Again With That “League of Democracies”

For the second consecutive debate, John McCain responded to a question about a possible Iranian threat by referring to the shadowy concept of a “league of democracies.”

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.

There are two parts to this proposed solution: “joining” the hypothetical league, and “effectively abridg[ing]” Iran’s nuclear program. The problem with the first step in this process is that the “League of Democraciesis in fact hypothetical. It does not exist, and, as just about every other proposed member country will tell you, it has very little prospect of actually coming to fruition.

Even if a coalition of “democratic” countries could somehow be cobbled together, proposing this measure as the solution to the Iranian threat would dangerously delay — and ultimately undermine — global efforts to “effectively abridge” Iran’s nuclear program. Creating a “League of Democracies” to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not just a risky endeavor, because of the lack of international enthusiasm for the idea; even if one could muster enough international consensus to begin the process, it would be a time-consuming project, one for which the United States cannot afford to expend its efforts, particularly when Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons is as dangerous as both candidates agree that it is.Before referencing the League of Democracies last night, Senator McCain stressed the importance of “joining with our allies, imposing significant, tough sanctions to modify [Iran’s] behavior.” This is absolutely correct. The thing is, it will not require the construction of a new, unpopular, and only hazily sketched out organization to undertake this policy. Working with our allies through the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency — institutions that our allies have already signed onto and are supportive of — will prove both more feasible and more immediate than the stepwise process of rounding up select countries into what would very likely end up being a weak mechanism for exerting pressure on Iran.

Supporters of a League of Democracies argue that it would be more effective at halting Iranian nuclear activity for principally two reasons: it would somehow harness the powers of democratic-minded states opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran, and it would avoid the threat of a Russian or Chinese veto on the Security Council. Both of these quickly turn out to be misguided. First, as Mark points out, the group currently taking the lead on the Iran issue is in fact a collection of democracies, and the same countries that, one assumes, would be invited — and would likely decline — to join a “League of Democracies” are all already active in these efforts.

As for the threat of a spoiler country vetoing tough action, here the relatively simple maxim of “a country’s domestic form of government does not determine its foreign policy” rears its head — only this time in the form of Manmohan Singh, not Vladimir Putin. China may get much of its oil and natural gas from India, and Russia may be supplying it with its weapons, but, as Nina Hachigian explains, India too has a “strategic partnership” with Iran — as well as rapidly increasing fuel consumption — that would, shall we say, influence its position toward imposing strong measures on a large-scale natural gas supplier. Moreover, we have a much better chance of persuading dissenters, whether they be dictatorships or democracies, by engaging them through an established institution rather than by locking them out in the cold.

I’m not sure whether McCain genuinely believes that a “League of Democracies” is a good idea, whether his foreign policy advisors have coached him to keep bringing it up, or whether it registers a smidgen of support from the American population. While some of his top advisors, such as Robert Kagan, are proponents of the League, and McCain does seem enthusiastic about it, talk of the League has been muted in recent months, which only makes it stranger that he would bring it up in both debates thus far.

My speculation is that McCain is mentioning the “League of Democracies” strategically. It sounds nice, it seems promising on the surface level, and many people may not know just how infeasible and counter-productive it would be. Not delving into the details of the proposal — by simply putting it out there as a means to an end, the link connecting “current situation” and “defeating Iran’s nuclear ambitions” — just serves to further minimize the threat of these looming obstacles, making what will surely be a very difficult process seem much, much too easy.