THE BLOG
11/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Happy U.N. Day!

In case you didn't realize, today is the 60th U.N. Day, a day celebrating the "anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations   Charter." Recently the U.N. has been getting a pretty bad wrap, especially in conservative circles, where John McCain has been leading a charge to create a new institution, the League of Democracies, to make up for the U.N.'s perceived deficiencies.  McCain would attempt to use this non-existent institution to act where the U.N. security council is either incapable or unwilling.  In his mind, the League of Democracies would halt Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, confront rising non-democratic countries like China and Russia over their problematic behavior, and serve as a vehicle for promoting democratic values worldwide. Some of these intentions are well placed, and the need for a re-examination of multilateral institutions is real, but a League of Democracies, especially in John McCain's hands will in no way address this imperative.  In fact, it is seriously and dangerously flawed.   On this, the 60th celebration of U.N. day and the 63rd anniversary of the establishment of the U.N Charter, it is time to jettison the League of Democracies.

Reasons for objecting to League of Democracies are many, especially McCain's vision of it. For one, critical threats to our national security, such as Iran, which every day draws closer to a nuclear weapon, will not wait for the creation of a new international institution.  In addition, using the League of Democracies as a tool to marginalize also carries serious problems, especially when it comes to Russia, whose cooperation is vital for U.S. interests.  Brandishing this League for confrontational purposes also evokes the Bush administration's failures, and does nothing to reduce the taint now associated with democracy promotion.  On top of that, support for the League's establishment is virtually non-existent, in part because the institution is redundant, and may even undermine existing institutions built for the same purpose.  Finally, the idea is fundamentally flawed, for it mistakes values for core national interests, and is likely to unravel when tested. 

Pressing challenges cannot wait for John McCain to create a League of
Democracies.
  John McCain has suggested that he will bring the
collective weight of the League of Democracies to bear to confront Iran
on its pursuit of nuclear weapons.  "I think, joining with our allies
and friends in a League of Democracies, that we can effectively abridge
[Iran's] behavior, and hopefully they would abandon this quest that
they are on for nuclear weapons."  Perhaps well intentioned, it is
questionable whether such an institution can be created in time to
thwart Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology: "Iran has substantially
improved the efficiency of the centrifuges it has constructed to
produce enriched uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency said
Monday, an indication that it has overcome some of the technical
challenges that had plagued its enrichment program." 

A League of Democracies would be a tool to isolate and confront
countries like Russia, whose cooperation is vital to U.S. interests.
  One of McCain's principle
justifications for creating the League of Democracies is that it could
be used to confront and marginalize uncooperative countries like Russia
or China.  This spring, Bloomberg News reported that McCain "calls for
forging a 'League of Democracies' to confront Putin and hand-picked
successor Dmitry Medvedev, who takes over tomorrow, on Russian threats
against former Soviet republics and rollbacks of domestic freedoms."
This position continues a dangerous trend exhibited by the McCain
campaign of raising tensions with between the U.S. and Russia, a policy
which even McCain's own advisor, Henry Kissinger, rejects, arguing that
the "drift toward confrontation must be ended."  Former Secretary of State James baker shared Kissinger and Shultz's assessment, saying: "Look at it [Russia] in a strategic context and not tactically...we have some
big-picture issues that we need to be conscious of when we think about
our future with Russia, and we ought to cooperate with them where we can."

By using the League as a vehicle for confrontation, McCain would
enhance the taint associated with democracy promotion on account of the
policies of the Bush Administration.
"After the ideological excesses of
the Bush administration, the United States cannot win back its good
standing abroad with grand schemes foisted on an unwilling world.
Rather, decision-makers in Washington should opt for pragmatism,
competence, and sobriety. In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, they
should be mindful of the limits of U.S. power and the dangers that
accompany efforts to recast the world in the United States' image. To
be sure, the West should continue its efforts to spread liberal
democracy, strengthen the rule of law, and enforce the protection of
human rights. But democracies should pursue these important goals as
they usually have -- through example, economic incentives, diplomatic
engagement, and regional integration."

Support for a new international organization is dim among democratic
partners in Europe.
  As Europe expert Charles Kupchan observes in the
latest issue of Foreign Affairs : "Even if most Americans agree, many
in the rest of the world do not. A League is likely to lack legitimacy
not just among autocracies but also among Europe's democracies, for
whom approval from the UN Security Council is the litmus test of
legitimate action. As Gideon Rachman has written in the Financial
Times, 'Almost all of America's closest democratic allies have deep
reservations about a League of Democracies. The Europeans are committed
to the UN and would be loath to join an alliance that undermined it.'"

Institutions that serve the same purpose of the League of Democracies
are already in place.
  There are already institutions in place, such as the Community of Democracies and NATO, which serve similar a similar purpose as would the League of Democracies -
creating another institution would be redundant, and possibly
counter-productive.  Realist foreign policy scholar Andrew Bacevich
dismissed the idea as duplicative, calling the League "a new NATO
without the clout or the cohesion of the old."  Rather than create
another institution that deals with democracies, far better, according
to democracy promotion expert Thomas Carothers, for the U.S. to demonstrate "a commitment to
working on a true partnership basis and to strengthening existing
multilateral institutions that deal in different ways with democracy
issues, such as the United Nations, the Organization of American
States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe."

The League of Democracies, at its core, is conceptually flawed, confusing political
systems with foreign policy interests.
Thomas Carothers succinctly articulates this objection: "The core flaw
in the thinking behind a League of Democracies is the notion that
democracies all around the world, by virtue of being democracies,
substantially share interests on multiple fronts and can work
effectively together in a large group on that basis.  Democracies, like
all countries, base their foreign policies on multiple elements of
their identity, not just the character of their political system but
their regional identity, their religious and ethnic makeup, their
economic position, their historical tradition, and much more. The
notion that a democracy's foreign policy will be primarily defined on a
wide range of issues by its status as a democracy is a misleading and
possibly dangerous form of foreign policy reductionism."  An example of
this dichotomy is India, which is a democracy, but which has a
"strategic partnership" with Iran, an autocratic country.

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