John McCain likes to compare himself to Theodore Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan. But, if he were to become president, could he more closely resemble Richard Nixon? Not Nixon the Watergate dirty trickster, but Nixon the statesman. Could the Arizona senator, despite his extreme rhetoric of the bomb-bomb-Iran variety, be less like a cowboy politician and more like the man who re-opened relations with China and signed a wealth of arms control agreements with the Soviets?
Two years ago, I wrote a profile arguing that there were reasons to believe that McCain was more pragmatic than his support for the Iraq debacle suggested ("Neo-McCain," October 16, 2006). In the interviews I conducted with him in 2006, he repeatedly distanced himself from neoconservatism, reminding me that he talked regularly to realists like Brent Scowcroft. I thought there was a good chance that there was a peacemaker lurking beneath McCain's warrior exterior--that a President McCain might be able use his hawkish reputation to, say, bring Iraq's warring parties together or to lure Iran to the bargaining table.
I wasn't the only one. Since McCain secured the Republican nomination, I've heard echoes of my ambivalence from foreign policy experts, including some who plan to vote for Obama. "McCain has Nixon-goes-to-China credentials," one told me. But, based on McCain's actions over the last two years and conversations I've had with those close to him, I have concluded that this is wishful thinking. McCain continues to rely on the same neoconservative advisers; he still thinks U.S. foreign policy should focus on transforming rogue states and autocracies into democracies that live under the shadow of American power; and he no longer tells credulous reporters that he consults Scowcroft.
That is not to say McCain's views are static. He has, for example, rethought the tactics of the Iraq war. But he continues to believe that Baghdad can become "a strong stable democratic ally" and "a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran" (this despite Iraq's pro-Iranian Shia majority). McCain may no longer believe that the United States can single-handedly overthrow undemocratic governments, but he now wants to change enemy regimes via a "League of Democracies" that would pointedly exclude states like Russia. Indeed, McCain, known in the Senate for his quickness to anger, has displayed a growing tendency to personalize foreign policy, seemingly basing his approach to Moscow on his hostility toward Vladimir Putin. If John McCain's foreign policy is changing, it is only becoming more combustible, not less.
McCain began his career in Washington as a realist who, because of Vietnam, was reluctant to sanction the use of military force. He felt the United States should intervene abroad only if its national interest was directly challenged--and then only if it had massive public support and sufficient force to carry the day. That was McCain's version of the Powell Doctrine, and it led him to call for withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983; to caution against a tanker war with Iran in the Gulf in 1987; to warn against "trading American blood for Iraqi blood" in August 1990; and to oppose the Clinton administration's intervention in Haiti and (initially) Bosnia.
But, in the '90s, McCain underwent a conversion. American success in the Gulf war made him less reluctant to use force overseas, and, in 1993, he became chairman of the International Republican Institute, a government-funded organization that promotes democracy and human rights abroad. Then, in 1998, during the debates over the Iraq Liberation Act and intervention in Kosovo, McCain and his chief of staff, Mark Salter, began working closely with the neoconservatives around The Weekly Standard and the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), including William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Marshall Wittmann, Randy Scheunemann, Gary Schmitt, Max Boot, and Daniel McKivergan. These neoconservatives were different from the first generation of former leftists who had opposed Jimmy Carter's universal emphasis on human rights and had backed Ronald Reagan's aggressive anti-communism. They were radicals who believed in transforming the world in America's image--and under its hegemony. Emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, they called for an American crusade for democracy and against rogue state regimes.
McCain became a believer in this neoconservative faith, which fit his newfound interest in democratic reform and his revulsion toward dictators like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il. The neoconservative vision of a new American century also jibed with his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt's imperial foreign policy. During the 2000 campaign, McCain drew on Kristol, Kagan, Scheunemann, and Wittmann for foreign policy advice, and after the campaign he continued to work closely with them. In 2003, like those at PNAC and The Weekly Standard, he thought the Iraqis would rise up in support of the U.S. invasion and that Ahmad Chalabi would lead a new pro-American government.
This year, as McCain tightened his grip on the Republican nomination for president, he once again called on many of these same neoconservatives. Scheunemann (who coined the term "rogue state rollback") is his chief foreign policy aide, traveling with him and speaking on his behalf; McKivergan serves on his campaign staff; Wittmann is the press aide for Joe Lieberman, who is almost always at McCain's side; and Schmitt and Boot are advisers. McCain talks regularly with Kristol, who is at the center of the neoconservative network, and he relies heavily on Kagan for his major foreign policy addresses, including the speeches he delivered at the Hoover Institution in May 2007 and in Los Angeles this March.
If you want to understand McCain's worldview, read Kagan's recent book; The Return of History and the End of Dreams reflects a new iteration of neoconservatism that McCain has embraced. Whereas, during the '90s, McCain-- like Kristol, Kagan, and others--believed that the United States reigned supreme over a unipolar world challenged chiefly by rogue states, he now sees a more complicated, multipolar world in which the United States has to share power with the European Union, Japan, China, India, and Russia, while still battling foes like North Korea and Iran. "In such a world, where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed," McCain said in Los Angeles, "the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone."
Most foreign policy experts would agree, but McCain puts a neoconservative spin on this analysis. He sees the world as riven by a struggle between democracies and autocracies. On one side are the United States, the European Union, Japan, India, and other representative governments; on the other are Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and those countries whose "rulers [are] trying to rebuild nineteenth-century autocracies in a twenty-first-century world." McCain still believes "the struggle against radical Islamic extremism" is a "transcendent issue," but he's subordinated it to this broader conflict. In his Hoover speech, he depicted the war on terrorism as only "part of the worldwide political, economic, and philosophical struggle ... between liberty and despotism."
To fight and win this worldwide struggle, McCain has proposed a "League of Democracies" led by the United States. "We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to," McCain said in Los Angeles. "We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact--a League of Democracies--that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests." And, in a Foreign Affairs article, he wrote, "If I am elected pMccresident, during my first year in office I will call a summit of the world's democracies to seek the views of my counterparts and explore the steps necessary to realize this vision--just as America led in creating NATO six decades ago."
The problem with this analogy and with McCain's division of the world more broadly is that it imposes a dynamic on world politics that simply doesn't exist. While obviously there are democracies and autocracies, there is little evidence that the one is engaged with the other in a worldwide struggle over what form of government is best, as the United States and the Soviet Union were during the cold war. The Chinese are not trying to impose communism on Germany, for example; nor is Germany trying to export parliamentary democracy to China. Countries still go to war, of course, but they most often do so for non- ideological reasons: territory, regional hegemony, access to natural resources, and so on. Existing alliances often cut across different forms of government, as in the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Because this struggle does not exist, McCain's solution to it--his League of Democracies--would not advance American interests. As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has argued, the organization would be ill-equipped to address major problems like global warming, trade protection, nuclear proliferation, and resource scarcity, because solving those problems requires cooperation between democracies and autocracies. Even when such cooperation isn't needed, a League is unlikely to be useful: The democracies themselves can't even agree on when to promote democracy. South Africa has refused to intervene in Zimbabwe; Europe won't clamp down on Russia; and, whatever their election-year bluster, a succession of American presidents has been reluctant to ruffle China's feathers.
But the greatest problem with McCain's division of the world is that it threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. McCain isn't advocating a new cold war, but, if he initiated a global struggle against autocracy by founding a League of Democracies, the resulting split would roughly reproduce the cold war confrontation between West and East. By building a new organization that excludes Russia and China, the United States would create gratuitous tensions with these countries. Even without such provocation, U.S. and European relations with Russia have been growing more fractious since 2002, and McCain's approach threatens to exacerbate them in particular.
Some of the existing disagreements between Moscow and the West reflect a struggle for influence in Central Asia and in the countries on Russia's western flank. But the anger in Moscow also comes in response to what Vladimir Putin and other Russians perceive as slights from the United States and its European allies. These include the enlargement of NATO, which is still a military alliance, to include former Soviet republics; NATO and U.S. support for the Albanian Kosovars against Russia's Serbian allies; the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline deliberately bypassing Russia; the invasion of Russian ally Iraq and the abrogation of older Russian oil contracts with Iraq; Western support, from McCain's IRI among others, for the anti-Russian party in Ukraine's 2004 election; and NATO's plan to construct anti-missile emplacements in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Russia's backlash against the United States and Europe began under Boris Yeltsin during the war in Kosovo. It was partly suppressed by the country's economic dependence on the West during those years, but rising oil prices have revived Russia's economy and emboldened its elites. Although Putin's lurch toward authoritarianism at home may have reflected his own priorities, any Russian leader probably would have pursued a similar approach abroad. Ivan Krastev, a political scientist at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, writes, "The Kremlin's new foreign policy is not circumstantial in nature. It is the expression of a new foreign policy consensus within the Russian elite and the Russian society at large."
How, then, should the United States react? Carefully, it would seem, criticizing Russia's authoritarianism but recognizing that Russia has legitimate security concerns and that the United States and Europe need its cooperation on vital issues like nuclear proliferation and arms reduction (which McCain advocates); Iran's uranium enrichment; the Middle East peace process; the future of Afghanistan and Iraq; and the availability of oil and natural gas.
But McCain's response has been to throw down the gauntlet. He has called Putin's complaints about the United States "childish." When Putin criticized the Bush administration in 2007 for following a "unipolar model" of foreign policy--a criticism that many Democrats shared--McCain accused Putin of trying to start a new cold war. While the Bush administration has insisted that the anti-missile batteries it hopes to place in Eastern Europe are meant to defend against Iranian missiles, McCain says they are needed as "a hedge against potential threats" from Russia and China. That's incredibly provocative-- tantamount to defining NATO again as an anti-Russian alliance. McCain continues to support the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Act's trade restrictions on Russian exports long after Soviet restrictions on Jewish emigration--the original basis for the sanction--were lifted. By doing that, he is singling out Russia from among the many pseudo-democracies or autocracies that enjoy trading relations with the United States. And, in his Los Angeles speech, McCain inserted into Kagan's draft a proposal to kick Russia out of the Group of Eight. To promote democracy, he proposed "ensuring that the G-8 becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia."
Dmitri Trenin, the deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, describes McCain as "an echo of the cold war" and says that "Russians see him as a guy from the past." In his recent book, Getting Russia Right, Trenin lays out what would happen if McCain got his way with the G-8. "Russia's foreign policy would turn overtly anti-American, and Moscow would feel the need to found or join a rival club." Highlighting the absurdity of McCain's provocation, his proposal can't possibly work. The G-8 operates by consensus, and other members are opposed.
Why would McCain make such a proposal, a proposal Kagan and other advisers oppose? The answer may lie with his tendency to personalize foreign policy conflicts. Like Bush, McCain looked into Putin's soul, but, where Bush saw a man "deeply committed to his country," McCain saw only devilry: "I looked into Putin's eyes and saw three things: a K and a G and a B." McCain has repeatedly displayed his contempt for the Russian. He has called Putin a "spoiled child" who exhibits "aberrational" behavior and a "totalitarian dictator who ... is trying to revert [to] the old Russian Empire." And he continues to see Russia entirely through the prism of Putin, dismissing his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as "Putin's puppet." This tendency to personalize is common among neoconservatives who divide the world into good and evil. But, with McCain, who has always associated himself with Kagan and the more thoughtful neoconservatives, it may be more a product of his tendency to anger--and a mentality that more closely resembles the warrior than the statesman.
Indeed, McCain's cowboy antagonism extends beyond Russia. Two years ago, talking as if he were a Mafia don, McCain urged U.S. forces in Iraq to "take out" anti-American cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. In February, he publicly wished that Fidel Castro would hurry up and die, saying, "I hope he has the opportunity to meet Karl Marx very soon." Most significantly, he's apparently allowed his disgust with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--McCain says that he refuses to "learn how to pronounce [his] name"--to cloud his judgment, identifying the Iranian president as responsible for Tehran's nuclear ambitions even though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is in charge of the country's foreign policy.
So could McCain still do a "Nixon-goes-to-China"? Nixon was a realist whose achievement as a statesman (as distinct from his failure as president) rested on his recognition of the limits of American power. He understood when he came to office that the United States could not hope to achieve victory in Vietnam but would have to settle for an imperfect compromise and, after backtracking, eventually did.
Nixon, who could get into a funk over domestic opponents, was capable of an eerie detachment when it came to evaluating foreign leaders. He could also appreciate the historic insecurities that led countries to distrust the United States and each other. He confined his apocalyptic warnings of a worldwide communist conspiracy to domestic politics. He understood that beneath the appearance of socialist solidarity lay growing hostility between Russia and China, which the United States could exploit.
By contrast, McCain is a radical idealist who wants to transform the world and is reluctant to acknowledge limits to this enterprise. He imagines a "democratic" Iraq opposed to Iran and occupied indefinitely by American troops. And McCain does not seem to possess Nixon's detachment when it comes to foreign affairs. He can't see what drove Putin and now his successor to distance themselves from the United States; or what--since the time of the pro-American Shah--has driven Iran, irrespective of Ahmadinejad, to seek a nuclear capability.
If anything, McCain brings the same readiness to anger to bear in foreign relations that marked his tenure in the Senate. But it's one thing to blow up at a colleague and quite another to do so at a foreign president. The former may lead to difficulties in getting a bill passed; the latter to protracted conflict and even war. If one insists upon identifying a nation with its leader and seeing that leader as either incurably wicked or deeply irrational, then that rules out diplomacy or deterrence. Regime change becomes the only way of addressing a foe's antagonism. That, of course, was the argument that McCain and others used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and he seems to be making the same argument about Russia and Iran. John McCain has certainly had moments of greatness as a man and a politician, but, as a statesman, he's no Richard Nixon.
John Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.Subscribe to The New Republic for only $29.97 a year--75% off cover price!