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LEAGUE OF DEMOCRACIES -- NO: After Iraq, U.S. has no more moral capital

By John Quigley COLUMBUS, Ohio -- John McCain is proposing a "League of Democracies" as a kind of substitute for the United Nations. McCain says that a smaller, more like-minded group of governments can do better -- to deal with humanitarian situ...

By John Quigley

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- John McCain is proposing a "League of Democracies" as a kind of substitute for the United Nations. McCain says that a smaller, more like-minded group of governments can do better -- to deal with humanitarian situations such as the mass displacement in the Darfur region of Sudan and to take military action when necessary.

The criticism of the United Nations is not new. The advantage of the United Nations is that it represents nearly all the countries on the planet. But that is also its disadvantage.

Rarely are all the countries on the same page on any issue. To make matters worse, the United Nations can take military action only if the five major powers agree. That's the veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

If any one of the five balks, the Security Council sits on its hands. So, McCain says that the well-intentioned should get together to do good -- skirting the United Nations. That much sounds good.


A closer look reveals more than a few holes in McCain's idea, however. A League of Democracies could easily become a cover for military intervention by the U.S. and one or two allies. With the Iraq war, we were unable to convince the United Nations to go along, so we did it ourselves, with a little help from a few friends.

The United Nations, for all its blemishes, probably had the better part of wisdom on Iraq. Other governments in the Security Council didn't believe the bogus information about weapons of mass destruction. They understood better than Washington that invading Iraq might not be a walk in the park. They tried to press Iraq to disclose information about weaponry, but at the same time to keep the United States from invading. So, the very mechanism that can inhibit good actions can also avert bad ones.

Just now, most other democracies understand the folly of the Bush administration's contingency plan to invade Iran. They go along with sanctions on Iran, but they probably fear more what we might do if they don't, than what Iran might do with nuclear weapons.

Would a League of Democracies be effective in humanitarian situations? Darfur is the example McCain cites. The problem with Darfur is less that China or Russia might oppose than that it is hard to figure out just what to do.

A League of Democracies might in fact have a harder time than the United Nations. One difficulty has been to coordinate with the African Union in the peace-keeping operation. Would a League of Democracies coordinate more successfully? There is little reason to think that it would.

Mustering moral authority to go against a country such as Sudan would be harder, if anything, when promoted by a group that represents less than the entire community of nations.

McCain is unlikely to find democracies to sign up for his League. Would India or South Africa cast their lot with the capital-exporters -- and former colonizers -- against their fellow Third Worlders? Not likely.

Would even the former colonial powers join? After what Britons have seen of their role in helping the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown might be writing his political obituary if he joins.


Whatever political capital the U.S. had a few years ago, it has spent to the point of bankruptcy, given our debacle in Iraq. Few countries are inclined to follow the U.S. lead. And since we evaded the United Nations to go it alone in Iraq, what would keep us from evading the League?

Public opinion around the world does not look favorably on the United States right now. We should reassess our own approach to dealing with the rest of the world before we try to organize other countries.

Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.

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