McCain’s League of Democracies

Cramped into a subterranean auditorium, Senator John McCain (R – AZ) addressed scores of Hoover fellows, local Republican donors, and journalists and gave one of several major policy addresses he has delivered in the last month. He began his address by alluding to the pervasive change American revolutionary ideals have affected around the globe: “Our forebears… kept faith with the eternal principles of our Declaration of Independence against the evils of despotism, fascism, and totalitarianism.”

Senator McCain proceeded to connect this long history of struggle to the contemporary geopolitical state of affairs. “Democracy and freedom continue to flourish around the world”, the Senator noted, “but there have been discouraging trends.” He cited continuing authoritarianism and censorship in China, Russia’s backslide into what “looks more and more like some 19th-century autocracy”, and foremost “the zealots of Islamic radicalism, who would turn [the clock] back centuries”, as threats to the spread of democracy.

In response to these threats, McCain called for “reviving the vital democratic solidarity” of the 1980s, when Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterrand, and Nakasone all stood as both strong statesmen and fervent defenders of freedom. Realizing this solidarity would require changes both on America’s and her allies’ part. America would have to jettison her current unilateral foreign policy in favor of more consultation with allies, a greater emphasis on persuasion instead of force, and joint action. In turn, America would expect of her allies a strong commitment to increased military spending and joint training, delivering aid to those in need, not evading their global responsibilities, and ending the “mindless anti-Americanism that today mars international discourse.”

To achieve these aims, McCain proposed going beyond our current patchwork of international and multilateral groups, to create a “worldwide League of Democracies.” Though McCain did not clearly define exactly what shape this League would take, he imposed an aggressive agenda upon the nascent group, suggesting it might “act where the UN fails to act”, “relieve humanitarian suffering in places like Darfur”, “join to fight the AIDS-epidemic”, open markets among its members, confront tyrants across the world, and push for greener industrial policies. McCain promised, if elected, to call a summit of the world’s democracies within a year of his election.

The Senator’s program is quite ambitious. At several points in his speech, he invoked Harry Truman’s creation of a post-World-War-II order of multilateral institutions such as the UN and NATO as his model. He wishes to create an alternative to our current global institutions that would emphasize governance and freedom over location and expediency.

Indeed, there is much to praise in his proposal. A league of democracies would allow the US to bypass the absurdities of the UN, from China and Russia’s persistent vetoes of any concerted action against North Korea, Iran, and dozens of oppressive regimes, or Lybia’s having chaired the UN Human Rights commission (which has now been replaced). It would have more global authority than regional alliances like NATO and the EU. It would, most obviously, be a far more effective path for US action than the unilateralism that has characterized US policy in this decade. Though McCain claims not to espouse the Wilsonian League of Nations model, his proposal carries with it much of the same optimism and idealism that have in the past given the US a measure of credibility as the bearers of democratic and free ideas.

Nevertheless, should America’s next President choose to follow through with this plan, he or she would encounter major obstacles. Harry Truman laid the foundations for our current multilateral order in the aftermath of a conflict that cost tens of millions of lives and left us facing the greatest geo-strategic divide at least since France’s face-off with Britain in the 19th century. Despite the Bush administration’s rhetoric, the current War on Terror does not amount to a similarly monumental struggle, and the sense of urgency that berthed the UN and NATO is simply lacking today.

Nor is it clear that a League of Democracies is necessary. Many of its functions are, however imperfectly, addressed by a broad latticework of institutions: NATO, the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, etc.

Senator McCain was unclear as to how democracies would be selected for this league. When asked by The Review, he specified that democracies are countries with freely elected governments, the sovereign rule of law, who are productive members of the international community. Yet how could this league of democracies, for example, exclude Venezuela while including Turkey, when these rank similarly on indices of democracy? It is also unclear whether the American people, who are generally skeptical of international entanglements, will accept his proposal.

And there was, finally, one moment of comedy in the Senator’s address. After running through 200 years of American of creating a democratic world order, the frail 70-year old intoned that “Now it is our generation’s turn to build it.” But the torch has already been passed on to America’s youth, George W. Bush’s and Hillary Clinton’s generation.

Subscribe to the Stanford Review