McCain appeared to be talking to critics who say he has been "overly aggressive" with provocative comments about Iran, Iraq and Russia, said Derek Chollet, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.
"It seems to be more of a speech of re-assurance," Chollet said. "And it was an implicit contrast with the Bush administration."
McCain also seemed to break with the policies from President Bush's first term, in which the United States often acted alone, said Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mead noted that Bush has spoken more of global cooperation in his second term, and McCain wants to continue that effort.
"The big themes (of McCain's speech) are deepening cooperation with Europe, deepening cooperation with Latin American and the Southern Hemisphere," Mead said.
That includes McCain's call for a League of Democracies. Mead called it a "nice idea" that speaks to frustration with the United Nations because China and Russia can veto anything the U.N. might want to do.
But it's impractical to think a league of democracies could replace the U.N., not only because it might exclude China and perhaps Russia must also many authoritarian regimes in Africa and the Middle East, Mead said.
"It's easier talk about this kind of thing than actually put it together," Mead said.
Chollet said some conservatives oppose the league because of suspicion of international institutions, while liberals worry about alienating China and Russia. But Chollet said it can't hurt to have an organization promoting democratic values worldwide.
"I am one of those who is, 'the more the merrier,'" Chollet said.
McCain, long a proponent of the League of Democracies, said it "can harness the vast influence of more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests."
He delivered the speech within days of returning from a trip to the Middle East and Europe.