John McCain's Democratic Realism

Sen. John McCain visits Iraq, map
This column was written by Joseph Loconte.

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."

Is McCain's democracy agenda a stark departure from the Bush doctrine? In the fall of 2003, Bush announced a new "forward strategy of freedom" for the Middle East: an end to America's Cold War compromise with illiberal Arab regimes for the sake of stability. McCain equally rejects the "realist" bargain; it only helped to produce "a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred." His alternative: "We must help expand the power and reach of freedom" in the Middle East, using every diplomatic tool available. "It is the democracies of the world," he argues, "that will provide the pillars upon which we can and must build an enduring peace." In a judgment that is anathema to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain thus binds the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq to America's political destiny. "Whether they eventually become stable democracies themselves, or are allowed to sink back into chaos and extremism, will determine not only the fate of that critical part of the world, but our fate, as well."

In this, McCain subscribes to a view of America's national security interests in sync not only with the Bush administration, but also with any honest reading of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report. America faces a global threat from religious extremists determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against civilian populations. They seek the help of rogue nations that share what McCain calls "the same animating hatred for the West." Neither diplomacy nor changes in policy can temper these hatreds. "This is the central threat of our time," he said, "and we must understand the implications of our decisions on all manner of regional and global challenges could have for our success in defeating it."

In other words, the "transcendent challenge" of radical jihadism, as McCain puts it repeatedly, is the lens through which the next U.S. president must view American foreign policy. Any contender for the office who rejects this doctrine, he reasons, "does not deserve to sit in the White House."

It is this view of the world that would send McCain's Euro-friendly diplomacy into a buzz-saw of opposition, just as it has for the Bush administration. True, the horrific and nearly unforgivable blunders in Iraq helped fray relations between the United States and her democratic allies and incite anti-Americanism around the world. Yet there are virtually no European leaders who see the threat of Islamist terrorism in the same existential terms as McCain - a fact that no amount of gentle diplomacy could conceal. Moreover, his League of Democracies would face the same obstacle as Woodrow Wilson's discredited League of Nations: Even America's closest allies usually put their short-term national interests ahead of universal democratic ideals.

On the subject of war, McCain's voice is indeed distinct. If many conservatives cling to naïve beliefs about the role of military power in securing peace, he does not appear to share their faith. His speech at the World Affairs Council offered one of the most sober, poignant, and morally mature perspectives on war by any politician in a generation. It was reminiscent of Winston Churchill, a statesman he clearly admires. "I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description," he said. "When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue." Even so, McCain abhors the appeasing reflex of many political and religious liberals: As detestable as war is, the consequences of inaction may be far worse. Americans must sometimes pay the wages of war, he said, "to avoid paying even higher ones later."

How might the McCain doctrine play itself out on the world stage? Democratic ideals always collide with undemocratic realities abroad and imperfect realities closer to home. Like Churchill, McCain's weaknesses - his reputed stubbornness, self-righteousness, arrogance - seem nearly as large as his strengths. "When Winston's right, he's right," Lord Birkenhead once said of him. "When he's wrong, well, my God."

Still, McCain's family history and life experiences, so unlike those of Clinton or Obama, will likely count for something. He remembers the day when a Navy officer arrived at his house, shouting to his father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor -- and of his father quickly packing to return to the submarine base where he was stationed. "Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly," he said. "Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war." Unlike his Democratic rivals, McCain projects a balance of idealism and realism, of tenacity and prudence -- forged in part from his own experience in Vietnam - which seems especially relevant for a nation at war. "For it is one thing to see the Land of Peace from a wooded ridge," wrote Augustine, "and another to tread the road that leads to it."
By Joseph Loconte