WASHINGTON - Separated by a generation and by one’s legendary military experience, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama offer voters contrasting worldviews, suggesting that they’d pursue different foreign policies as president.
With the presidential campaign overshadowed by the financial meltdown, Obama-McCain debates largely have been limited to a handful of world hot spots: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the deterioration of Pakistan and whether to talk to Iran.
Yet on a host of other issues - such as free trade, promoting democracy abroad and dealing with the United Nations and Russia - the two candidates differ markedly in tone, if not always in substance, according to their speeches, statements and position papers.
Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden, promise a return to a traditional Democratic foreign policy that some call liberal internationalism. They favor intervention to stop ethnic slaughter, strengthening global rules against the spread of dangerous weapons and working through international organizations when possible.
McCain, who insists that he’s not a clone of President Bush, indicates that he’d pursue a more robust application of U.S. power. He favors aggressive efforts to spread democracy overseas, espouses a hostile view of Russia and seems more inclined to use force and act unilaterally to deal with threats to the country.
It’s impossible to predict how any candidate, once elected, will pursue world affairs. Eight years ago this month, candidate Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy - a promise that was quickly forgotten in the wake of terrorist attacks nine months after he took office.
Moreover, McCain or Obama will have to grapple with the financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, which could divert their attention and reduce U.S. global influence, at least temporarily.
The two candidates share a few bedrock positions. They both evince strong support for Israel. They promise engagement with China, not isolation. Both favor, in general, international action to combat global climate change. And - with important differences - they both pledge to continue Bush’s “war on terror.”
But their differences are clear:
Dealing with rogue regimes
Obama is more inclined to talk with U.S. adversaries. In July 2007, during the Democratic primaries, he said he’d be willing to meet in his first year in office, without precondition, with leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Obama’s since backed off slightly, saying that such diplomacy would need careful preparation. In his first debate with McCain, however, he criticized Bush’s refusal to talk to enemies, saying “this notion (that) by not talking to people we are punishing them has not worked.”
McCain has ridiculed the idea of negotiating with leaders such as Ahmadinejad, Chavez or Cuba’s Raul Castro. Unlike Obama, he supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, and in years past he’s suggested using military force to deal with nuclear-weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.
A senior official in past Republican administrations, asked whether he thought that McCain was too quick to consider using military force, replied simply: “Yes.” The former official requested anonymity to speak more frankly.
Promoting democracy abroad
McCain, whose past and present advisers include several prominent members of the “neoconservative” movement, is a forceful advocate for confronting non-democratic governments and for uniting the world’s democracies.
In a May 2007 foreign policy speech, the Republican candidate called for establishing a worldwide “League of Democracies” that “would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom.” The new body, he said, wouldn’t supplant the United Nations, but could act when non-democratic powers such as Russia and China block agreement in the U.N. Security Council.
Obama and Biden also favor promoting democratic societies. But they’ve been sharply critical of Bush’s approach, arguing that it’s been undercut by U.S. actions in the “war on terror” and over-focused on elections, rather than slowly building democratic institutions.
“People around the world have heard a great deal of late about freedom on the march,” Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last year. “Tragically, many have come to associate this with war, torture and forcibly imposed regime change.”
During this month’s vice presidential debate, Biden suggested that Bush’s push for Middle East democracy had endangered Israel by helping elect Islamist parties. Bush “insisted on elections on the West Bank, when I said, and others said, and Barack Obama said, ‘Big mistake. Hamas will win. You’ll legitimize them.’ What happened? Hamas won,” Biden said.
Like many Democratic lawmakers, Obama is lukewarm about pursuing free-trade agreements, favoring them in general, but insisting that they must include strong protections for the environment and workers.
During the Democratic primaries, Obama called for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. In 2005, although he voted against a Central American free trade agreement, it passed. More recently, he opposed a free-trade pact with Colombia, citing violence against labor unions in that country.
“I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long ... the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement,” he said during the third presidential debate with McCain.
McCain is a longtime supporter of free trade, backing every major trade deal of recent years. Those include NAFTA, the Central American pact and a pending agreement with South Korea.
During one debate, he criticized Obama for opposing the agreement with Colombia, which he said would lower tariffs, create U.S. jobs and bolster a U.S. ally that’s helping fight drug trafficking. “Free trade with Colombia is something that’s a no-brainer,” McCain said.
McCain has a hard-line view of Russia that even some longtime Republican foreign-policy experts find extreme. He’s called for Russia’s exclusion from the G-8 group of nations; said a U.S. missile-defense system should be built in Eastern Europe whether or not Russia objects; and has pushed to expand NATO along Russia’s borders.
The Republican nominee reacted stridently when Russia invaded Georgia in August, saying that he’d told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in a phone call, “Today, we are all Georgians.”
Obama also has been critical of Russia, but he’s been more cautious. His focus has been on working with Russia to secure loose nuclear stockpiles to prevent them from falling into terrorists’ hands.
“Although we must not shy away from pushing for more democracy and accountability in Russia, we must work with the country in areas of common interest - above all, in making sure that nuclear weapons and materials are secure,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.
Helping the developing world
Obama’s brief Senate record, his closest foreign-policy advisers and his own multicultural background all point to a predisposition to deal with global issues such as poverty, human-rights abuses and ethnic conflict.
The Democratic nominee has called for strong U.S. participation in the U.N. - although he says the organization needs reform; a “no-fly” zone to help stop attacks on civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region; and doubling aid to combat poverty and disease to $50 billion by 2012. Lately he’s acknowledged that the dollar goal can’t be met in light of the global financial meltdown.
McCain’s positions don’t differ markedly, although he’s put less emphasis on these issues.
During their second presidential debate, Obama said that the U.S. must consider intervening when genocide occurs.
McCain was more reticent, recalling costly peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Somalia. “You have to temper your decisions with the ability to beneficially affect the situation and realize you’re sending America’s most precious asset, American blood, into harm’s way,” he said.