A puzzle of globalization is that despite the astonishing growth in global communication and information flows, Washington still lives in a bubble, seeing the world through its own lens, being surprised and disappointed again and again when the world does not conform to U.S. expectations.  President Bush's foreign policy is a study in the bubble approach, marked by the constant unsuccessful projection of made-in-the-U.S. ideas onto unruly foreign realities.  A major question for the next administration is whether it can move beyond the bubble and more effectively connect the United States to the world.

The declarations and debates about foreign policy in the presidential campaign so far are not especially reassuring in this regard.  One of the most visible proposals—the calls by influential experts on both sides of the political aisle, and by Senator John McCain, for the establishment of a League of Democracies to tackle the world's problems—is an example of continued thinking within the bubble.

A punishing side effect of Bush policies abroad has been the despoilment of democracy promotion.  U.S. abuses of prisoners and detainees at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere have undercut America’s standing as a defender of human rights.  The constant identification of democracy promotion with the Iraq intervention and other regime change policies has besmirched the very concept in the eyes of people around the world.

As a result, the last thing people in other countries are looking for from the next administration is a high-profile initiative tying democracy promotion to the global U.S. security agenda.  The almost complete absence of any welcoming responses from outside the United States to the calls for a league underlines this fact.

The idea of a league of democracies rests on the belief that democracies, by virtue of being democracies, have such common interests and perspectives that they will be able to act in unison on global problems.  Yet most countries do not base their foreign policy primarily on the orientation of their political system.  Instead their actions reflect a constellation of diverse factors including their regional identity, economic needs, historical traditions, religious outlook, and many others.

Consequently, democracies can and do disagree seriously on basic matters.  Most major developing country democracies, for example, like Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico, and South Africa, differ deeply with United States on the question of interventionism, not to mention on trade policy, the war on terrorism, and much else.  Attempting to bind them together into a league with United States would not change that fact.  Yet excluding these countries from a league would render it a hollow, hypocritical institution.  Also, if memory serves, wasn't it some of Europe's most established democracies that opposed the United States on Iraq?  Would they too be left out in the interest of a league amenable to approving future U.S. interventions?

Moreover, non-democracies are valuable partners on many pressing issues. Qatar oversaw the recent Lebanon negotiations.  Egypt is brokering important talks between the clashing Palestinian sides.  Russia will be crucial to any solution on the Iran nuclear issue.  China is key to progress on Burma.  How would a new international institution aimed at fostering international peace and security benefit by excluding all of these countries?

Proponents of a league only rarely mention the Community of Democracies, created by the United States in 2000, despite the fact that it closely parallels the proposed league.  They don't because the Community has been a serious disappointment, producing much talk but little action.  The weak record of the Community is not due, as some suggest, to the fact that a few autocratic governments are included.  Rather it reflects the reality that most democracies are unwilling to follow the United States in challenging national sovereignty when it comes to pushing for democracy.

The next administration does need to relaunch U.S. democracy promotion and rebuild the legitimacy of U.S. global action generally.  It should do so, however, by breaking out of the Washington bubble, which requires listening seriously to others and seeing the world as it actually is.  If it does so, it will find no appetite for a grand new U.S.-led institution operating under an ideological mantle.  Instead it will find a world waiting for the United States to clean up its own act on the law and rights, pursue democracy promotion as a means of advancing broad principle rather than U.S. influence and strength, and seek partnerships, agreements, and negotiations on the basis of shared interests with all countries interested in moving forward on matters of common international concern.