Global consensuses can be plural

With all due respect to Peter Beinart, I think he gets this one wrong:

And that means you can either forge truly global institutions—which include Moscow and Beijing—or you can forge institutions whose members genuinely respect freedom. You can’t do both. Similarly, it would be nice if there were a global consensus that nuclear proliferation was bad, but there’s not. Countries with nukes mostly think that no one else should enter the club. Lots of countries without nukes want in.

It’s all well and good to say that we can have different kinds of international institutions for different issues: global ones where there really is a moral consensus; limited ones where there is not. But in the real world, you can’t keep things so separate. The more you alienate non-democracies by creating powerful new institutions on human rights, the harder it is to get their cooperation on issues of common concern.

This reminds me of the tired debate about creating a “League of Democracies.” On the one hand, Beinart is right that pushing for such a provocative (and ill-defined) “pro-freedom” institution will only make global cooperation more difficult. But on the other, different global institutions do exist. The role of the UN is not undermined by the existence of NATO, nor is the World Bank’s by the G-8 or G-20.  Advocating human rights through the Human Rights Council does not impede the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Moreover, the fact that all countries in a global institution don’t agree on something does not mean that the institution itself is useless, even at tackling a problem on which its members have differing viewpoints. The UN and other mixed groups of countries are proper venues for negotiating nuclear nonproliferation precisely because they contain both countries with and without nukes, and whose commitments toward nonproliferation vary. You can’t come to an agreement on something in a group in which everyone already agrees. “Forging” a global consensus is difficult work; you can’t just corral the right countries into the right groups. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, even on aims that might seem to be at odds with one another.