05/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Call a League a League

In his op-ed in this week's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl mulls both the origins and the merits of John McCain's idea to create what he calls a "League of Democracies" (the flaws of which UN Dispatch has previously discussed here, here, and here).

Beyond the allure of what he oversimplifies as its bipartisan roots, the idea of a "League of Democracies" most appeals to Jackson Diehl for its tantalizing appearance of convenience. In addressing crises like those in Darfur, Burma, and Zimbabwe, the League would provide a useful mechanism for skirting the pesky threat of a Chinese or Russian veto in the UN Security Council. Diehl therefore endorses McCain's proposal as "not a utopian plan but a practical tool that the next president is very much going to need." Diehl writes:

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.

The innate flaw in this logic is the idea that a world divided will be one more capable to deal with great global challenges. It is ironic that Diehl calls it a "post-Cold War" world, when what he is actually endorsing is a return to that divide, with Russia and China on one side and the U.S. and its Western European allies on the other. In this scenario, "paralysis" would be the least of our worries. Sanctioning interventions with only the accession of Western "democracies" would be a great deal more likely to stir up feelings of resentment, confrontation, and lingering -- and not irrelevant -- colonial sensitivities than to consolidate any sort of viable legitimacy or ensure any reasonable prospects of success.

In the case of Darfur, while deployment of a peacekeeping force has been unacceptably slow, it was only through concerted international pressure that the over 9,000 blue helmets currently on the ground have been deployed. Under a League of Democracies, very few of these peacekeepers, most of whom come from countries that might not have sufficiently "democratic" credentials, would even be in Darfur at all. Moreover, the obstructionist tactics with which Sudan has stalled deployment would be no less pronounced under a League of Democracies, as the threat of forcing unwelcome Western troops into the country would likely galvanize even more overtly hostile opposition. Senator McCain claims that his proposed organization would end the genocide in Darfur by 2013, but, lacking both meaningful diplomatic influence and actual troops to deploy effectively, it is unclear how he plans to achieve this. Would he propose sending American troops into Darfur? Would the League result in French or German deployments?

There is no doubt that the UN works at a slower pace than many hope it would, but that is the price to be paid for the global consensus that it represents. That consensus was necessary for getting troops on the ground in Darfur and for forcing North Korea to disarm. And it will be central to negotiating a robust successor to Kyoto, among many other challenges. None of these accomplishments would have been or will be possible without the participation of the Chinese. Excluding the Russians, the Chinese, and others from international institutions does not change the fact that we need a global consensus; it just makes it harder to obtain.

Global challenges are, unfortunately, challenging. The remedy for the UN's ailments is not for us to take our ball and go home to what Diehl and McCain believe would be a sycophantic chorus. Legitimacy, unfortunately, is not in the eyes of the beholder. We do not get to choose which countries we need to work with to solve global problems. An international body that does not include some of the world's most influential powers has already been tried -- it, too, coincidentally, was called a "League," and its failure reminds us that, to be successful, diplomacy must be a game for all, not just for the few.