Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:42 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:42 | SYDNEY

The battle for John McCain


Raoul Heinrichs

9 May 2008 11:11

A battle is unfolding in the backroom of John McCain’s campaign headquarters. This is the battle to influence McCain’s world-view, and to shape the overarching ideas and principles on which he will build his foreign and strategic policies. According to this New York Times piece, Republican foreign policy pragmatists with whom McCain regularly consults — figures such as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Richard Armitage — are becoming increasingly concerned about the influence of a competing group of neo-conservative McCain confidantes. The neo-cons, who achieved ideational dominance in the first term of the George W. Bush administration, include Max Boot, John Bolton, and Robert Kagan. 

Though McCain has sought to synthesise the two approaches by proclaiming himself to be a ‘realistic idealist’, his vision for American foreign and strategic policy has, as Fareed Zakaria points out, taken on a confusing, schizophrenic complexion, vacillating awkwardly between shrewd self-interested realism and idealistic neo-conservatism. Take this speech, for example, delivered to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles in March. Though McCain waxed eloquent on the practical complexities of dealing with the increasing diffusion of power and influence in the international system and the rising prominence of non-democratic states like  Russia and China, he nevertheless articulated a vision for renewing American global leadership based almost single-mindedly on his faith in the significance of shared values between America and its democratic international partners.

McCain does have a more realistic understanding of the limits of American military power and has vowed to eschew the unilateralism of the Bush Administration. However, his prospective foreign policy also includes some pretty hard-line initiatives, including institutionalising the quadrilateral strategic dialogue, establishing a league of democracies, and reshuffling the G8 by bringing India and Brazil in to the fold, whilst expelling Russia and indefinitely excluding China. To conservative realists like Kissinger and Scowcroft, such policies must seem highly unpalatable, at best incurring serious risk for marginal gains, and at worst bringing about sharply adversarial relations with Moscow and Beijing for no reason other than ideological pronouncement.

As a presidential candidate, McCain’s dualistic approach may be sustainable. It is bold and populist, yet it provides him with enough latitude to dissociate his campaign from the excesses of the Bush Administration. In government, though, it is untenable. Realist and neo-conservative approaches are irreconcilable because they incorporate very different assumptions about the means and ends of American grand strategy. According to Zakaria, by trying to navigate a path between them on an ad-hoc basis, McCain will have failed to learn the lessons of history. Not only will he run the very serious risk of provoking debilitating internal squabbling, but, like his immediate predecessor, he will produce foreign and strategic policies which are both incoherent and ineffectual. 

Photo by Flickr user christhedunn, used under a Creative Commons licence.