John McCain has a big idea about how to deal with America’s friends: unite them in a “League of Democracies.” Barack Obama has a big idea about how to deal with our enemies: talk to them. These proposals—alternately praised and ridiculed by commentators across the political spectrum—have produced the first real foreign-policy debate of the long presidential campaign. Even George Bush, sounding alarms about “appeasement,” has weighed in.
Yet all this controversy has missed the main point. Whether the candidates’ ideas are good or bad depends, above all, on whether the United States has the power to make them work. Because the Bush administration has weakened America’s global position, it will leave its successor less freedom to embrace new ideas, even some good ones.
Take McCain’s plan, which should have a lot going for it. As he reminds us, democracies have always been our most reliable allies. Bringing more of them under a single tent could pay major dividends for American policy. And it would show the United States intends to listen more to other countries’ views, especially those of our disgruntled European allies.
So what’s the problem? It’s not, as some critics claim, that democracies often disagree with one another, or that Washington has to work with autocracies, too. Had this proposal surfaced at the beginning of Bush’s tenure rather than at its end, such objections would have mattered far less than they do today.