Zakaria: McCain's Schizophrenic Foreign Policy

Amid the din of the dueling democrats, people seem to have forgotten about that other guy in the presidential race—you know, John McCain. McCain is said to be benefiting from this politically because his rivals are tearing each other apart. In fact, few people are paying much attention to what the Republican nominee is saying, or subjecting it to any serious scrutiny.

On March 26, McCain gave a speech on foreign policy in Los Angeles that was billed as his most comprehensive statement on the subject. It contained within it the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years. Yet almost no one noticed.

In his speech McCain proposed that the United States expel Russia from the G8, the group of advanced industrial countries. Moscow was included in this body in the 1990s to recognize and reward it for peacefully ending the cold war on Western terms, dismantling the Soviet empire and withdrawing from large chunks of the old Russian Empire as well. McCain also proposed that the United States should expand the G8 by taking in India and Brazil—but pointedly excluded China from the councils of power.

We have spent months debating Barack Obama's suggestion that he might, under some circumstances, meet with Iranians and Venezuelans. It is a sign of what is wrong with the foreign-policy debate that this idea is treated as a revolution in U.S. policy while McCain's proposal has barely registered. What McCain has announced is momentous—that the United States should adopt a policy of active exclusion and hostility toward two major global powers. It would reverse a decades-old bipartisan American policy of integrating these two countries into the global order, a policy that began under Richard Nixon (with Beijing) and continued under Ronald Reagan (with Moscow). It is a policy that would alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.

I write this with sadness because I greatly admire John McCain, a man of intelligence, honor and enormous personal and political courage. I also agree with much of what else he said in that speech in Los Angeles. But in recent years, McCain has turned into a foreign-policy schizophrenic, alternating between neoconservative posturing and realist common sense. His speech reads like it was written by two very different people, each one given an allotment of a few paragraphs on every topic.

The neoconservative vision within the speech is essentially an affirmation of ideology. Not only does it declare war on Russia and China, it places the United States in active opposition to all nondemocracies. It proposes a League of Democracies, which would presumably play the role that the United Nations now does, except that all nondemocracies would be cast outside the pale. The approach lacks any strategic framework. What would be the gain from so alienating two great powers? How would the League of Democracies fight terrorism while excluding countries like Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Singapore? What would be the gain to the average American to lessen our influence with Saudi Arabia, the central banker of oil, in a world in which we are still crucially dependent on that energy source?

The single most important security problem that the United States faces is securing loose nuclear materials. A terrorist group can pose an existential threat to the global order only by getting hold of such material. We also have an interest in stopping proliferation, particularly by rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea. To achieve both of these core objectives—which would make American safe and the world more secure—we need Russian cooperation. How fulsome is that likely to be if we gratuitously initiate hostilities with Moscow? Dissing dictators might make for a stirring speech, but ordinary Americans will have to live with the complications after the applause dies down.

To reorder the G8 without China would be particularly bizarre. The G8 was created to help coordinate problems of the emerging global economy. Every day these problems multiply—involving trade, pollution, currencies—and are in greater need of coordination. To have a body that attempts to do this but excludes the world's second largest economy is to condemn it to failure and irrelevance. International groups are not cheerleading bodies but exist to help solve pressing global crises. Excluding countries won't make the problems go away.

McCain appears to think that he can magically unite the two main strands in the Republican foreign-policy establishment. But he can't. This is not about personalities but about two philosophically divergent views of international affairs. Put together, they will produce infighting and incoherence. We have seen this movie before. We have watched an American president unable to choose between his ideologically driven vice president and his pragmatic secretary of State—and the result was the catastrophe of George W. Bush's first term. Twenty-five years earlier, we watched another president who believed that he could encompass the entire spectrum of foreign policy. He, too, gave speeches that were drafted by advisers with divergent world views: in that case, Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski. It led to the paralyzing internal battles of the Carter years. Does John McCain want to try this experiment one more time?

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