The global order election

As commentators assess the results of the first debate among the (declared) candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2008 US presidential election (check out the summary by Slate’s John Dickerson), it is becoming increasingly clear what the central question of the 2008 election ought to be.

Namely, how can the US, as the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius asks, midwife the complex multipolar order that is coming into being? Is it at all possible for the US, with the help of allies and rivals too, to craft the new global rules of the game?

This question went wholly unaddressed in Thursday night’s debate — as Andrew Sullivan writes, “As for foreign policy, very little nuance, very little subtlety, almost no fresh thinking” — even by Senator John McCain, who gave an address at Stanford’s Hoover Institution two days earlier that spoke directly to this issue. Instead, the debate seems to have been a cordial softball game, with the candidates trying to one-up each other as to who has the greatest claim to being Ronald Reagan’s heir (not surprisingly, perhaps, since the debate was held at the Reagan Library).

Nevertheless, the US and the world need next year’s election to be “about” foreign policy, but not a specific foreign policy issue like “Iraq” or “terrorism.” Rather, the US is in dire need of a national conversation about when and how American power ought to be exercised; the manner in which the US interacts with countries like China, which may be illiberal at home but share an interest in regional and global stability; and the role of democratization in US foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq war.

The US, as the only country in the world with truly global interests matched with global reach (whether politically, economically, or militarily), desperately needs to determine what it wants the next new world order to look like, and how it hopes to achieve its goals — because no other single power can.

The US cannot, of course, shape the new order on its own, but it can present a vision and begin working with other great powers to hammer out a final version; in other words, what is needed is American leadership, not American dominance. As Ignatius wrote, “American power alone is demonstrably unable to achieve world order; we can’t even maintain the peace in Baghdad. But no multilateral coalition has emerged as an alternative.”

As such, it is worth looking at Senator McCain’s remarks on this question.

McCain stated his theme early in his address: “Now it is our generation’s turn to build.” McCain is explicitly interested in institution building, domestically and globally, in a manner similar to the Truman administration in the early years of the cold war, a project that the current administration has almost willfully avoided. (And indeed, McCain paid tribute to Truman throughout the speech.)

Then he made a statement that seems like a no-brainer but in fact sets McCain apart from the Republican field: “Today the talk is of the war on terror, a war in which we must succeed. But the war on terror cannot be the only organizing principle of American foreign policy.”

Finally, McCain outlined his grand proposal for international order: “a league of democracies.” This idea was proposed by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, of the Brookings Institution and the University of Texas respectively, in the January/February issue of The American Interest, and debated by a number of senior foreign policy thinkers in the same and subsequent issues. In short, McCain — and Daalder and Lindsay — called for an organization of democratic allies that would be able to act when and where other international organizations, especially the UN, fail. As McCain said:

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 t hose 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.

In short, to the question of what role democratization should have in American foreign policy, McCain answered strongly in favor of its playing a central role.

But, as Scott Paul writes at The Washington Note — echoing questions raised by discussants in the American Interest — there are serious questions about the desirability of such an organization, and whether it can be formed in the first place. What role would a League of Democracies play in cooperation with authoritarian China or illiberal democratic Russia to manage global order? More fundamentally, is such an organization even possible? An organization of democracies acting as a kind of global posse assumes that every democracy acts in favor of democracies in every face of every foreign policy issue. That’s obviously not the case.

Think of the manifold cases when democracies act in ways that not only don’t further the spread of democracy, but actually hinder it. (Western support for Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf may be the most prominent example at present.) Realpolitik, foreign policy based on the cold calculations of a state’s security interests, remains an essential determinant of foreign policy in every democracy. And then there’s the influence of history, nationalism, identity, religion, and so forth, intangible factors that shape foreign policy in unpredictable ways. (As an Asia scholar, a question that immediately comes to my mind is the Japan-South Korea relationship, where the fact that both are democracies seems to be the least important element.)

And McCain doesn’t even begin to tackle the question of who would qualify, with the implication being that a relatively lax definition of democracy would render the organization too large and unwieldy to be the effective international actor that McCain desires.

So McCain deserves plaudits for daring to think about the future of American leadership in an increasingly multipolar world, but cooperation among democracies is not a panacea for the world’s ills.

Instead, the only way the US will be able to rise to the challenge of the new multipolarity is by becoming more flexible, less reliant on old allies incapable of mustering the will to act, more willing to talk with rivals with which the US competes in some areas while sharing interests in others, and more willing to talk with and listen to all interlocutors in pursuit of a stable, peaceful global order — to ensure, in McCain’s word, “a new global order of peace, a peace that can last not just for a decade but for a century, where the dangers and threats we face diminish, and where human progress reaches new heights.”

But, ultimately, if strength was the watchword of the unipolar moment, then flexibility will be the watchword of the multipolar era that is coming into being.

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