McCain, Obama, and American power.

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June 3 2008 12:23 PM

McCain, Obama, and American Power

The next president's first foreign-policy task will be to overcome the Bush legacy.

John McCain and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
John McCain and Barack Obama

John McCain has a big idea about how to deal with America's friends: unite them in a "League of Democracies." Barack Obama has a big idea about how to deal with our enemies: talk to them. These proposals—alternately praised and ridiculed by commentators across the political spectrum—have produced the first real foreign-policy debate of the long presidential campaign. Even George Bush, sounding alarms about "appeasement," has weighed in.

Yet all this controversy has missed the main point. Whether the candidates' ideas are good or bad depends, above all, on whether the United States has the power to make them work. Because the Bush administration has weakened America's global position, it will leave its successor less freedom to embrace new ideas, even some good ones.

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Take McCain's plan, which should have a lot going for it. As he reminds us, democracies have always been our most reliable allies. Bringing more of them under a single tent could pay major dividends for American policy. And it would show the United States intends to listen more to other countries' views, especially those of our disgruntled European allies.

So what's the problem? It's not, as some critics claim, that democracies often disagree with one another, or that Washington has to work with autocracies, too. Had this proposal surfaced at the beginning of Bush's tenure rather than at its end, such objections would have mattered far less than they do today. In fact, other governments would probably have suppressed their reservations and joined. Grumblers and doubters alike would have expected the United States to make the new organization count—and they would not have wanted to be left out. (We've seen this happen before. Why did skeptical European governments accept Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations after World War I even though they disliked it—and him? Because American power could not be ignored.)

But that was then. If, on Jan. 20, 2009, President McCain were to ask his closest advisers how his idea was likely to play out, they'd have bad news for him. Even governments that have wanted Washington to put more stock in international institutions will resist this new forum. They will no longer automatically expect the United States to be able to make it work effectively—and it's not clear what McCain could say or do on Jan. 21 to make them think otherwise. Fearing failure, they won't tie themselves to an ambitious but amorphous American initiative.

The decline of American power means that an idea designed to unite democracies would, in fact, divide them. Seeing this, a McCain administration would have to scale back the plan, trying instead to build out slowly from our existing alliances. These relationships are themselves in need of mending, but making them work better is not beyond America's means.

The same fate would surely await McCain's sister proposal to kick Russia out of the G-8 because it's not a real democracy. It isn't, but the United States hardly has the power to kick anyone out of this group. To strengthen solidarity among democracies, a new President McCain might actually end up expanding the G-8—adding nondemocratic China, among others, and then forming a democratic faction within the larger group, composed of America's allies. Less drastic, much more doable.

Like Sen. McCain's proposal, Barack Obama's readiness to talk to America's enemies, especially Iran, reflects a healthy dissatisfaction with the determined passivity of current American diplomacy. The Bush administration has rejected the idea that negotiations can be a tool to stimulate division within Iran's leadership, to open independent lines of communication with Iranian society, to put the other side on the defensive—not to mention to actually solve problems. Nobody who becomes president next year is going to accept these self-imposed rigidities, which have imprisoned Bush.

Yet, even if American diplomacy needs re-energizing, sitting down with adversaries is not by itself a strategy, much less one that can succeed without help. Negotiations produce good results only if the other side has strong reasons, positive and negative, to change course. (That, of course, is the real lesson of Munich: Neville Chamberlain's mistake was not that he played poker with Hitler, but that he thought he could hold his own with a weak hand.)

So if, on Day 1, President Obama asked his advisers what his hand looked like, they would also have some bad news for him. They would inform him that in most respects—regional influence, nuclear options, energy wealth—Iran's position has grown stronger in this decade. Even in Iraq, where Bush's surge has narrowed some of Tehran's options, someone is bound to point out that the United States has spent a year bemoaning increased interference by Iran without doing anything about it. Before drawing new red lines that define "unacceptable" Iranian conduct, Obama ought to hear how little Washington has done to back up its previous red lines.

There would be a real irony in this briefing for President Obama. Because he was prepared to negotiate with Iran, he'd have to worry about credibility more than President Bush does. George Bush isn't actually trying to communicate with Iran, and this has left him free not to worry whether they take him seriously. His successor can't be so careless.

For the last half-century and more, one president after another has taken office thinking that his predecessor had let America's position in the world deteriorate. Today's candidates share this view. But their ambitious ideas rest on the hope that it's not true. Both McCain and Obama are describing what they would like to do if America's power were greater than it really is. What we also want them to think about is how to increase our power. If they can do that, then all kinds of ideas that don't seem realistic now will be worth talking about again.

Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of diplomacy at Columbia University. He was an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign.

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