World Yawns at McCain's Coalition of Democracies

Election '08

A central component of presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain's foreign policy platform is the formation of a "League of Democracies." McCain put forth this idea in a November 2007 article he authored for the academic journal Foreign Affairs that established his campaign's overall foreign policy platform. In the article, McCain argued:

Our organizations and partnerships must be as international as the challenges we confront. Today, U.S. soldiers are serving in Afghanistan with British, Canadian, Dutch, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Spanish and Turkish soldiers from the NATO alliance. They are also serving alongside forces from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and South Korea -- all democratic allies or close partners of the United States. But these troops are not all part of a common structure. They do not work together systematically or meet regularly to develop diplomatic and economic strategies to meet the common challenges they face.
NATO has begun to fill this gap by promoting partnerships between the alliance and great democracies in Asia and elsewhere. We should go further by linking democratic nations in one common organization: a worldwide League of Democracies ... like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty. The organization could act when the U.N. fails ... and take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems.
But he warned: "This League of Democracies would not supplant the U.N. or other international organizations but complement them by harnessing the political and moral advantages offered by united democratic action."

Now, as the other Republican primary candidates have fallen by the wayside, the attention has become focused solely on McCain's policy platform -- and with it, the concept of a League of Nations. Debating, promoting and scolding the idea are academics, presidential campaign advisers (from both sides of the aisle), pundits, bloggers and columnists across America.

But there is little speak -- pro or con -- of McCain's idea outside the United States. After all, the league would be a multilateral institution, comprised of other democratic nations. So, why aren't other potential members of the league joining the debate?

One possibility is that since McCain has yet to win the votes of the American people, he has yet to formally propose the idea when it matters -- as president of the United States.

Another possibility is that the idea simply does not resonate with foreign policymakers. As Thomas Carothers, democracy scholar and vocal opponent of league, puts it: "I think the basic problem (with the league) is that the world has absolutely no interest or appetite for a U.S.-led ideologically based multilateral initiative."

At a recent debate, Carothers said he could not detect a "trace" of interest among European diplomats for establishing a league. At a European summit, one European diplomat active in democracy issues read one of his recent policy briefs and asked Carothers, "I don't mean to be rude, but why did you waste more than five minutes on this idea, which is a complete non-starter?" and added that the subject was not worthy of serious attention.

European nations are, arguably, the strongest candidates for founding members of a League of Democracies: They are allies of the United States, pass the "democracy" test and are multilateral to the core. McCain draws attention to this very point extolling the virtues of the league to a primarily European audience via an op-ed in the Financial Times:

"Americans and Europeans share a common goal -- to build an enduring peace based on freedom. Our democracies today are strong and vibrant. Together we can tackle the diverse challenges we face. ... But the key word is 'together.' We need to renew and revitalize our democratic solidarity. We need to strengthen our transatlantic alliance as the core of a new global compact -- a League of Democracies -- that can harness the great power of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests."

If Europeans aren't likely to warm to the idea, it is even harder to imagine recruiting members from regions where there is more resistance to U.S. hegemony (think Latin America). But, as Carothers sees it, the popularity of the league in some American policy circles -- and its lack thereof in the exterior -- is more revealing of the divergence in how the United States and its foreign counterparts interpret world politics.

Ultimately, one's openness to the idea of forming a League of Democracies is a function of one's satisfaction with the multilateral institutions currently in use. No doubt the United Nations -- particularly its most powerful body, the U.N. Security Council -- desperately needs reform. But perhaps the United States shouldn't be too quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

For example, Gillian Sorenson, an American former undersecretary general of the United Nations, warned during a recent lecture that while the United States has been focusing its energy on other international relationships (namely, that with Iraq), other U.N. member states have stepped in to fill what she called the resulting "leadership vacuum" at the United Nations. Sorenson points out that if democratic member states want to work together, "all they have to do is pick up the telephone and call" a meeting of the Caucus of Democracies, which already exists within the U.N. structure.

Washington has hatched ideas like this before, notably a "Concert of Democracies," the brainchild of Princeton international relations scholar John Ikenberry. But for the most part the idea has remained confined to the annals of American scholarship.

As it happens, an early and fervent proponent of a concert is Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy scholar and Obama campaign adviser. Daalder first co-articulated the idea in the Winter 2006 issue of the American Interest. Now he continues to promote the concert idea by rebranding it as a "League of Democracies." Although his original concept differs from the version proposed by McCain in its theoretical foundation, Daalder's hope may be that by adopting the terminology du jour, the general idea might gain traction.

Second, the "Community of Democracies" is the multilateral club by democracies for democracy. Unlike the "concert," this club enjoys a healthy degree of institutionalization. More than 100 democracies met in Warsaw in 2000 to sign a pact establishing the community and its membership criteria, and affirming their commitment to promoting democracy in their region and worldwide.

But at its fourth ministerial meeting, rather than maintain the standalone community, its members voted to house the community within the U.N. system, thus forming the Caucus of Democracies Sorenson spoke of. This speaks largely to the desire of other democracies to work within the United Nations. Apparently the Community of Democracies was missing something else: the United States. According to Morton Halperin, a former American diplomat who helped shape the community: "The community has failed so far not because of who it invited, because it decides every two years who to invite; not because there has been resistance to it in Western Europe, although to be sure there is; but because the United States has not given that organization the leadership that it should, and it's not been clear about what it wanted the body to discover."

It is too soon to tell whether the League of Democracies, like the "concert" and the "community," will turn out to be just another American foreign policy fad. Will it become apparent that the American punditsphere was thrown into a tizzy by mere campaign season rhetoric? Or will a President McCain, as he predicted in a recent speech articulating his vision of the world in 2013 (the end of his potential first term), lead the League of Democracies to stop the genocide in Darfur and end human trafficking?

In the meantime, it is worth pausing to thoroughly assess the current state of world politics. Only a 360-degree understanding of today's international system -- that is from the American, as well as its fellow democracies' perspective -- will help us determine whether a League of Democracies will flourish, or whether it will end up as "A League of Our Own."

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