Can democracy be a universal human experience? It has been a popular belief in the United States from early in the American Revolution. Some hoped that it would be a logical outcome when the United Nations took shape at San Francisco in 1945. Without being fussy about credentials, more people now live in regimes that meet an uncritical definition of a democratic state than at any time in human history.

While the Americans have not been very successful exporters, some of them have tried very hard, usually in blissful ignorance of their own inconsistencies. Thomas Jefferson’s loyalty to his fellow slaveholders meant inevitably that his espousal of ”œlife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was limited to whites and unavailable to the rest of humanity. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and his influence on the Versailles Treaty of 1919 were constrained by his party’s dependence on Southern votes and his own Southern instincts about race and equality.

That was not Wilson’s only problem in winning and holding American support. His refusal to allow any Republican delegate to join him in Paris and his fierce rejection of even modest amendments to the terms he had negotiated turned a Senate majority for his position into an indignant opposition. Wilson was not good at democracy.

American idealism returned to full strength in the wake of the Second World War but Hitler’s defeat guaranteed the triumphs of Joseph Stalin and, more remotely, of Mao Zedong, probably the most murderous dictators of all time. The shadow of their power still hangs like a choking fog over central Europe and Asia, much as Hitler’s Holocaust still provides motive and rhetoric to the Arab-Israeli conflict and helps render it seemingly insoluble.

Bob Rae’s comprehensive grasp of 20th-century history and politics, inherited from his father, a brilliant diplomat, will reward any reader eager to understand this world better, but perhaps paternal wisdom also denied him the delusion of easy or even persuasive solutions. Rae’s enthusiasm for federalism, cemented by his 10-year involvement with the Forum of Federations, is a recurring theme. In a world where the bitterest conflicts seem to be ethnic wars, federalism " seen as a workable division of sovereignty to suit different groups, linguistic, cultural or religious, within a single national boundary " may be a framework for peace.

Federalism met revolutionary America’s needs in the 1780s, and Canada’s in the 1860s, but it did not spare Americans from the bloodiest war in their history over which level of government could regulate or even eradicate slavery. In the wake of Meech Lake and the razor-thin No majority in the Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1995, Canadians may have fewer illusions about the vulnerability of regimes based on split authority.

Without effective sovereignty sharing, could Protestants and Catholics live at peace in Ireland, or Catalans and Basques in Spain? Could federalism help Israelis and Palestinians put over half a century of bloody war behind them? When all but fanatics know that war has killed and destroyed enough, Rae asks, why not try?

Rae is particularly informed about the ultimate tragedy of Sri Lanka, where his efforts to end a particularly cruel civil war led him among old Oxford friends. A brutally oppressed Tamil minority accepted protection from the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, an overtly terrorist movement, led by an arrogant, ruthless and possibly insane dictator who used terror to enforce his absolute power, and who led his people to utter disaster as if to prove his unchallenged control over them.

As Rae confesses, finding compromise was impossible when neither side conceded more than lip service to any peace proposal. The Sinhalese ruler who ultimately triumphed, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, proved as ruthless and cruel as V. Prabhakaran of the LTTE. Rae emerged shaken and disillusioned but no less committed to persuading Canadians that we must remain irreversibly connected to our world. With our diverse population, we cannot avoid involvement in its struggles.

Exporting Democracy establishes Rae as an intelligent, battle-scarred leader for a Canada that, someday, must resume its creative and unpretentious role in a troubled world. An undisguised critic of the Harper brand of subservient opportunism, Rae may establish himself by this book as better suited than his university chum and Liberal Party rival, Michael Ignatieff, to speak for Canada to a conflict-ridden world.