Rethinking the League of Democracies

published by the EUISS, May 2008:

Asle Toje

Senator Barrack Obama extended his lead in the Democratic presidential race on 6 May by winning in North Carolina by a decisive 14-point margin. Senator Hillary Clinton who won in Indiana and West Virginia has wowed to carry on her battle for nomination although the momentum now seems to favour Obama.

For democrats a challenging aspect of the nomination process is that a high and growing proportion of Clinton’s supporters told exit pollers that they would not vote for Obama in a general election, and vice versa. This places the presumptive republican nominee, Senator John McCain at an advantage.

The unusually closely fought contest among the democrats has given McCain a window of opportunity to float ideas and see how they are received without weakening his presidential campaign. Mr McCain’s personal interest in foreign policy is well known. He has presented policy positions on a wide range of issues and has, unlike other candidates, also sought to articulate an idea regarding America’s broader purpose in the world.

Mr McCain has made a «League of democracies» the centrepiece of his proposed foreign policy. In an article in the journal Foreign Affairs he argued for “linking democratic nations in one common organisation”. He gave further substance to the concept in a speech at the Hoover Foundation last year where he spoke of his frustration that important and worthy tasks are left undone because democracies fail to pull together, allowing themselves to be blocked by autocracies in international forums. Such an American-lead democratic league would tackle problems the United Nations fails to resolve.

Mr McCain lost no time in underlining the momentous nature of the initiative, likening it to the founding of NATO. In the speech he gave a number of concrete examples of what sort of tasks he envisioned such a league to undertake. These are issues ranging from the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs to the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and challenges to global health. It could impose sanctions on Iran; carry out armed intervention in Darfur or increase pressure Myanmar or Zimbabwe, “with or without Moscow and Beijing’s approval”.

At first blush the League of Democracies would seem an inspired choice. After all, it is hard to be opposed to a plan to promote democratic values in a more organised and determined manner. In this the idea has a potential for domestic bipartisan support. The idea of a concert of democracies originated not with Republicans but with US Democrats and liberal inter-nationalists. The Princeton Project on National Security – a liberal academic advocacy initiative – has proposed a similar “concert of democracies”. Ivo Daalder, one of Barack Obama´s foreign policy advisors came out strongly in favour of the league in a joint op-ed with Robert Kagan, who is a member of McCain’s team.

For all its attractions, the League of democracies is also profoundly problematic. The perhaps most urgent issue is that many see such a league as a codeword for a plan to sideline the United Nations. Indeed, neoconservative commentator Charles Krauthammer has welcomed it as just that. This must be seen in context current disillusionment with the UN. Most will agree that the ongoing reform process has been fallen short of expectations. What some Americans forget is that most of their friends and allies around the world remain committed to the UN and would not wish to join an arrangement that undermines it further.

Such an agenda is particularly unwelcome in Europe where the EU´s European Security Strategy pointedly pays homage the legitimacy of the UN. During the Kosovo war European leaders dismissed the notion, that NATO by virtue of its democratic credentials, had a legitimacy equal to that of the UN as an arbiter of war and peace. The prospect of joining a league guided by democratic evangelism under undiluted American leadership is simply not very appealing to many countries – especially after the Iraq war. Robert Hutchings a Princeton professor with experience from several presidential administrations believes “a number of countries will be wary of antagonising Russia and China” and as a result the new league “will likely find it difficult to attract members.”

The plan to exclude key emerging powers is disingenuous considering that many of the biggest challenges facing the world require concerted action. For instance, a new treaty on climate change would be meaningless without China and Russia. Any effort to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation regimes will need the support of states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. A League of democracies also might entrench an image of international affairs as “the West versus the rest”. Robert Kagan has argued that what is sometimes referred to as the “Beijing consensus” on autocratic capitalism is indeed an informal bloc – acting as spoilers in international forums. The trouble with this idea is that that it over-simplifies. The West’s relationships with the rising powers are complex and ambiguous. There are elements of both competition and co-operation. Among key American allies the League of democracies is seen a throwback to the simple dichotomies of the Cold War.

Over the past weeks the League of democracies has received a number of unfavourable reviews in mainstream domestic and international press. These criticisms have been echoed in the «realist» branch of American foreign policy experts, who believe foreign policies should be guided by interests, not ideals. The fear is that such a league could end up harming American interests by introducing unnecessary tensions in relations with friends and foes alike. The Democrats also appears to have cooled on the venture, perhaps as in response to the fervour with which the neoconservatives have embraced it. NATO Director of Policy Planning, Jamie Shea concluded, “any such arrangement is clearly best left informal”, adding “a new US president would be advised to use the institutions in place effectively.”

Perhaps in response to the criticisms, McCain appears to be scaling back the initiative. He told reporters in Dallas on April 11 that we “it would not be a formal organisation; it would be a coalition of nations that shifts sometimes depending on what their priorities are”. By toning down the American leadership and institutional nature of the league as well as taking the use of armed force out of the equation, McCain appears to be rethinking some of the contested elements of the League of democracies