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McCain's Democratic Realism

A departure from the Bush doctrine?

12:00 AM, Mar 31, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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JOHN MCCAIN'S FIRST MAJOR foreign policy speech as the presumed Republican nominee for president, delivered last week in Los Angeles, was widely viewed as an effort to distance himself from President George W. Bush. The Washington Post said his agenda "contrasts sharply" with the "go-it-alone approach" of the Bush administration. London's Telegraph discerned a "more practical, less ideological approach" to the war on terror. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh accused McCain of rejecting America's superpower status and "pandering to the hate-America crowd." New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed that unlike Bush, McCain wants to "protect the fabric of the international system."

The flabbiness of these critiques, though, becomes apparent when McCain's speech is read carefully and alongside his other foreign policy statements. For starters, McCain shows little interest in the "fabric" of an alleged "international system"--a concept as coherent as tapioca pudding--and even less interest in protecting it.

In fact, McCain seems intent on either shaking up existing international organizations--making sure the G-8 remains a club of market democracies by keeping Russia out, for example--or creating new ones. He calls for the formation of a "new global compact" of democratic nations, a "coalition for peace and freedom." McCain envisions a "League of Democracies" which can "harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interest." In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, he explained that U.S. soldiers are serving in Afghanistan with British, Canadian, Dutch, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Spanish, and Turkish troops from the NATO alliance--all democratic states. Yet they lack an overarching set of political and economic priorities to meet today's challenges.

McCain's League of Democracies, to be convened and led by the United States, would function under a new political rubric. In his Foreign Affairs article, he writes that the organization could offer "united democratic action" to confront threats and crises whenever the United Nations failed to do so--failures, of course, as predictable and plentiful as cicadas in summertime. In his speech to the World Affairs Council, McCain notably made no reference to the United Nations or the U.N. Security Council. So much for the delicate fabric of the global community.

In his attention to America's allies, McCain insists he is a realist--the United States simply cannot overcome global challenges on its own. It requires the help of the world's democratic states, including the European Union (most of whose members belong to NATO), India, Japan, South Korea and others. Moreover, he argues, political and military power is no longer concentrated in the United States as it was during the Cold War. "We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to," he said. "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them." Exhibit A for the McCain doctrine might be Afghanistan. Five years after the United States toppled the Taliban and routed al Qaeda, they remain a dangerous source of instability in the country. American and British forces, wearied and overstretched, are doing most of the fighting because other NATO members have declined to step up. Yes, alliances matter.

Nevertheless, many conservatives balk at McCain's conciliatory tone. His speech was "just pandering to the people who think we're the problem in the world," Limbaugh complained. "The United States is the solution to the problems of the world." The notion, though, that America could happily manage without friends or alliances is not just hubris; it is the well-worn path to decline--political, economic, and moral. "The tyrant is a child of Pride who drinks from his great sickening cup recklessness and vanity," wrote Sophocles, "until from his high crest headlong he plummets to the dust of hope."