Home > News > Theory, Politics and the League of Democracies
154 views 8 min 0 Comment

Theory, Politics and the League of Democracies

- July 30, 2008

In 1991-92, political science theory, campaign politics and global trends converged, and Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team stressed the importance of democracy when discussing America’s attitudes toward other countries. It was a way to differentiate the Arkansas governor from incumbent George H.W. Bush, who was charged with being too soft on China and too cozy with Gorbachev. It’s rare that theory gets so ingrained in policy conversations. (Other examples include balance of power, which had more play in the 1970s than the 1990s, and bureaucratic politics, which, although dismissed by many academics, is taken as a given by most of official Washington.) But Democratic Peace theory was all the rage in the Clinton years.

Since a signature foreign policy theme of Senator John McCain’s is the creation of a League of Democracies, and since that idea is one that has been supported by top Obama advisers such as Anthony Lake, it’s worth thinking back on the theory/politics/global trends convergence in 1992 regarding democracy promotion compared with the theory, politics and global trends behind creating a league of democracies.

In 1991-92, democracy was flourishing – communism had collapsed, and states throughout Central and Eastern Europe were rushing to join the West. It was a no-brainer to accept that regime change mattered – former enemies now wanted to be allies. Russia looked like it was on a democratic track. Citizens in places like Mongolia and Namibia were braving long distances to polling places (and extreme weather when they arrived and stood in line for hours), showing that an enthusiasm for democracy wasn’t limited to Western culture (where people likely wouldn’t brave either the long distances or the extreme weather).

Not only was democracy flourishing, so was Democratic Peace theory. So it made sense that promoting democracy would become part of the policy mainstream. But there’s another reason democracy promotion became central to the policy ideas articulated by the Clinton campaign and then the administration that followed. As Derek Chollet and I argue in our book, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, Clinton’s advisers believed an emphasis on democracy promotion could be a political winner. The goal was to bring back to the Democratic fold the neo-conservatives (yes, those neo-conservatives) who had left the party in the 1970s and 1980s and had supported Republicans for president in 1980, ’84 and ’88. The neo-conservatives were unhappy that George H.W. Bush wasn’t Ronald Reagan, and a number of prominent members of that community ended up endorsing Clinton. So, with theory to buttress the idea, a political rationale for pushing it, and a seeming rush by former authoritarian regimes to join the democratic fold, Clinton in his foreign policy speeches during the campaign – a campaign that admittedly wasn’t about foreign policy – made sure to highlight the need to do more than George H.W. Bush to help fledgling democracies. Clinton’s 1994 National Security Strategy (much less noticed than George W. Bush’s 2002 call for a “balance of power in favor of freedom) emphasized a strategy of democratic engagement and enlargement.

Well, here we are in 2008. McCain says we should have a league of democracies. So do leading Democratic foreign policy experts such as Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay. “Democracies,” they wrote in the American Interest awhile back, “share the most important value of all—a common dedication to ensuring the life, liberty and happiness of free peoples. And democracies constitute the world’s most capable states in terms of military potential, economic capability and political weight. A Concert that brings the established democracies together into a single institution will be best able to meet the many challenges that beset the new age of global politics.”

Daalder and Lindsay make a powerful case. And thanks to McCain’s support for the idea, the most recent issues of key policy journals (e.g., Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy and World Affairs) all have at least one article asking whether or not the idea makes sense. Having argued in Foreign Affairs two years ago with Daalder that we need to include non-European democracies in NATO, I’m sympathetic to the notion of a more general effort to organize the democracies.

Those who supported the war in Kosovo know that Clinton could never have gotten U.N. Security Council authorization for that effort and thus went through NATO, which at the time the war started had just grown to an organization of nineteen democratic countries. More recently, seeing Russia and China veto the U.N. effort to sanction Mugabe reminds us once again of the problem that the major autocracies can pose.

But South Africa also voted against sanctions against the rulers of Zimbabwe. And that raises a theoretical question: would “a common dedication to ensuring the life, liberty and happiness of free peoples” lead to a convergence of foreign policy preferences among states in league? Much academic literature has been devoted to studying whether established democracies don’t go to war with one another because of their political systems. We don’t have the same body of literature that can speak to the notion of the foreign policy actions that a league of democracies might take.

Nor do we have either the global trends or the political imperatives. The United States has lost both legitimacy and relative power since the early 1990s; Russia isn’t democratic, and it doesn’t look like democracy is sweeping the Middle East. It’s not even clear that any major democracies would answer McCain’s call to form a league – and there’s not going to be a league if no one wants to join. But there is also a lack of political payoff. McCain has had the support of the neo-conservatives ever since he backed the Kosovo war in 1999, and they certainly like hearing his charge for the league. But how much does that really get him? Clinton needed to find a few issues that he could use to attack an experienced foreign policy president. In the early 1990s, IR theory, global trends and political calculations by the New Democrats all pointed in one direction when it came to discussions about democracy. That doesn’t seem to be the case in 2008.