McCain's Fantasy League

If democracies share values and strategic interests, why, up to this point, have they been unable to work more closely together?

Senator John McCain's May 1 proposal for a new "League of Democracies" strikes all the right rhetorical notes about freedom and liberty. It's too bad that, as a practical matter, it does nothing to address the foreign policy challenges the United States faces.

The senator's idea rests on the myth that, because of the machinations of two authoritarian states who are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the righteous democracies of the world have been stymied in their efforts to do good around the globe. But this new League would allow the right-thinking members of the international community to marshal their forces. He outlines a number of areas where this League could take the leading role-but the slight problem is, the format of the proposed new organization wouldn't be able to do much more.

Democracies already have the ability to work in concert-witness the joint efforts of the United States, Japan, Australia and India in responding to the December 2005 tsunami. The European Union and the United States jointly ensured a successful (and fair) re-running of the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2004. The Community of Democracies inaugurated a "democracy caucus" at the United Nations in September 2004.

What's missing from the senator's proposal is any discussion as to why democracies, up to this point, have been unable to work more closely together if they indeed share both values and strategic interests. Nor is there much thought given to why a new international organization would motivate states to act if they have failed to do so already.

Nothing prevents any of the world's democracies from supplying robust amounts of aid and assistance to the African Union to carry out its mission in Darfur. Ukraine needs access to Western markets for its goods and excess labor more than symbolic statements of support. It is comforting to view Communist China as the main energy protector of Iran, but democratic India and democratic Japan are far more interested in ensuring Iranian oil and gas get to their markets. Indeed, yesterday, a letter sent by high-ranking Democratic and Republican legislators to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated "we are deeply concerned by India's increasing cooperation with [Iran], including the exchange of visits between high-level officials, enhanced military ties, and negotiation of agreements to establish closer economic relations." South Africa seems uninterested in fomenting democratic revolutions among its neighbors, fearing regional instability as the result.

And one only has to look at the anemic results from the recent U.S.-EU summit-and one would assume that this would be the core of any meaningful League of Democracies-to see how difficult creating a body capable of taking meaningful action would be. (It is also difficult to see how one could formulate a common program when, as in the case of Germany, 48 percent of people believe the United States is the biggest danger to world peace, as opposed to 31 percent who think Iran fits the bill).

And would this new League bind U.S. action to the "rule of the majority?" One reason the U.S. missile defense plan for Europe is facing such resistance, as Judy Dempsey reported in the International Herald Tribune, is that, as Stephan Fruehling and Svenja Sinjen of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation noted, "in no case would the U.S. give up national control of such a system" to NATO as a whole.

Look: if the League is seen as a mechanism for the United States to consult with allies and partners, if it is a forum for discussion, it has a future. But predictions that such a body could replace the United Nations or be a more effective vehicle for action are cut from whole cloth. If democracies aren't acting in concert on key issues now, setting up a new organization won't change that reality.

Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.