The Upstart or the Maverick
Who Will Make the Wiser Foreign Policy President?
by Charles Strohmer
For most Europeans and people in the Middle East, the good news surrounding the U.S. presidential election on November 4 is that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain is George W. Bush. Both presidential candidates are perceived as representing a U.S. foreign policy agenda that would be a vast improvement over the eight-year Bush tenure. But which of the two candidates would make the wiser foreign policy president?
Although both candidates profess Christianity, the world is unlikely to see much from either candidate that resembles what, in Jesus and Politics, political theorist Alan Storkey calls the power of resurrection politics, with its shocking redemptivity. We might hope to feel confident that either president’s foreign policies will at least arise from wisdom-based norms – norms rooted not in political ideologies but in the common ground interests and values shared by the human family as a whole before any distinctions are made about religion or about who is religious and who is not. If there is anything like an ideal described in the Bible for the practice of international relations in this world, this would be the one. It is unlikely, however, that either a McCain or an Obama foreign policy will be organized around it.Either man as president will be strongly “encouraged” at home to adhere to foreign policy choices rooted in American exceptionalism
The reason? Either man as president will be strongly “encouraged” at home to adhere to foreign policy choices rooted in American exceptionalism – the two-hundred-year-old belief of Americans that their country was specially founded by God to be a city on a hill, a light shining in the darkness. This ultimate religious belief has both religious and secular outlets. The former, in the perennial debate about whether America is a Christian nation, albeit with a mission to the world like that of ancient Israel. The latter, in what critics call civil religion, in which even people who don’t believe in God, or who don’t want a religious state, nevertheless have a “faith” for believing in, and for expressing the political interests of, American “exceptionalism.” There is much ongoing, often heated, public debate in these areas from both Christians and others.
But whatever the competing arguments, it will be geopolitically impossible for either president to ignore the interests of this demanding ideological orientation without committing political suicide at home. Of course, some of those interests are good for the world, and are so recognized and welcomed. A problem arises, however, when absolutized interests of American exceptionalism drive Washington’s foreign policy decision making. You will see this played out, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, whenever America’s national interests become the alpha and omega of Washington’s engagement with any other capital.
To get a realistic sense of what in fact may be informing the two candidates’ speeches about “reinvigorating diplomacy” or “relaunching multilateralism,” and what we could expect internationally after the January 20 inauguration, we need to get past the election punditry and media sound-bites to each candidates views on some core issues. And perhaps just as tellingly, examine who is advising them behind the scenes.
John McCain, maverick Republican
Let’s start with the former Navy pilot and acclaimed Vietnam War hero, who spent five unimaginably horrible years as a POW after being shot down over North Vietnam. He turned 72 on August 29 and has been a U.S. senator from Arizona since 1987. His handlers enthusiastically praise the Republican senator’s decades-long experience in foreign affairs. “McCain knows how to make diplomacy work,” says John Lehmann, a McCain national security advisor. “His approach is going be much more international, and that’s a huge difference from the Bush administration.”McCain has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s policies on the use of torture, Guantanamo Bay, and its handling of Iraq and Afghanistan
If a McCain presidency will be “much more international,” does it necessarily follow that it will also be “a huge difference” from the past eight years? That’s certainly the image his handlers are projecting, and with McCain being known as something of a maverick, it’s caught on, and not only because he once even considered switching parties to become a Democrat. He catches flack from fellow Republicans, but receives praise from green groups, for some environmental policies he supports; he has been decried by nearly everyone for advocating Russia’s removal from the G8; his eight year political relationship with President Bush has been called entangled, bitter, and awkward; and he has been a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s policies on the use of torture, Guantanamo Bay, and its handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why, then, is there a joke going around here in the States that McCain is merely running for Bush’s third term?
The joke hinges on just how much different he could be, for his team of national security and foreign policy advisors reads like a Who’s Who of Neoconservatism. Although McCain refers to himself as a “realistic idealist,” and though he receives ad hoc advice from political realists such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Armitage, his advisors include Robert Kagan, William Kristol, and Randy Scheunemann, three heavy-weight neoconservative intellectuals with considerable policy clout in Washington. (Yes, the death of neoconservatism has been greatly exaggerated.) One of McCain’s Middle East advisors, Peter Rodman, once a protégé of Kissinger’s, and although still reckoned a realist, leans toward neoconservative political philosophy, as does R. James Woolsey. Although Woolsey is numbered among McCain’s environment advisors, the former CIA director (under Bill Clinton) is considered a “green neoconservative” by some analysts.
Another revealing clue comes from McCain’s strong support for a League of Democracies. This proposed new international body, to be created and led by the United States, is the brainchild of leading Americans across the political spectrum who have learned many hard lessons about democracy promotion via Bush unilateralism and militarism, but who nevertheless believe that democracy promotion around the world by the United States must continue. The idea first received serious public airing in a May 2004 Washington Post op-ed piece by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, who called it an Alliance of Democracies. Two years later, in long, thoughtful article, “Democracies of the World Unite,” Daalder and Lindsay recast their vision as a Concert of Democracies, noting that critics had found the word “alliance” too heavily freighted with military connotations. Never mind. In a short yet vigorous Washington Post op-ed piece (Aug. 6, 2007) that Daalder co-authored with Robert Kagan, titled “The Next Intervention,” the martial aspect of the “concert” was front and center.
Variations on the theme abound, but advocates agree on several core issues, such as that the league should emphasis common interests and shared values, better U.S. collaboration in decision-making for shaping global polices, reforming (not dismantling) the UN (but going around it when it fails), and renewed commitment to basic principles such as the rule of law and individual rights.American exceptionalism bleeds through the worldview, which clear implications for the international community
Although none of its variations quite lose sight of the “military option,” the non-martial aspects are being made to sound quite plausible in public by its adherents, such as when articulated by G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who co-directed the influential, three-year Princeton Project on U.S. national security for the twenty-first century. The Project, in part, heralds widespread, high-level bipartisan political support in Washington for “a global Concert of Democracies.” In their lengthy final report, however, though you’ve got to carefully read deep into it to see it, American exceptionalism bleeds through the worldview, which clear implications for the international community. Ikenberry and Slaughter write: “[W]e are far better off if American power is exercised within an international framework of cooperation, where others have a voice – though not a veto – and nations endeavor to work in concert toward common ends. Such a world is one in which other nations bandwagon with the United States rather than balance against us, and where they seek to facilitate American goals, not to inhibit them. This is the world we must rebuild today.” (“Forging a World Of Liberty Under Law,” September 27, 2006.)
McCain himself has situated the league squarely within American exceptionalism since at least May 1, 2007, when, in a speech to The Hoover Institution on U.S. Foreign Policy, he favorably quoted former U.S. President Harry Truman, who at the start of the Cold War era said: “God has created and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.”
Critics such as Thomas Carothers, however, have offered ample arguments and evidence of the foolishness of any League of Democracies in the foreseeable future. Carothers, who is vice president for studies of international politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on-record in Washington, May 29, 2008: “[T]he world has absolutely no interest or appetite for a U.S.-led ideologically-based multilateral initiative. It was hard enough in 2000 at a much better period…. I think that pushing a league would not seem like relaunching democracy promotion and relaunching multilateralism, but rather a failure to listen, a failure to understand the most basic outlook of other nations. Many people in the world are ready to work with the United States in existing multinational institutions, but they do not want the United States going around those. I was in Europe last week for a fairly large conference at the Hague on promoting democratic governance attended mostly by senior European officials. While I was there, I went around to people from Norway, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, and elsewhere, and I talked with them…. I could not detect or stir up a trace of interest for [the league].”
Question. If the league is a non-starter for America’s biggest allies, why has McCain said that one of the first things he will do if elected is call for a summit of the world’s democracies to start the process of creating it? And what kind of message would “sorry, but you’re not included” send to countries such as Russia, China, and most of the Middle East, from whom America needs a huge amount of international cooperation?