A 'League' By Other Names

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, May 19, 2008

In the vision for 2013 that he outlined last week, John McCain included something he calls the "League of Democracies," an organization he has promised to create during his first year as president that could respond to global humanitarian crises -- and, perhaps, substitute for the U.N. Security Council when it is paralyzed by authoritarian powers such as Russia and China. Pundits and bloggers have seized on the proposal as proof that McCain, like George W. Bush before him, is in thrall to the "radical neocons" who allegedly authored the war in Iraq.

They couldn't be more wrong. In fact, a league of democracies is not a new but a very old idea. In the past decade it has been promoted mostly by Democrats, including several of Barack Obama's top foreign policy advisers. And as the dramatic events in places such as Burma and Zimbabwe have demonstrated in recent weeks, it's not a utopian plan but a practical tool that the next president is very much going to need.

First let's dispose of the authorship question. The more academically minded, such as Princeton's G. John Ikenberry, trace the idea of a league of like-minded nation states to Immanuel Kant; more to the point, a prototype organization was created by the Clinton administration's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and democracy specialist Morton Halperin. Their Community of Democracies, founded in 2000, still exists but has been hamstrung by its initial decision to include numerous countries that are not, in fact, democracies -- such as Egypt, Jordan and Azerbaijan.

In 2006, Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and a likely player in a Democratic administration, proposed a "Concert of Democracies" in the final report of the Princeton Project, a comprehensive review of national security they orchestrated. Under their plan, members of the alliance would have to be real democracies that held regular multiparty elections. The group's purpose would be ambitious: first to work within existing global institutions such as the United Nations; but in the event that those fail, to provide a framework for organizing and legitimizing international interventions, including the use of military force.

The Concert of Democracies scheme was further elaborated last year by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, who argued in an article in the American Interest that it could encompass up to 60 nations, including 28 of the 30 largest economies. Daalder, who was a foreign policy coordinator for Howard Dean in 2004, is now an adviser to Obama. In a response to the article, Anthony Lake, the candidate's senior foreign policy hand, said that "a functioning Concert of Democracies would not only be much in the American national interest . . . it could be, in important measure, transformative for the world." Daalder later co-authored an article in The Post supporting the idea with McCain adviser Robert Kagan, a forceful proponent in his own right -- which may explain the "neocon" smear.

Why would both McCain and top advisers to Obama endorse this allegedly radical idea? Let's let Lake answer: "One thing is clear," he wrote in the American Interest. "Crises in Iran, North Korea, Iraq and Darfur, not to mention the pressing need for more efficient peacekeeping operations, the rising temperatures of our seas and multiple other transnational threats, demonstrate not only the limits of American unilateral power but also the inability of international institutions designed in the middle of the 20th century to cope with the problems of the 21st."

In other words, a post-Cold War and post-George Bush United States will not have the capacity or the legitimacy to unilaterally take on global crises. But working through the United Nations, as Bush himself tried to do for the past several years, is more often than not a recipe for paralysis, because of the resistance of non-democratic states. Take the past few months: China, helped by Russia, has stopped the Security Council from discussing a humanitarian intervention to rescue the 1.5 million Burmese endangered by the criminal neglect of their government following a cyclone. Strong sanctions against Iran for its refusal to freeze its nuclear program have been blocked by Russia. An attempted U.N. intervention in Darfur is failing, largely because of Chinese and Russian refusal to authorize stronger measures against the government of Sudan.

Whether Obama or McCain, the next president will take office knowing that he inherits the messes in Darfur, Burma and Iran and also that new crises will erupt during his term. If he is unable to respond -- if he, like Bush, ends up watching as tens or hundreds of thousands of people die in a weak or failed state while China and Russia block U.N. action -- he will be harshly judged. That's why McCain has smartly begun to talk about his League of Democracies and promised early action to create it. If Obama is wise, he will make Daalder's Concert of Democracies part of his own campaign.

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