Minor League, Major Problems

The Case Against a League of Democracies

The call to establish a "league of democracies" was one of the hottest policy proposals this past election season. Advocates contended that creating a club open exclusively to the world's liberal democracies would enhance the ability of like-minded states to address the challenges of the twenty-first century. Not since the 1940s, when the United States orchestrated the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods monetary system, have voices on both sides of the aisle called for such an ambitious overhaul of international institutions. Influential advisers to both Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) enthusiastically backed the proposal, and McCain explicitly endorsed the idea. "Rarely," as the journalist Jonathan Rauch has observed, "have liberal idealism and neoconservative realism converged so completely."

The proposal to launch a league of democracies has its merits. The size and diversity of the UN's membership hinder the organization's ability to coordinate timely and effective action. And whether the task at hand is containing Iran's nuclear program or stopping genocide in Darfur, China and Russia regularly block action by the UN Security Council. In contrast, liberal democracies are generally prepared to work together to pursue common interests. When it comes to political will, economic resources, and military strength, the world's democracies constitute a uniquely fraternal grouping of states.

Nonetheless, the next occupant of the White House should shelve the idea of establishing a league of democracies. Such a club is not needed to secure cooperation among liberal democracies -- they are already regular partners -- and it would draw new lines between democracies and nondemocracies, thus compromising their relations just when adapting the international system to the rise of illiberal powers is becoming a paramount challenge. Contrary to the expectations of its advocates, moreover, a league would expose the limits of the West's power and appeal, revealing the constraints on solidarity among democracies, eroding the legitimacy of the West, and arresting the global spread of democracy. With its marginal upsides and dramatic downsides, establishing a league of democracies would not be a wise investment for the next president, whose time and political capital will be severely taxed by an economic downturn at home and abroad and by conflict in the Middle East.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

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