McCain's "League," and Obama's Debate Dilemma

With the last debate presidential coming up, Barack Obama will have a final chance to take a forceful swing at what is perhaps John McCain's potentially most radical idea: the creation of a "league of democracies" that critics say could effectively subvert the United Nations.

McCain says he intends to create a new international organization, composed of perhaps 100 similarly governed countries, that acts to promote and solidify common values.

He has mentioned the idea in both prior debates. Notably, there's been no direct comment from Obama. And in a presidential campaign, it's a striking thing to have one candidate not take shots at the other's big foreign policy idea.

McCain has said the League would not "supplant" the United Nations, though neoconservatives have suggested with approval that it could do just that. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, who has been advocating such a new coalition for years, has remarked with glee that it could "kill" the U.N. One outstanding question remains whether McCain envisions such an organization having a military role. He has hedged on that one.

One could easily imagine Obama stepping forward and saying, "Blowing up the international order is more Bush cowboyism. Americans are sick of that." Of course, given Obama's surging poll numbers, there may be no need for him to do this. And there's a real risk for him in frontally criticizing efforts at "democracy."

But so far, Obama won't criticize the League idea directly in the debates, and the reasons behind it lead into the quicksand that is the future of American foreign policy.

First of all, several of Obama's top foreign policy advisors have actually advocated a similarly themed "concert of democracies," an organization that would look something like NATO, only perhaps with India, Brazil, Japan, Australia and other serious players involved.

Conceived originally by liberal theorists, a new global coalition composed of the world's democracies has found backers on both sides of the aisle, from Obama advisers Tony Lake and Ivo Daalder, to McCain backer and foreign policy theorist Robert Kagan. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright actually formed an international organization along these lines just before the Clinton administration left office, but it has never really exerted power.

Liberal and conservative foreign policy types disagree about how much a new league or concert of democracies should undercut the U.N. Nevertheless, a new Washington semi-consensus has emerged in the last decade that Russia and China should not be able to veto anything they please at the U.N. Security Council, and creating a way to bypass them is the right thing to do.

Dealing with situations like those in Burma, Zimbabwe, Darfur, or more controversially, Iran, may require severe sanctions or intervention. Given that China and Russia will always oppose such actions, the United States needs to be able to lead an effective coalition that has at least partial global legitimacy. Or so the consensus logic goes.

When in the first debate McCain raised the prospect of a "league" to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama had only this glancing retort:

"I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies, but have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon."

In other words, in the case of Iran, a league of democracies would not be effective, since non-democracies also hold the cards. The Obama team has said that it will be pragmatic and nimble, assembling global coalitions around specific issues, and on Iran it believes apparently that some uneasy bargains with Russia and China will be necessary.

However, the reality is that an Obama administration might very well advocate a league or concert of democracies, as part of a broad tool kit. And it would be easier certainly for a globally popular Obama - with a Democratic Senate to sign off - to assemble a new coalition, than it would be for a more overtly hawkish McCain administration.

Beyond this tactical campaign game, though, is an indication of a very uncertain future for U.S. foreign policy. Whether it's a President Obama or a President McCain, the new commander-in-chief will inherit diplomatic tools and language that have been degraded.

President Bush co-opted the sort of grand-style idealism of spreading democracy voiced by Woodrow Wilson. But with the litany of Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and more attached to "democracy promotion," the coin of the realm has been devalued. Can any U.S. leader now go around the world lecturing about democracy, or assembling causes around democracy, without other countries flinching? That remains to be seen.

Moreover, as Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out, democracies themselves don't agree on everything, and oftentimes the U.S. gets along better with dictatorships (Saudi Arabia or Jordan, for example) than democracies like Brazil or Argentina. He argues that a League of Democracies "could aggravate rather than alleviate global sensitivities about the close association between U.S. democracy promotion and the U.S. global security agenda."

The very idea of forming a new league or concert is meant to cope with an emerging future, with an ascendant Russia and China. But of course it evokes America's deep past. It's a deliberate echo of Wilson's League of Nations idea.

Almost 90 years ago, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a political enemy of Wilson's, felt the League's charter gave away too much sovereignty - and was dangerously pie-in-the-sky - and led Republicans in a successful revolt against it.

When McCain first articulated his own vision of a new League in 2007, he said he did not intend it to employ Wilson's idea of "universal membership." Rather, McCain said he wanted to go with "what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace." So, history is clearly at work here in McCain's mind.

Roosevelt and Lodge were close friends, and the two conspired to destroy Wilson's League of Nations, with Lodge leading the cause as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and Roosevelt advising from the sidelines. (Joe Biden now holds Lodge's old chairmanship. Imagine a Senate "League" showdown sequel: McCain as Wilson, and Biden leading the "irreconciliables" to destroy it.)

Here we have history turned on its head.

The new Teddy Roosevelt, McCain, is reprocessing Woodrow Wilson's idealism into what he claims is the "truest form of realism." Obama, the more proper heir to Wilson, is showing a little Lodgian realism. And given all this talk of new leagues and concerts, the U.N. - the fulfillment of the original League of Nations dream - must be worried about an eviction notice at its New York headquarters.