[the League of Democracies] would not be like the universal-membership and failed League of Nations' of Woodrow Wilson but much more like what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace. The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur. It could join to fight the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa and fashion better policies to confront the crisis of our environment. It could provide unimpeded market access to those who share the values of economic and political freedom, an advantage no state-based system could attain. It could bring concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe, with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval. It could unite to impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions. It could provide support to struggling democracies in Ukraine and Serbia and help countries like Thailand back on the path to democracy.McCain goes on to note that while the League "would not supplant the United Nations or other international organizations," it would be "the one organization where the world's democracies could come together to discuss problems and solutions on the basis of shared principles and a common vision of the future."
I think this is an excellent idea. In a series of posts last summer (here, here, and here) I wrote about this very concept, arguing that the democratic states of the world need to create, perhaps using the WTO and NATO as foundations, a meta-institution that can spread western values, enforce international laws and norms, maintain peace and security, and bolster the international economic order. The general vision is to connect the various economic and political institutions together, whereby membership in one is predicated on adherence to commitments in the others. Thus, violating the NPT or the genocide convention is met by punishment in the WTO. Such a strategy is based on the logic of engagement which has been working reasonably well in China, where the desire to participate in and receive the benefits of the international economic order (and the fear of the economic damage that would result from being excluded) creates incentives to maintain a status quo posture. Such a network, or meta-institution, could go a long way in dealing with the issues with which the UN is incapable of dealing.
McCain's speech has already met with loud derision from those who, for whatever reason, fear seeing the UN lose any bit of power or standing. Scott Paul over at The Washington Note writes that "such an organization is doomed to fail for a number of reasons." The reasons?
First, the universal membership of the United Nations gives it a unique legitimacy among international actors. When it acts or speaks as one, it does so with a power that cannot be matched by any other institution - a power that, according to the RAND Corporation, makes it the most effective nation-building organization in the world. A new organization may be more efficient and take collective action more readily, but it will be viewed with suspicion by outsiders and cannot possibly succeed.
Second, splitting the democracies from the non-democracies is the surest way to increase the rift between the two camps. At the United Nations, countries have to care about all global problems. That's a big reason why rich countries are starting to pay more attention to global poverty and poor countries are starting to pay attention to global terrorism.
Finally - and this is McCain's major mistake, too - Bayefsky and company somehow think that the United States is capable of shaping a new world order all on its own. Even in the nascent Community of Democracies, an up-and-coming organization dedicated to helping build democratic institutions, the U.S. must tread lightly to get what it wants.
As I have noted before, the UN's legitimacy is bogus. Yes, the UN is good at doing a number of things, but those things are merely where the interests of states coincide. By virtue of being the only truly global institution, the UN is able to bring together lots of different perspectives. But, the UN's legitimacy rests on the notion of sovereign equality, which fundamentally undermines the UN's ability to deal with the serious problems of international politics.
As to the point about dividing the international community, there's something to that concern. But, every decision has its costs and consequences. If the community was only based on being democratic, this could be a problem, but if it was more based on status quo behavior and economic openness, that problem becomes minimized. Engagement and globalization have already had a powerful effect on China's political situation, and promises to continue to drive that country in a positive direction. It's true, regarding point three, that the US can't go it alone in such an endeavor. But using the WTO as a foundation would avoid that problem as well.
This is an idea that needs to be taken seriously. The UN is simply not capable of doing the job that the international community needs it to do. Perhaps a new framework is possible. I don't know whether I like McCain for president...but I do like this idea.