Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:58 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:58 | SYDNEY

Obama vs McCain: What at stake


Sam Roggeveen


4 June 2008 13:05

Now that Senator Obama has sealed the Democratic presidential nomination, it's worth asking what we Australian should look for over the coming months of the general election. There'll be a lot of talk in our op-ed pages between now and November on where Australia's interest lies in regard to the outcome of the election. Much of this talk will focus on which candidate knows Australia better, which one has the most affinity with us, which one is most committed to free trade, and which one has more experience in and knowledge of the Asia Pacific.

Those are important themes, but I hope they don't crowd out discussion of the larger issue of what kind of world Australians should prefer to live in, and the great question of war and peace. It is commonplace in the international relations literature to hear that major power confict is almost inconceivable in our interconnected world. Economic and political trends in world affairs suggest the optimists are right, and I cannot help feeling that this has led to a degree of complacency about the risks of war. The fact that military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan touch so little on the lives of most Australian and American citizens probably reinforces this. War, for most of us, is pretty cost-free and therefore quite low-risk.

That calculus would of course be quite different in the event of conflict with China, and as Hugh White has argued, that is why we Australians should count the next president's ability to maintain peaceful relations with a growing China among our top concerns.

Beyond the specific policies either candidate would propose for dealing with China, I will be looking for evidence of their political temperament and disposition. The last seven years has been marked by what John Gray called 'militant optimism'; a combination of crusading spirit and presidential willpower to be a transformitive figure. It produced a hugely ambitious international agenda that has left the US and the world worse off than when the Bush term began. As many have pointed out, this crusading spirit is hardly unique to Bush or the neoconservatives, but has been part of American political culture since the republic's founding.

There has been a countervailing force in American foreign policy, most often described as the realist tradition. But what I'd like to see from the candidates is something slightly broader: a return to conservative scepticism about the perfectibility of man and the goals of politics. What I want from a US president is recognition that the work of building a tolerable global order is slow, incremental and perpetually imperfect. I want a recognition that international politics is an iterative and contingent process, not a long march toward the sunlit uplands. I want a return to modesty.

Photo by Flickr user mdumlao98, used under a Creative Commons license.