There is a line of thought in international affairs, the democratic peace theory, which suggests democracies never go to war with one another.If you consider only those democracies that are well-established and grant individual rights to their citizens (that is, if you ignore cases like Weimar Germany ), the hypothesis stands up pretty well to historical scrutiny. A corollary of this theory--the idea that if there are more democracies in the world, the U.S. will be safer--was one pillar of the neocon logic that propelled the war in Iraq. As the idea of promoting democracy abroad by force has been highly discredited, John McCain has offered a different variant of these ideas as his boldest foreign policy proposal: the League of Democracies.

The League is to gather some 100 democracies around the world into a new order. In theory, the League might be appealing. It would strengthen the bonds between us and some of our closest allies while forging a new bond with new democracies from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It would make “Western” ideas more credible because of their association with a broad, cross-regional group of like-minded nations. Together, we democracies could advance our common values and band together against common enemies.

If only we could agree on what those values were and who those enemies are. The League of Democracies proposal assumes that a country’s domestic political system will, in large part, determine its foreign policy. Democracies should naturally share points of view and be able to reach quick consensus on how to handle the threats and conflicts of the day.

Yet recent developments suggest, if anything, that democracies are drifting apart rather than converging. Take, as an example, the U.N., where countries vote on a wide range of security, social, and economic issues. Voting patterns there show little reflection of government type. In a 2002 report, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute lamented that he “wish[es]” he could report a “high correlation of voting behavior among democracies” but that, in fact, “the democracies of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, with a few exceptions, have voting patterns that correspond more closely with the dictatorships of their regions than with the United States.”  

Current events have shown that on key matters of U.S. security, democracies do not always share our point of view. We have worked closely with Japan and South Korea on North Korea’s nuclear program, but their history and geography sometimes inform diverging ideas on tactics. South Korea has at times pushed hard--against US resistance--to strengthen ties to and provide support for their northern neighbor. For Japan, but not for us, the fate of anywhere between 17 and 80 Japanese abducted by the North during the 1970s and 1980s is a central and critical issue in the nuclear negotiation. Tokyo was very unhappy last month when the Bush Administration removed the DPRK from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It has been the involvement of undemocratic China that has done the most to move the talks in a positive direction.

McCain said during the first debate with Barack Obama that the League “could impose significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect.” The claim is dubious. Even if League support could be presumed (which is unlikely given that the world’s largest democracy, India, is negotiating with Tehran over a major gas pipeline), a union of democracies would not be enough to deter Tehran’s ambitions. Any negotiation with Tehran will also need Moscow (its arms dealer) and Beijing (its largest customer) to be on board, or Iran will continue to play the major powers off one another.

Even when democratic values themselves are at stake, democracies do not necessarily see eye to eye. There are sharp divisions when it comes to responding to aggressive actions by autocratic governments, for example. The idea that democracies share a collective responsibility to assertively defend vulnerable peoples from aggression does not appear to be shared among leading democracies in the global south. In 2006, for example, Brazil joined Arab governments, Cuba, China, and others to oppose a U.N. resolution condemning the Sudanese government for the genocide in Darfur.  

South Africa is one of Africa’s healthier democracies, and its emergence from apartheid was a historic triumph for freedom. Yet this has translated into little if any common ground between Pretoria and either Washington or the European Union on issues of human rights and democracy. As we’ve noted elsewhere, as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, South Africa adamantly opposed U.N. sanctions on its neighbor, Zimbabwe, after a rigged election kept autocrat Robert Mugabe in power. 

India kept silent late last year during the Burmese junta’s violent crackdown on anti-government protesters, resisting pressure from Washington and Europe to speak out. Delhi’s stance was driven by economic and trade concerns, as well as its need to collaborate with the junta to crack down on insurgents on the countries’ common border. An analysis by the Democracy Coalition Project of pro-democracy resolutions at the U.N.’s Human Rights Council concluded that “governments like South Africa and India ... were outright hostile to such resolutions. ”

In this hemisphere, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has set an example for democratically elected leaders in Bolivia and Ecuador who are actively opposed to the United States. Chavez’s latest maneuver was announcing a strategic partnership with Russia to develop nuclear energy. While McCain clearly has not set his sights on these democratic partners, its not clear what criteria would fence them out of the proposed League.

Deepening cooperation between the U.S. and other democracies remains an important policy goal. Madeleine Albright created the “Community of Democracies,” which now serves as a discussion group at the U.N.  Its impact has been positive, while modest. NATO is comprised solely of democracies and encompasses many of the countries that most reliably see eye to eye with Washington. The inauspiciously acronymed JUSCANZ--Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand--caucuses periodically at the U.N. and has developed common positions on certain human rights questions. All of these efforts are worthwhile, as democracy is the best form of government devised to guarantee universal human rights.

To work effectively with rising democracies, though, Washington policymakers will need to put assumptions of common viewpoints aside, and invest time in understanding how counterparts in Delhi, Pretoria, and Brasilia actually view subjects like democracy promotion and human rights. Barack Obama makes a point of saying he will listen to the world, and that’s what it will take to move forward with these partners.  

Further, while there is no question the world needs to build new institutions, and to renew our existing ones, to solve our 21st century problems, many of those problems--climate change, terrorism, poverty, non-proliferation--cannot be tackled by democracies alone. To address them, we are going to have to sit across the table from some nations that do not share our form of government, like China, Russia and Iran. That’s not exciting. But that’s what’s needed.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Vice President at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise. 

By Nina Hachigian