Why Kissinger Should Support Obama

October 30, 2008

When it comes to foreign policy, there are two McCains. On the one hand, he is attentive to competition between countries and maintaining the balance of power, in the realist style favored by Kissinger.

In his early career, McCain counseled caution in the deployment of American power, emphasizing the need to husband America’s resources until the point when her interests were directly engaged. He opposed Reagan’s efforts to extend the American military presence in Lebanon and was chary about American participation in other second-tier conflicts, such as the early phase of the Bosnian conflict and the American mission in Somalia.

Neither presidential candidate would usher in an era of Kissingerian realism. In his three a.m. moments, however, the old man may admit to himself that his own candidate is less realistic than his opponent.

McCain’s pragmatism was evident in his support for normalizing U.S.-Vietnam relations, despite his brutal treatment at the hands of his Viet Cong captors and the character of the communist regime in Hanoi.

On the other hand, McCain’s foreign-policy idealism became more pronounced after Washington’s victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War, and in response to the savagery of the Balkan wars. From the mid-1990s, McCain became more aggressive about the propagation of American values and more convinced of the link between freedom and force.

In 1999, he argued America should use her “primacy in world affairs for humanity’s benefit” and called for “rogue state rollback.” In the months after 9/11, he enthusiastically promoted the Iraq war.

McCain believes in muscling up to Moscow. It is impossible to imagine Kissinger thinking (let alone saying) during the Russia-Georgia crisis: “Today, we are all Georgians.” With this statement, McCain drew an implicit comparison with both 9/11 (after which Le Monde editorialized, “We are all Americans”) and the Cold War (in particular, John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”) It would not be easy for a President McCain to square the circle of confronting Russia while cooperating with it to maintain the international order and meet global challenges such as climate change.

The Republican candidate’s idea of a “League of Democracies” is a particularly unrealistic proposal, for three reasons: regime type is not the only determinant of regime behavior; any international organization should, for the sake of its effectiveness, include states which cause problems as well as those that fix them; and few democracies are enthusiastic about joining such a league.

McCain’s description of himself as a “realistic idealist” hardly clarifies how the tension between the two traditions—evident in the baroque inconsistencies of his speeches—would manifest itself in the White House.

Neither does his roster of advisers, equally divided between neoconservatives and assertive nationalists, such as Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Randy Scheunemann, and realists, such as Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz, and Kissinger himself.

By contrast, Obama presents himself as a post-ideological foreign-policy figure. The signature themes of his book, The Audacity of Hope, are not so much hope and change as reasonableness and balance. Unlike Bush and McCain, Obama does not dwell on the roles that good and evil play in the affairs of humankind.

His pragmatism was apparent in his famous 2002 speech against the invasion of Iraq, which was not the standard liberal critique but a nuanced argument against “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

However, Obama would not be a Kissingerian realist, either. He has worn that mantle in recent months, stating he prefers “foreign-policy realism” to “ideology,” advocating a “clear-eyed view of how the world works” and “tough, thoughtful, realistic diplomacy,” and calling upon not only traditional Democratic foreign-policy heroes such as Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt but also George Kennan and George H.W. Bush. Fareed Zakaria dubbed Obama a “cool conservative” next to McCain’s “exuberant idealist.”

But to be a realist, you need to have ice in your veins, and it’s not clear Obama does—or that any Democratic administration would display the kind of steely devotion to national interests above all other considerations that the term implies.

An Obama administration would be staffed by Democrats and animated partly by Democratic values such as a commitment to human rights; it would be influenced not only by foreign-policy professionals but by Congress, labor unions, activists, and the “netroots” – the movement that so passionately opposed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and that would maintain a constant pressure on Obama’s left flank.

In fact, given Obama’s characterization of genocide as “a stain on our souls,” it is possible that humanitarian intervention would be a theme of his presidency. Many of the people around the candidate, including Susan Rice, Tony Lake and Samantha Power, have strong views on the topic. Certainly Obama’s secretary of state would not say coolly, as James Baker did in 1991 of the Balkan wars, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

During George W. Bush’s second term, realism has made a comeback. American foreign policy has undergone a difficult shift – from unilateralism to multilateralism, from a more ideological program to a more pragmatic one, from an overreliance on force to a more balanced array of approaches. It would be regrettable if America were now to unlearn those lessons.

There seems little risk of this happening under a President Obama, but what about in the case of a President McCain, who would not be a lame duck like Bush but a newly elected hawk? The hope is that McCain is cognizant of the Bush administration’s sins and would not repeat them – that he shares the administration’s belated understanding that American power, while great, is not unlimited. A pessimist would observe, however, that McCain’s response to the Georgia crisis was more bellicose than that of either Obama or Bush.

Neither presidential candidate would usher in an era of Kissingerian realism. In his three a.m. moments, however, the old man may admit to himself that his own candidate is less realistic than his opponent.