WASHINGTON - While the ongoing financial crisis has almost entirely displaced
foreign policy and even the Iraq War as the main concern of voters in the
United States, differences in approach to the world beyond US borders between
Republican candidate Senator John McCain and his Democratic rival Senator
Barack Obama remain substantial.
While they agree, superficially at least, on a number of issues, such as the
importance of shutting down the notorious Guantanamo detention facility on
Cuba, acting more aggressively to curb global warming, increasing US and North
Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, and keeping all options on
table vis-a-vis Iran, their basic worldviews and instincts are far apart.
In broad terms, McCain identifies closely with the unilateralist instincts and
Manichean worldview of the coalition of Israel-centered neo-conservatives and
aggressive nationalists who dominated the first term of President George W
Bush's administration and place a premium on military power, as opposed to
diplomacy or other forms of "soft power".
Indeed, McCain is surrounded by advisers, such as his main foreign policy
spokesman, Randy Scheunemann, from both traditions. But he reportedly also
consults closely with their nemeses, the foreign policy "realists", most
notably former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger,
James Baker and Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under
Colin Powell. While not shy about using military power or acting unilaterally
as a last resort, they place greater emphasis on diplomacy and working with
other countries to further US national interests.
Obama, on the other hand, is generally seen as grounded in the "liberal
internationalist" school, whose founding is credited to president Woodrow
Wilson and which became the basis for the US - and Western-led multilateral
order - presided over by the United Nations, the two Bretton Woods
institutions, and an embryonic World Trade Organization - elaborated in large
part by president Franklin Roosevelt in the waning days of World War II.
Most of Obama's main foreign policy advisers hail from that tradition. Indeed,
some, like his vice presidential running-mate Senator Joseph Biden, whose
long-time leadership of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is
likely to give him special influence on international affairs in an Obama White
House, are considered "liberal interventionists". This group believes the US
should actively and aggressively export the spread of liberal values and
prevent - by military force if necessary - massive abuses of human rights, such
At the same time, however, a number of influential realists, most recently
Bush's first-term secretary of state, General Colin Powell, have come out in
strong support of Obama and are also found among his top advisers.
Indeed, the candidate has himself extolled as a model the foreign policy record
of former president George H W Bush's administration - widely considered the
most realist of the past generation - and publicly stressed admiration for the
ranking member on Biden's committee, Republican realist Senator Richard Lugar,
who along with another Republican, Senator Chuck Hagel, has been mentioned as a
possible secretary of state under Obama.
The inclusion of prominent realists - who, more than any other school,
constitute what could be called the foreign policy "Establishment" - as
advisers in both campaigns may be designed primarily to reassure independent
and centrist voters that their respective candidates will avoid radical
departures of the kind that resulted in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the
influence of the neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists reached their
But whoever wins the November 4 election is likely to come to office in January
with a foreign policy team that spans a fairly broad spectrum of advisers
susceptible to fundamental disagreements regarding the definition of US
national interests, the appropriate use of military force and the degree to
which Washington should rely on multilateral institutions, as opposed to taking
unilateral action, if those interests are threatened.
Such differences, when wide enough, have historically wrought heavy damage on
past administrations, beginning with the battle for control over policy within
the current Bush administration between hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney
and realists led by the hapless Powell in the first term and then by secretary
of state Condoleezza Rice and Pentagon chief Robert Gates who have devoted
themselves to undoing - however slowly - some of the damage done during the
The administration of president Jimmy Carter was also undone in part by
internal fights between liberal internationalists led by former secretary of
state Cyrus Vance and more realist forces led by national security adviser
Zbigniew Brzezinski, an early Obama supporter.
In both cases, external events - in Bush's case, the September 11, 2001,
attacks; in Carter's, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan followed by the
Islamic revolution in Iran - acted as catalysts in shifting the balance of
power within their administrations. Just one year after campaigning as a
foreign policy realist committed to a "humble" foreign policy, Bush launched a
"war on terrorism" designed to "transform" the entire Middle East and beyond.
Effective Iraqi and regional resistance to those ambitions eventually forced
Bush to listen to the realists.
If either candidate retains his current spectrum of advisers, splits will
almost certainly develop on key issues ranging from what to do about Iran's
nuclear program and a resurgent Russia, to "humanitarian intervention", and the
promotion of democracy (or destabilization) in countries whose governments are
considered hostile to the US
On Iran, for example, the hawks have strongly opposed any diplomatic opening,
while the realists, including those advising McCain, have, like Obama, urged
Washington to engage Tehran at a high level without pre-conditions. McCain
publicly sided with the hawks on the issue until Kissinger and Baker last month
called for unconditional talks.
When it comes to the Middle East as a whole, an additional complicating factor
will be the presence of strong advocates for Israel among either man's closest
advisers. While realists in both camps believe Washington should act as an
honest broker in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, both
neo-conservatives associated with McCain and a number of liberal
interventionists, including Biden and former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke,
associated with Obama, have opposed exerting strong pressure on Israel.
On Russia, realists identified with both candidates have urged caution, warning
that strong US retaliation for its intervention in Georgia - such as McCain's
suggestion it be expelled from the Group of Eight - could have serious negative
implications for other US policy interests. Obama has sided with the realist
position, although some of his liberal interventionist advisers have urged that
he take a more punitive stance.
An Obama administration is also likely to suffer splits over humanitarian
intervention, a concept that has been eagerly embraced by liberal
internationalists, especially those, like Biden, of the interventionist
persuasion. However, it has drawn great skepticism from realists who believe it
is a recipe for wearing out already-overstretched US military forces in
countries that are not vital to US national interests.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy, and particularly the
neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.