McCain Strikes Out

On Wednesday in Los Angeles, John McCain proposed a “League of Democracies” uniting the world’s liberal states. When will he learn that interests trump values?


The mainstream media, for the most part, has contented itself with superficial assessments of Senator John McCain's address to the World Affairs Council of Los Angeles, with a good deal of attention given to his laudable promise to close Guantánamo Bay and to eschew the use of torture in dealing with terrorism suspects. Others have stressed his call for a return to multilateralism as the basis for U.S. foreign policy.

The problem, however, is that most reporters and commentators have glossed over how realistic it is to expect other democracies to embrace the foreign-policy agenda the senator has laid out, as well as the possible dangers of dividing the world into two camps of democracies and non-democracies.

Let's be clear: the vision of a League of Democracies, led by the United States, is a compelling one. Who wouldn't want to forge an international coalition of more than 100 states to defend and promote peace and freedom throughout the world? There's just a little problem-which goes to the heart of the senator's claim to be a "realistic idealist"-it doesn't quite correspond to reality.

The senator continues to insist that countries which share similar forms of governance at home will have common interests when it comes to foreign policy. The League of Nations was a dismal failure; why should a League of Democracies fare any better?

Part of the problem is that the carefully crafted and honed rhetoric of any political speech that has been weeks in preparation can easily be upset by dramatic changes in the daily news cycle. Telling us that success in the greater Middle East consists of establishing democracies that will do their part to "contribute to the defeat of terrorists" gets undermined when the top story in the Washington Post the day after the address proclaims, "The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan's new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country." These are the new leaders who came to power as a result of democratic elections, by the way. McCain is sharply critical of past reliance on "the generals of Pakistan" in his speech while the Post reports that Washington wants to move now because "pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who has generally supported the U.S. strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead."

And it is a bit embarrassing to proclaim success in Iraq and criticize the naysayers and then have the lead headline today on Google news read, "Fighting Spreads, Key Oil Pipeline Bombed." The first paragraph of that story, from ABC News, reads, "Defiant Shiites flexed their muscle today by sending tens of thousands of supporters into the streets of Baghdad, raining shells into the Green Zone and holding the Iraqi army at bay in the key oil city of Basra." Presumably these are the same people who also have cast ballots in Iraq's elections and displayed purple fingers several years ago.

But beyond that there is a deeper, more fundamental problem that goes beyond the shifting fortunes of war. It is an unwillingness to concede that shared values are not enough in bringing countries together when shared interests diverge.

Senator McCain, for instance, is quite critical of China's relationship with "pariah states" like Burma and Sudan. It fits the script so well-that to oppose the League of Democracies there should be a League of Anti-Democracies. And here, an aside-and a concern. Right now, there is no such second league in place. I worry that this sort of approach, however, could very well result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every U.S. administration since that of Richard Nixon has worked to ensure that-after the scare of the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s-that there could never be a new global balance of power that could threaten vital American interests. Nixon's visit to Moscow and Beijing initiated a bipartisan strategy of convincing Russia and China that it was in their interests to prioritize good relations with the United States over working together to oppose Washington. I fear that the Senator's approach-as outlined in this address-could very well bring about the scenario we all would want to prevent.

But back to the problem of an authoritarian China and its support for unpleasant regimes.

One small problem with this narrative. The world's "largest democracy"-India-remains a major trading partner with Burma. It is also the sixth-largest exporter to Sudan (behind autocracies like China and Saudi Arabia and democracies like Germany and the United Kingdom)-and India's OGNC owns 25 percent of Sudan's biggest oil consortium, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company.

So perhaps even democracies don't always feel that values trump interests. And perhaps this suggests that even long-established democratic states aren't going to agree on policy.

How, then, should we reconcile the apparent contradictions in the senator's approach?

Take this example. Midway through the speech, the senator declares: "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies."

Further down, however, he sets forth his vision for the future of NATO: "the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom."