A foreign policy idea tabled by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has received support from a wide variety of camps, including supporters of both remaining presidential candidates. But the idea is not without its detractors.
McCain’s "League of Democracies" would be a new international organization whose membership is made up of democratic governments that meet certain minimal requirements.
The philosophical basis for the League is German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of "perpetual peace," which argues that democratic governments are less likely to go to war—particularly with fellow democracies rather than autocratic regimes. But democratic nations may be at odds with non-democratic ones.
This is already well underway, according to neoconservative scholar and McCain advisor Robert Kagan, who sees a new "global competition" between democracies and autocracies.
Kagan believes that rising autocratic powers threaten the international order in part by blocking actions by the United Nations Security Council, where "autocratic states," like Russia and China, have the power to veto actions.
The League is intended to give like-minded democracies a multilateral vehicle that could authorize intervention in cases where the Security Council cannot act. Together, they could act on humanitarian crises and security issues without having to convince non-democratic U.N. members to go along.
Those non-democratic autocracies have sometimes blocked U.N. efforts at interventions in crises—such as the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and the recent blocking of international aid to cyclone victims in Burma—on the grounds that they violate national sovereignty.
The frustration caused by paralysis of the Security Council has also driven some liberal internationalists—notably Obama advisor Ivo Daalder—to support the idea of a League of Democracies. Preferring the moniker of a Concert of Democracies, Daalder and other liberals have written extensively in support of the idea, although Obama himself has yet to take a position on it.
Daalder and McCain agree that the League could serve U.S. interests above all by providing a new multilateral mechanism through which Washington could, with like-minded allies, intervene in international crises that paralyze the Security Council. They cite the example of NATO’s 1999 intervention against Serbia, a Russian ally, in Kosovo as a model.
Moreover, Washington’s reliance on a multilateral forum to authorize action would also help improve Washington’s image, which has been badly battered by the George W. Bush administration’s unilateralism.
But Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others, believes that the logic behind a League of Democracies is flawed and potentially dangerous.
Even accepting "perpetual peace," not fighting among themselves does not entail that democracies the world over will necessarily have similar foreign policies based on their democratic values, according to Carothers.
A clear example of this is South Africa’s reluctance—despite its democratic system—to endorse Western foreign policy. South Africa has resisted action against Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, perhaps because it has been seen as Western imperialism in a part of the world still reeling from colonialism.
South Africa has also ardently resisted U.S. efforts to base its new military command for Africa (AFRICOM) on the continent.
India, the world’s largest democracy, has also been reluctant to enlist in various campaigns, such as isolating Burma or Iran, which Washington and its European allies, among others, have pushed.
"I think there is a serious underappreciation in Washington for how strongly many democracies in the world, especially in the developing world, disagree fundamentally with the U.S. outlook on interventionism," said Carothers at a recent event discussing the pros and cons of a League at the Carnegie.
Carothers sees a wide rift between the United States and developing-country democracies that is not limited to interventionism, arguing that most of the more than 50 developing-country democracies would side with South Africa on key foreign policy issues.
Furthermore, historical evidence supports the notion of a lack of agreement among democracies—particularly over humanitarian intervention. Contrary to Kagan’s argument that autocratic regimes impede the United Nations, democracies have also played a role in blocking key Security Council resolutions.
Under the Bill Clinton administration, the United States held up action in the Security Council against the genocide that occurred in Rwanda—where 800,000 people lost their lives in 100 days in 1994—and the United States has blocked virtually every Security Council with its veto, from Israeli actions against Palestinians in the occupied territories to its bombardment and invasion of Lebanon during its 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Nonetheless, Daalder contends that the League of Democracies will be able to intervene in internal conflicts and with non-state actors in a way that the United Nations cannot because the Security Council is set up to prevent war between great powers—not lesser powers and actors.
Moreover, Daalder said that a League would be able to "socialize" U.S. foreign policy and tame its instinct for unilateral action. A McCain advisor on the panel at Carnegie, Tod Lindberg, added that while it may not have prevented the United States from going to war with Iraq, a league could have tightened sanctions against Iraq in a way that would have satisfied the Bush administration and made the war avoidable.
"I like that approach," Carothers said. But he wonders if supporters of the idea, like McCain, also include in their considerations “the idea of curtailing America’s appetite for certain kinds of assertions of national strength and national security."
Some critics also doubt that creating an exclusive League of Democracies offers a prescription for mending the ills of U.S. unilateralism under President George W. Bush. The very exclusivity of its membership, they say, is both dangerous and likely to make the effort unsuccessful.
"It revives a Cold War mentality that pits the good guys [market democracies] against the bad [autocracies]," according to Ted Piccone and Mort Halperin, who as Clinton administration officials helped form the Community of Democracies—a multilateral forum of democracies that is designed to promote democracy through non-violent means.
Speaking at Carnegie, Halperin dismissed the notion that anyone else—even Western democracies—would be interested in joining a military and security alliance.
"[Other countries] are simply not interested in supplanting the U.N. as the only legitimate forum for the discussion of security questions," Halperin said.
The extent to which a League of Democracies could undermine responses to universal crises seems to be particularly dangerous. Climate change, for example, is a global problem where China has surpassed the United States in emitting greenhouse gases.
"I don’t think China is any less a natural partner on climate change with the United States than India is; in fact, China’s probably more important," Carothers said. "So I’m concerned about this idea of natural partners, given the reality of the configuration of issues and interests that face us."
Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and is a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).