A League of Their Own: The Rationale for an International Alliance of Democracies

By Grant, Thomas D. | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

A League of Their Own: The Rationale for an International Alliance of Democracies


Grant, Thomas D., The George Washington International Law Review


The Republican nominee for President in 2008, John McCain, proposed that the United States promote a "League of Democracies" (League) to supplement existing international organizations in the task of promoting and consolidating democracy around the world. This was one of the bolder foreign policy proposals articulated during the 2008 presidential election cycle. According to the then Republican-nominee-presumptive,

We need to renew and revitalise our democratic solidarity. We need to strengthen our transatlantic alliance as the core of a new global compact-a League of Democracies-that can harness the great power of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.1

Senator McCain set out the idea of this "new global compact" at the Hoover Institution early in the campaign (May 1, 2007),2 and he reiterated it a number of times. It was a major statement of foreign policy intention. The organizational principle behind it distinguishes the proposed compact from existing efforts to promote democracy through multilateral institutions and from universal organizations, past and present:

This 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.3

By its proposed title, the compact indeed triggers thoughts of the post-World War I League of Nations failed experiment in international organization. The League of Nations, however, was replaced in 1945 by a new organization, the United Nations. Where the League of Nations had the aspiration to include the entire community of states,4 the United Nations achieved it.5 To understand fully the rationale behind the League of Democracies, it is just as important, or more so, to consider the distinctions between such an organization and the present-day universal organization.

As McCain stated, the purposes of the new League would be diverse-from "reliev[ing] human suffering in places like Darfur" to bearing down on "tyrants in Burma or Zimbabwe."6 It also would tackle the main task suggested by its title-promoting democracy, for example, in Ukraine, Serbia, and Thailand.7 Such a new organization would be consistent with American principles of coordinated action in foreign policy leadership: the United States long has sought to cooperate with its allies to multiply the effectiveness of action taken in pursuit of shared objectives.

Arguably, the most salient aspect of the new League, however, would be the logical correlation it would embody between the tasks it would perform and the constituency of states that it would include. The experience of international organization since World War II suggests that the institutions in which the constituent states hold common objectives are the ones most effective in executing their chosen missions. Official declaration of a mission perhaps sets the stage for attempted international action; but it is mere formalism if the states behind the declaration lack a common view and refuse to make a joint commitment respecting the organization's area of activity. …

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