors could not have imagined. As an association of nation states, the EU in particular makes clear what is possible if law built on a shared foundation and human rights recognized over time are harmonized. It is precisely the national characteristics, language, culture, religion, and way of life that do not fall by the wayside, but can exist on an equal footing with others and actually enrich coexistence.

Alexander Görlach (Harvard University/D. Elmes)

Alexander Görlach is a guest columnist for DW

It is perhaps the greatest lie of the vociferous Brexit supporters to claim that the break with the EU brings sovereignty back to the citizens of the United Kingdom. The opposite is the case: Many of their freedoms will be restricted again by their withdrawal.

It is important to maintain contact and dialogue with countries such as Russia, Turkey and the People's Republic of China that do not recognize human rights and consequently torment their citizens. In the end, this contact over a long period of time will serve to free the people in these autocracies from the dark fist of their tormentors. The best way to achieve this is for democratic countries to have the best possible relations with one another, to learn from each other and, as an example, to convince others. It is time for such an institution. It is actually disastrous that it does not already exist.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies. He has also held a number of scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics and is a guest columnist for several publications, including The New York Times, Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung and business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

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