An Unwanted League

By Thomas Carothers
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A puzzle of globalization is that despite the astonishing growth in communication and information flows, Washington lives in a bubble, seeing the world through its own lens, being surprised and disappointed again and again when the world does not conform to U.S. expectations. President Bush's foreign policy is a study in the bubble approach, marked by the constant unsuccessful projection of ideas made in the USA onto unruly foreign realities. A major question for the next administration is whether it can move out of the bubble and more effectively connect the United States to the world.

In this regard, the declarations and debates about foreign policy in the presidential campaign so far are not especially reassuring. One of the most visible proposals, the calls by experts on both sides of the political aisle and by Sen. John McCain for the establishment of a League of Democracies to tackle the world's problems, is an example of continued thinking within the bubble.

A punishing side effect of Bush's policies abroad has been the despoilment of democracy promotion. Abuses of prisoners and detainees at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere have undercut America's standing as a defender of human rights. The constant identification of democracy promotion with the Iraq intervention and other regime-change policies has besmirched the very concept in the eyes of many people around the world.

As a result, the last thing people in other countries are seeking from the next administration is a high-profile initiative tying democracy promotion to the global U.S. security agenda. The almost complete absence of any welcoming responses from outside the United States to the calls for a league underscores this fact.

The idea of a league of democracies rests on the belief that democracies, by virtue of being democracies, have such common interests and perspectives that they will be able to act in unison on global problems. Yet most countries do not base their foreign policy primarily on the orientation of their political system. Instead, their actions reflect a constellation of diverse factors including regional identity, economic needs, historical traditions and religious outlook.

Consequently, democracies can and do disagree seriously on basic matters. The United States does not, as Jackson Diehl suggested [op-ed, May 19], meet resistance at the United Nations to its policy initiatives only from nondemocratic states such as Russia and China. Most major developing-country democracies, such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa, differ deeply with United States, for example, on the question of interventionism as well as on trade policy, the war on terrorism and much else. Attempting to bind them together into a league with the United States would not change that. Yet excluding these countries from a league would render it a hollow, hypocritical institution. Also, if memory serves, wasn't it some of Europe's most established democracies that opposed the United States on Iraq? Would they, too, be left out in the interest of a league amenable to approving future U.S. interventions?

Moreover, non-democracies are valuable partners on many pressing issues. Qatar oversaw the recent Lebanon negotiations. Egypt is brokering important talks between the clashing Palestinian sides. Russia will be crucial to any solution on the Iran nuclear issue. China is key to progress on Burma. How would a new international institution aimed at fostering international peace and security benefit by excluding all of these countries?

Proponents of a league only rarely mention the Community of Democracies, created by the United States in 2000, even though it closely parallels the proposed League of Democracies. They don't speak of it because the community has been a serious disappointment, producing much talk but little action. Its weak record is not, as some suggest, due to the fact that a few autocratic governments are included. Rather, it reflects the reality that most democracies are unwilling to follow the United States in challenging national sovereignty when it comes to pushing for democracy.

The next administration does need to relaunch U.S. democracy promotion and rebuild the legitimacy of U.S. global action generally. It should do so, however, by breaking out of the Washington bubble. This requires listening seriously to others and seeing the world as it actually is. If it does so, it will find no appetite for a grand new U.S.-led institution operating under an ideological mantle. Instead, it will find a world waiting for the United States to clean up its own act on the law and rights; pursue democracy promotion as a means of advancing broad principle rather than U.S. influence and strength; and seek partnerships, agreements and negotiations on the basis of shared interests with all countries looking to move forward on matters of common international concern.

The writer is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and directs its Democracy and Rule of Law Program.

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