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Foreign Policy Myths Debunked | The Nation

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Foreign Policy Myths Debunked

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Myth 8. A League of Democracies would create a global coalition for peace and freedom and would enable the United States and its democratic allies to intervene to solve humanitarian and other crises when the UN Security Council is paralyzed.

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The creation of a League of Democracies is one of the central pillars of McCain's foreign policy. Several leading Obama advisers, including former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution, also support the idea. Despite its bipartisan appeal, the notion has several insuperable problems.

First, many leading democracies would be reluctant to join such a league because it would exclude China and Russia and undermine the UN. And after their difficult experience with the Bush administration over Iraq, many of these same countries would not welcome another high-profile US initiative that seeks to tie democracy promotion to Washington's national security agenda.

Second, a League of Democracies would be no more effective than other organizations in solving humanitarian problems like those in Burma and Darfur or in preventing nuclear proliferation. Large, newly developed democracies like Brazil, India, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa are as protective of national sovereignty as China and Russia, in some cases more so, and are unlikely to support US-led interventions. And a League of Democracies would weaken more inclusive organizations, like the UN Security Council, thereby making it more difficult to solve the many international conflicts that would require China's and Russia's cooperation.

Third, the promotion of a League of Democracies would be polarizing and would create a global divide between a group of self-selected democracies and more authoritarian governments. This would reverse a twenty-year process of integrating China and Russia into the international system and reducing great power conflicts. It would also likely provoke efforts by China and Russia to strengthen organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as geopolitical alliances to counterbalance the West.

The best way to advance peace and security is to breathe new life into the UN by reforming the Security Council to better reflect today's realities. In particular, that means enlarging the council to include emerging powers like India and Brazil. We need a more inclusive global forum that enables major--and minor--powers to deal with common problems, not a less inclusive new organization that through exclusion would make common action more difficult.

Myth 9. Globalization has strengthened the economy, and we cannot avoid it by hiding behind protectionist walls.

Free-trade Republicans associated with McCain and neoliberal Democrats seeking to influence Obama's economic policies regularly trot out this notion to tar, as "protectionists" and "defeatists," progressives who question current trade and investment policies. They go on to argue that American prosperity depends on embracing free trade and globalization.

But the global integration of the past decade has not benefited the US economy. This is most evident in the erosion of America's tradable goods sector, as reflected by the large trade deficit and by the loss of millions of middle-class manufacturing jobs. It is also evident in the decline in family incomes over the past seven years despite rising worker productivity and by the increase in income and wealth inequality to levels not seen since the 1920s.

The problem is not with the idea of global economic integration per se but with the policies that have been pursued in its name. These policies have shortchanged investment at home by catering to the interests of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street and have indulged in the unfair trade practices of neo-mercantilist economies, which suppress workers' wages and thus the basic needs of their populations.

The pattern of economic growth these policies produced is undesirable as well as unsustainable. It is not sustainable because it was too dependent on debt-financed consumption and a series of asset bubbles in the United States, which in part were caused by the oversaving and underconsumption of production-oriented economies like China's and Japan's. With the bursting of the housing and credit bubbles, US consumers are no longer in a position to be the main driver of world economic growth. Other large economies will have to do more to provide their own demand.

Thus the nature of global economic integration will change, and with it the structure and rules of the global economy. The goal must not be to preserve free trade as it was practiced over the past decade or so but to create a global system of trade and finance built on rising wages and growing middle classes in developed and developing economies. Above all, American prosperity depends not on preserving globalization and free trade but on improving the quality of our infrastructure, enhancing the skills of our workers, strengthening our institutions of science and research, and reforming our financial system to serve the real economy.

Myth 10. The world needs American leadership.

The call for the United States to lead the world is a staple of both political campaigns. Yet understandably, much of the rest of the world is more skeptical, if not outright resistant, to Washington's global leadership than at any time since the end of World War II. What has passed as leadership in recent years too often has been swollen rhetoric about American greatness and pious dictates about how other countries should organize their economic and political systems, not leadership to solve common problems. Indeed, on issues where American leadership has been most needed, like resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reducing nuclear weapons or halting global climate change, Washington has been largely absent or downright obstructionist.

On these issues, American leadership will still be required in the period ahead. But to say that the world needs our leadership ignores the fact that much of the rest of the planet--China, India, Russia, South Korea, the countries of Latin America, even our European allies--has become accustomed to a world in which the United States has been preoccupied with Iraq and in which the rest has had more freedom to shape the politics and economies of their regions. And much of the world has done just fine without American leadership.

Neither campaign has grasped the central lesson of the Bush era: the world does not need strong US leadership so much as it needs constructive US participation as a great power. On a whole range of global issues, from climate change to stopping North Korea's nuclear program--even on the question of a peace between Israel and Syria--other powers and new coalitions of transnational NGOs and intergovernmental agencies have become leaders and have an ownership stake. They would welcome the United States to the fold, but they would not cede all leadership to Washington. Indeed, they understand that there will be clear limits to American power and leadership in the years ahead, as the United States digests the cost of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge for the next administration, then, is not how to restore American leadership but how to share these responsibilities in an increasingly multipolar world, and thus free up the energy and resources needed to rebuild American society.

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