On the campaign trail, the debate over foreign policy has been muted of late. That might be because more-important topics like lipstick and hockey moms have taken center stage. But the contrasts between the presidential candidates also seem to have softened. Their differences over Iraq policy have shrunk as the place has stabilized somewhat and the Iraqi government looks for a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. Both candidates oppose Iran's nuclear ambitions and Russia's incursion into Georgia. Both support a vigorous fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Yet there's clearly a fundamental difference in the way the two candidates see the world. The split might best be captured by asking a simple question: what kind of a world do we live in? Neither candidate has been asked this, and I doubt either would answer as frankly as I am suggesting, but here's my guess—drawn from their writings and speeches—about what each might say.
We live in a very dangerous world, John McCain would respond. In his eyes, Islamic extremism is the transcendent challenge of the age. Jihadist warriors—funded and supported by states that adhere to their views—pose the central threat to the United States. In the rise of China, Russia and India, McCain sees turbulence. Russia and China, being autocracies, represent a special danger. Moscow's attack on Georgia was, for McCain, the "first serious crisis since the end of the cold war." The role for America, in such an environment, is to aggressively use its power—hard power—to fight evil, spread freedom and defeat the enemy. Otherwise we will lose the struggle for the 21st century.
Obama's sense of the world is more optimistic. The dangers are real but not so all-encompassing. Obama speaks less of Islamic extremism in general and more of Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups specifically. He points out that compared with the cold war—when thousands of Soviet nuclear missiles were pointed at American cities—the threats we face today are reduced. He argues that most people in the Islamic world want development and a better life, not jihad. America's promise remains alive even in these countries.
America's role, for Obama, is to restore its military strength, fight Al Qaeda and its ilk, and deter rogue regimes like Iran. But it is also to stay calm, because in overreacting to dangers, we often cause new problems and crises. To lump together all Islamist groups is to exaggerate and misunderstand the threat. The Iraq War, for Obama, is a prime example of an alarmist overreaction, one that had the United States launch an unprovoked invasion of a country and rack up huge costs. If America can keep its cool and provide the help that countries really seek—in development, modernization and democracy-building—then we will gain in both security and legitimacy.
There is some truth to both visions of the world, but in my view the reality is much closer to Obama's—more so than most American politicians seem willing to admit. We live in remarkably peaceful times. A University of Maryland study shows that deaths from wars of all kinds have been dropping dramatically for 20 years and are lower now than at any point in the last half century. A study from Simon Fraser University finds that casualties from terrorism have been steadily declining since 9/11. It is increasingly clear—look at their voting from Indonesia to Iraq to Pakistan—that very few Muslims anywhere support Islamic fundamentalists. More countries than ever before now embrace capitalism and democracy.
It's also worth noting that ever since World War II, the United States has tended to make its strategic missteps by exaggerating dangers. During the 1950s, conservatives argued that Dwight Eisenhower was guilty of appeasement because he was willing to contain rather than roll back communism. The paranoia about communism helped fuel McCarthyism at home and support for dubious regimes abroad. John Kennedy chose to outflank Nixon on the right by arguing that there was a dangerous missile gap between the Soviets and the United States (when in fact the United States had almost 20,000 missiles and the Soviets had fewer than 2,000). The 1970s witnessed a frenzied argument that the Soviet Union was surpassing the United States militarily and was about to "Finlandize" Europe. The reality, of course, was that when neoconservatives were arguing that the U.S.S.R. was about to conquer the world, it was on the verge of total collapse.
Since end of the cold war, similar alarms have been sounded several times. In the 1990s, the Cox Commission argued that China was building a military to rival ours, citing numbers that soon proved to be bogus. Then there's Saddam Hussein, who was described as a powerful and imminent threat to the United States. In fact, the greatest problem that we have faced in Iraq is its weakness, its utter dysfunction as a state and a nation. Rhetoric about transcendent threats and mortal dangers grips the imagination of the American people. But it also twists U.S. foreign policy in ways that can prove to be extremely costly to the country and the world.