Q&A: McCain's Foreign Policy Guru

When John McCain outlined his foreign policy platform in a speech in Los Angeles on March 26, part of the credit went to Robert Kagan, an adviser to McCain's campaign and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his new book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," Kagan argues that the apparent triumph of liberal democracy in the 1990s was fleeting and that an era of renewed great power competition is upon us.

That competition is marked by the tension between two political traditions: Western liberal democracies and Eastern autocracies, primarily a resurgent Russia and a rising China. NEWSWEEK's Christopher Flavelle asked Kagan what those changes mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy and how a John McCain presidency might address them. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You argue in your new book that the West needs to think harder about how to protect our interests, given the return of great power politics.
Robert Kagan:
I think we're going back to something that looks more like the 19th century. We're not talking about isolation and confrontation necessarily. But I think that true realism means that you do have to take into account the nature of the government you're dealing with. Any policy that doesn't recognize that an autocracy like Putin's Russia has special interests as an autocracy is going to get Russia wrong.

What does getting Russia right mean?
It means understanding that there is a competition going on, mostly spurred by Russia, for a sphere of influence, for instance in Georgia and Ukraine. I would hope that the next president would work hard with the allies to convince them that it's very important that NATO make a commitment to both Ukraine and Georgia, so that Russia's not tempted to engage in confrontation and possibly even subversion in those places. Second, I think it's important that the United States and Europe work together on much sounder and more coherent energy security policy. Right now Russia is successfully playing European countries off one another, buying up critical nodes as a means of strengthening its leverage in the energy sector in Europe.

In the 1990s one of the beliefs was that eventually Russia and China would become something close to democracy. Was that too lofty a goal?
The nature of the government in Russia matters. It's been a mistake on the part of Bush administration to allow Putin gradually to consolidate his power really with no protest from the West. Whether it's the consolidation of power within the Kremlin, the gradual destruction of press freedoms, the jailing of rich opponents, the disqualification of opposition parties—at each step the Western response has been pretty minimal. That's a mistake from a strategic point of view as well as from a values point of view. I think the Clinton administration was right when it argued that a democratic Russia was in the interests of the United States and an autocratic Russia was not.

There have been calls for President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony at the Olympics in Beijing. Is that the kind of approach you think would help with China?
It's important that China realize that its internal behavior in the 21st century is not something that the rest of the world has nothing to say about. The goal of having the Olympics in China was clearly political; it was an attempt to burnish China's image and announce its arrival on the international scene. If China is at the same time crushing the rights of some of its people, it's only appropriate that the world respond. I don't see any reason why an American president wouldn't want to just happen to miss those opening ceremonies and make those views known.

Will McCain be able to convince people that it remains important to American security to stay in Iraq?
McCain's position is that he doesn't want to keep American troops in Iraq a minute longer than is absolutely necessary. But I think most Americans understand that a hasty and reckless withdrawal that leaves Iraq not only as a basket case but also as a potential base for terrorists is not in America's interest and really would put America in a position of having to go back in again. I'm hoping that Americans appreciate the fundamental honesty that McCain is offering.

One of the ideas McCain offered in his foreign policy speech was the creation of a new international institution called the League of Democracies. What would that look like?
There are international institutions that gather together all the rich nations, there are groups of poor nations, there's an Islamic Conference. The one thing there doesn't seem to be is a group of democracies, getting together to discuss the issues of the day. I think that's something that's lacking in the present system, and one that could possibly do some good.

Would it be a counterweight to the United Nations, or reduce the U.N.'s influence?
I don't see it as a substitute for the U.N. It complements the U.N. There may be instances—whether it's something like Darfur or Burma—when the U.N. Security Council is unable to act because of the divisions between the autocracies and the democracies, and when a group of democracies might be able to take some action and might even receive the kind of sanction from the U.N. secretary-general that ultimately the Kosovo operation got.

That sounds similar to the idea of the "Responsibility to Protect," which calls on other countries to intervene when a country abuses its own citizens. Is that the kind of thing this institution might advance?
The Responsibility to Protect is an area where the democracies are substantially in agreement and the autocracies are substantially in opposition, for obvious reasons. The Kosovo operation was regarded very negatively in Moscow and Beijing precisely because they don't want the international system to legitimize getting between a ruler and his people. We see this clash occurring in a place like Zimbabwe, Darfur and elsewhere. I think democracies are in fundamental agreement on this, and I think it would be better if they could find some way to pursue ideas like Responsibility to Protect, even if the autocracies insist on opposing it.

Leaving aside Iraq, what are the differences between the foreign policy platforms of the two parties right now?
They're probably not as great as a lot of people would like to pretend. Is American power something that can be used for good? I think that all the leading candidates believe the answer to that is yes. Is it necessary for the U.S. to remain strong? Every candidate is calling for increases in American military capabilities.

Do you see the divide between the United States and Europe narrowing? Is there more unity now that the West is being challenged by both autocracies and Islamic terrorism?
The divide I described was a difference of world view when it comes to how and when to use military force. I don't think that's likely to change dramatically. The question is, given those differences, how well can we get along. The United States needs to not only listen to its allies but be willing to be persuaded by its allies. The other end of the bargain is that the allies need to not avert their eyes from potential problems, which they would sometimes rather not face up to. If we see the return of great power competition, that might draw the United States and Europe closer together—especially if the United States makes itself what John McCain has called a good international citizen. That has to do with behavior on a whole range of issues, from climate change to nuclear weapons to questions like how to deal with detainees. Good international citizenship is important.