American idealism gone wrong

US Republican presidential candidate John McCain has proposed a radical new initiative. In his first year as president he would call a summit to set up a League of Democracies. The League would be equipped with a formidable military capacity, based in part on NATO, and in part on the ‘new quadrilateral security partnership’ in the Pacific between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Needless to say neither Russia nor China would be invited to join the League: indeed McCain would exclude Russia from the G8.

Why is such a new politico-military presence needed? After all, we already have the United Nations. The League is necessary, argues McCain, because in matters vital to the United States, such as fighting Islamic terrorism, humanitarian intervention, and spreading liberty, democracy, and free markets, the US and its democratic partners need to be able to act without getting permission from the UN (ie. from Russia and China.) In other words, the League’s main purpose would be marginalise the role of Russia and China in world affairs.

The criticism of McCain’s plan is obvious. It would set up a new Cold War between states labelled democracies and autocracies.. This is not only dangerous, but incoherent. First, Russia and China do not ‘threaten’ the ‘free world’ with a powerful ideology and massive armed forces as they arguably did during the Cold War. The Russian and Chinese political systems are not intended for export. Second, the democracies are themselves divided on how to deal with such issues as Islamic terrorism or genocide in Darfur: it was France, after all, which led the opposition in the Security Council to the US invasion of Iraq. The UN protects all states against lawless behaviour, including by the United States.

Finally, on issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change, the US needs Russia’s and China’s help.. How likely is it to get it by stigmatising Russia and China as pariahs? (China must learn to behave ‘responsibly’, McCain declares with breath-taking condescension.)

Nevertheless, in his blundering way McCain has raised the central question in international relations today. On the one side are those who broadly believe in the doctrine of ‘live and let live’. They accept the pluralism of states, systems, and values as a fact of life; and while they believe that some systems and values are better than others they do not wish to put peace at risk by forcing their views on the world. . While Russia and China, for obvious reasons, are the main state representatives of this view today, it has a long ancestry in the history of western thought, rooted in the view that all human institutions are inherently imperfect.

On the other side, are those who believe that it is the west’s mission to spread the gospel of light to all the dark places of the earth.Today, the United States is the champion of this view, and McCain gave it eloquent expression. The United States was built for a purpose –to serve ‘eternal and universal principles’. It is the indispensable nation, the ‘shining city on a hill’. Its God-given task is to build an ‘enduring global peace on the foundations of freedom, security, prosperity and hope’.Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are much more cautious than McCain in their approach to foreign policy, but there is no reason to doubt that they share his underlying vision.

In between, are the chastened nations of Western Europe, who broadly share American values, but who have learnt something of the patience of politics. In the next phase of international relations, it is on the Europeans we will have to rely to rein in the American fantasy of the ‘shining city on a hill’.