Better Diplomacy Through a 'League of Democracies'?

GOP presidential candidate McCain pitches the idea, but it's not nearly as simple as it sounds.

By + More

As a central plank in his foreign policy platform, Sen. John McCain has called for the creation of an ambitious new international organization called the League of Democracies that would bring together the world's democratically run nations in one forum. But while McCain has repeated the concept in many of his foreign policy speeches, it has received surprisingly little scrutiny.

Most of the back-and-forth in the presidential campaign has focused on the role of presidential diplomacy. But McCain has proposed this League of Democracies as part of his effort to create what he says would be a more effective climate for multilateral diplomacy.

"This would not be like the universal-membership and failed League of Nations of Woodrow Wilson but much more like what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace," he explained. "The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the U.N. fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur."

The idea is not a new one. In particular, a number of conservative thinkers—long hostile to what they believe has been an ineffective United Nations—see a League of Democracies as a way to help cut one of their favorite punching bags out of the diplomatic picture. Several liberal thinkers have also proposed a similar grouping, aimed more at blessing humanitarian military interventions around the world.

Either way, McCain's rhetoric does echo the Bush administration's emphasis on democracy promotion as a key foreign policy goal.

But McCain has yet to reveal in detail how the League of Democracies would function. His advisers call the proposal a way for like-minded countries to pursue common aims.

The problem, however, is that democracies often disagree on the toughest issues, such as intervention in Myanmar's botched typhoon relief efforts or how to respond to the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Zimbabwe. It was European democracies that were some of the strongest critics of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.

"The notion that a democracy's foreign policy will be primarily defined on a wide range of issues by its status as a democracy is a misleading and possibly dangerous form of policy reductionism," Thomas Carothers, a leading democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a recent policy brief. He lists several democracies that have troubled relations with the United States, including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nepal, Palestine, and Pakistan. Several recent elections have produced regimes that are outwardly hostile to the United States, particularly one in the Gaza Strip where Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the United States, came to power.

An additional concern is that such a league could further alienate powerful countries like Russia and China, which would be excluded by design. While Moscow and Beijing have often blocked U.S.-led diplomatic efforts on bodies like the United Nations, their influence is often essential to reining in countries like Iran and North Korea. Indeed, it was Chinese pressure that appears to have been decisive in the recent diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

Advisers to Barack Obama have also been critical of the proposal, saying it is an outgrowth of what they call the Bush administration's "you're either with us or against us" approach to foreign policy. "I don't regard this idea as terribly attractive," says Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy and an Obama national security adviser. "It tends to emphasize the we-they character of the world, when in fact the world is more complicated than that."