A League of Democracies: Doomed to Fail?

Senator John McCain proposes to create a League of Democracies that would unite the world’s democracies around a common mission: to work together “in the cause of peace.” As two former Clinton administration officials responsible for launching a similar but more modest experiment called the Community of Democracies, we couldn’t disagree more with the timing and substance of McCain’s approach.

In our view, McCain’s vision of a common organization devoted to everything from relieving human suffering in Darfur to tackling our environmental crisis and sanctioning Iran is rooted in the past and doomed to failure. It revives a Cold War mentality that pits the good guys (market democracies) against the bad (autocracies). It wrongly assumes that democracies have common interests across a whole host of disparate issues simply because of their common form of political system. This view is not only naïve – it is dangerous.

America’s security lies in fostering an international order that whenever possible engages all states in a common pursuit to confront our most pressing global challenges.

Democracies do have much in common when it comes to their shared interest in a world in which governments respect human rights and executive power is restrained. Yet, as we know from our experience with the Community of Democracies over the last eight years, joining hands with our democratic allies is a lot harder than it sounds, even for the more limited goal of supporting respect for democratic principles.

The original vision of the Community of Democracies endorsed in 2000 was of a coalition of states committed to a democratic path and willing to work together to strengthen democratic practices at home and abroad. Since then, some small progress has been made, despite the diversity of the group’s 120 participants.

Agreement on a set of democratic norms and their importance to sustainable development is stronger now. Decisions on who to invite to the group’s biennial ministerial meetings are more transparent and credible, thanks to advice from a panel of independent experts. A Democracy Caucus at the United Nations meets annually and was instrumental in establishing the UN Democracy Fund to support civil society’s efforts to monitor elections and protect freedom of association.

The overall record, however, is sorely disappointing. The group has failed repeatedly to speak out against attacks on democracy and refuses even to applaud progress in specific countries. It continues to invite states that clearly do not meet the criteria for participation.

The UN Democracy Caucus has been largely missing in action, outmaneuvered repeatedly by other like-minded groups (including some democracies) intent on undermining international scrutiny of human rights. It suffers from a lack of attention and resources, particularly from more established democracies like those in Europe and Japan.

This sorry state of affairs is the result of two main factors. First, it turns out that certain key democracies like India, South Africa, and the Philippines show no desire to break ranks with their domestic constituencies and allies abroad who value protection of national sovereignty and economic relations over respect for democratic norms. More importantly, even our closest allies block any serious progress toward strengthening the Community of Democracies. They view it, incorrectly, as a U.S. plot to undermine and ultimately eliminate the UN. The Bush administration’s disastrous attempts to promote democracy through military invasion in Iraq and regime change in Iran, Cuba and elsewhere have given yet more fodder to the naysayers intent on blocking any initiative made in Washington.

It is hard to imagine how such a global NATO on steroids suggested by McCain could get off the ground. Why would such diverse countries as India, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia and Japan, critical to any functioning League of Democracies, join a new organization in which their interests were not aligned and which would inevitably create major tensions with some of their closest partners?

In the current challenging environment for U.S. leadership in the world, McCain’s proposal to convene a summit meeting of the world’s democracies to tackle every issue under the sun is simply dead on arrival.

A better scenario would be for Portugal, the current chair of the Community of Democracies, to convene a summit meeting in Lisbon to reinvigorate the group around such issues as economic incentives for developing democracies, responding to threats to democracy and cooperation to confront terrorism in ways that respect human rights.

Before going any further with this bad idea, our next president’s advisers ought to ask themselves: What if the United States threw a party only for democracies, and no one showed up?