Five years ago a new group of nations was created: the Community of Democracies. Popularly known as the CD, it was a response to the fact that for the first time in history, most countries have some form of representative government. Meanwhile, others are struggling to establish democratic government or simply are not trying.
Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright invented the CD, put together a group of 10 democratic countries from five continents and invited the rest of the democratic world to an inaugural meeting in Warsaw. A second meeting was held in Seoul at the end of 2002. Santiago, Chile, hosted the third session in April, this time with a full role for the nongovernmental organizations that are a major engine of democratic change.
But from the start, the Community of Democracies has faced impediments. Critics argue that it will compete with the United Nations, which is supposed to be the world body dealing not just with peace and security but also the betterment of humankind. In reality, the United Nations' positive work in this area is too often blocked by national leaders who fear that the spread of democracy will undercut their power at home or further isolate them abroad. There have also been laughable developments, such as Libya's being elected chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
A fight also took place within the Community over who should be invited to join. Which countries are true democracies, which are aspiring, and which are beyond the pale and thus should be excluded? Unfortunately, charges of elitism emerged immediately, and soft hearts -- or soft heads -- have permitted membership for such countries as Russia (slipping fast by any standard of democracy) and Egypt (now, however, relegated to CD "observer" status).
Of course, it's true that the Community of Democracies should not just be a club of the saved. A critical reason for its existence is for its members to provide tangible assistance -- and political pressure -- to countries that are on the road to democratic reforms. At the Santiago meeting, the Hungarian government unveiled the creation of a new Democracy Transition Center, based in Budapest, to gather best practices and seasoned practitioners of the post-Cold War arts of building democratic institutions out of the wreckage of authoritarian systems.
Given the added emphasis in the past few years on fostering representative governments -- as in Central Europe, the Balkans, Georgia with its Rose Revolution and Ukraine with its Orange uprising -- the Community of Democracies should naturally be supported by all of the Northern Hemisphere's democratic states. Unfortunately, it isn't.
At the Santiago meeting, the only Western European foreign minister taking part was from Spain, Chile's historical partner. He joined Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- but only three other foreign ministers from elsewhere in Europe. This absenteeism no doubt represents some European sniffing at yet another international grouping; even more, it reflects the Community's provenance -- what several Europeans have judged to be its "Made in America" label. These governments should grow up. They need to separate the worth of the Community of Democracies from whatever problems they may have with the U.S. role in bringing it into being -- or with the U.S. emphasis on democracy in the Middle East.
These Europeans will have a fresh opportunity -- indeed, a responsibility -- when the Community meets next, in Bamako, Mali, two years from now. There is no question that Mali will need help in bringing off such a demanding conference, and France, Mali's closest Western partner, has a lot to do. But so do the rest of the world's democracies. Indeed, they can show that there will be substantial rewards for countries that risk building free institutions despite wretched economic conditions. They can do this by giving tangible support to a poor nation whose pursuit of democracy shows courage, especially in a democracy-starved part of the world.
A "Project Mali" -- well funded and focused on precise needs and opportunities -- should be a central goal of the CD's members before the Bamako meeting. This is a concrete test of whether the Community of Democracies will meet the hopes of its founders or just fade away like too many other well-intended ventures.
The writer is a senior adviser at the Rand Corp. and chairman of the Council for a Community of Democracies. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.