The contest between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States is being followed intently around the world. But how much exactly, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, is at stake? Experts often get this question wrong. In 2000, the received wisdom was that the foreign policy differences between the presidential candidates were small, but in retrospect the gulf between Al Gore and George Bush seems enormous. The 2004 election appeared to present a comprehensive conflict of worldviews, but in fact Bush’s policy had already begun to moderate, and in his second term he has run a fairly orthodox foreign policy relying on multilateral approaches to the most difficult challenges—which is broadly what John Kerry’s foreign policy would have looked like.
What about this year? Certainly, the menu of options available to the next president will be limited by Bush’s legacy, but McCain and Obama would choose very differently from that menu. The foreign policy differences between the two candidates are striking. In terms of the goals that they would pursue, the strains of idealism are much stronger in McCain’s makeup, although Obama would hardly govern as a classic realist either. Regarding the means they would employ, McCain would be, on balance, more unilateral, state-centric and hawkish than his Democratic rival. If Obama offers hope, McCain offers glory. Temperamentally, Obama is deliberate whereas McCain is unpredictable. The election of either man would shift international perceptions of America, but Obama would shift them more. Obama’s charm, steely determination and high intelligence evokes no one more than Jack Kennedy; McCain’s taste for adventure and his muscular approach to life brings to mind the original Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt.
The risks posed by a President Obama are that America’s adversaries would mistake his reasonableness for weakness, and that the high expectations held by Americans and the world for his foreign policy would not be met. The risk posed by a President McCain is that the United States would unlearn the hard lessons it has learned over the past five years.