Foreign Policy Blogs

A League of Our Own?

Senator John McCain's major speech on May 15th , in which he outlined what he "would hope to have achieved at the end of my first term as President" in 2013, made international headlines. Most of the international news reports focused on McCain's vision of Iraq in 2013.

For example, two weeks ago the Guardian published an opinion piece titled "McCain's Iraq fantasy."  Authored by Dylan Loewe, presumably an American, the piece inspired 177 comments from the newspaper's British readership.

But missing in all of the reports from abroad that I looked at was even a mention of one the "big picture" foreign policy ideas McCain also spoke about last month. Here's what he predicted the League would achieve in the year 2013, in his May 15th speech:

"After efforts to pressure the Government in Sudan over Darfur failed again in the U.N. Security Council, the United States, acting in concert with a newly formed League of Democracies, applied stiff diplomatic and economic pressure that caused the government of Sudan to agree to a multinational peacekeeping force, with NATO countries providing logistical and air support, to stop the genocide that had made a mockery of the world's repeated declaration that we would “never again” tolerant such inhumanity. Encouraged by the success, the League is now occupied with using the economic power and prestige of its member states to end other gross abuses of human rights such as the despicable crime of human trafficking."

Wow, a newly-formed US-led League of Democracies, working in concert with NATO, solves one of the most protracted conflicts in modern history? And, more broadly: a League of Democracies outperforms the United Nations?

McCain and his advisors have pronounced their desire to form a "League of Democracies" among likeminded nations, led by the US, since the very beginning of his Presidential campaign. And presumably from these pronouncements the din of policy debate has followed: the idea is being discussed by academics and policy makers, debated by campaign advisors, written about in countless American news dailies, blogs, opinion pages, newswires, and journals. Given that this institution would be multi-lateral, and not a one-member club, it's curious that one doesn't see more talk of a League of Democracies in the international media. Why don't other potential members of the League seem to be joining the debate?

Thomas Carothers offers an answer‚ as well as a strong case against the formation of the league‚ in a piece he authored for the Washington Post titled "An Unwanted League." This piece is based on the longer policy brief he authored for his employer, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carnegie hosted an event at its Washington location last week, in which Carothers and two Presidential campaign advisors (one who advises Obama, the other McCain), a high-ranking public official serving in the Clinton , Nixon and Johnson administrations, debated the idea.

At the event, Carothers noted that during a recent visit to Europe he couldn't detect a "trace" of interest among European diplomats for joining a league of democracies. He said one European diplomat who is active in democracy issues asked him "why did you waste more than 5 minutes on this policy brief?"

It's not as if McCain hasn't yet courted foreign audiences. In March he extolled the virtues of the League to European audiences 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 revitalise 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."

Alas, the desirability of forming a League of Democracies ultimately rests on one's assessment of the capabilities of our current multilateral institutions. Now that is a discussion worth having‚ but before you throw the baby (namely, the United Nations) out with the bathwater.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.