Foreign policy comes crashing back into the campaigns

Neither Obama nor McCain seems prepared for the post-post-Cold War realities now rearing their heads. New presidents rarely come into office knowing enough, or knowing that they don't know enough.
Crosscut archive image.

President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (U.S. State Department)

Neither Obama nor McCain seems prepared for the post-post-Cold War realities now rearing their heads. New presidents rarely come into office knowing enough, or knowing that they don't know enough.

Our television screens have been filled over the past few days with events signifying the huge international challenges a new President Barack Obama or John McCain will face next January. Here's a quick summary:

The Olympics in China are more about China's national pride and will to global power than the athletic competition per se. In that regard, they resemble the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, staged by Adolf Hitler as a showcase for Germany's rising power and rallying point for German nationalism. (Other comparisons between present-day China and Hitler Germany should be made with great care, however).

A few days ago, China and India were the principal players in bringing to a halt, and perhaps destroying, the Doha Round of global trade negotiations and a 50-year drive toward multilateral liberalization of world trade. They, as well as Brazil, will be increasingly unlikely to accept Western-made groundrules on global warming — in fact, on any issue which might slow their drives toward economic growth.

Russia's military strike against Georgia, an independent sovereign nation, was about its similar intention to reassert regional dominance and regain true superpower status. Domestically, oil revenues have brought prosperity and new strength to Russia. There is again in Russia an authoritarian central government exercising media censorship, crippling democratic institutions, and imprisoning and murdering dissidents.

U.S. and other coalition troops are on the ground attempting to establish internal security in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, the new national government appears less inclined to challenge Al Qaida/Taliban forces operating out of its border provinces than was the previous one. Such forces are moving freely into Afghanistan, and back again, often with the collaboration of Pakistani intelligence agents.

Famine and genocide recur in Africa and parts of Asia as the international community finds itself generally helpless to intervene except through humanitarian aid and ineffectual diplomacy.

What's the common thread in these events? A new President Obama or McCain will face challenges where U.S. military interventions, for the most part, would be useless or counter-productive and where meaningful peaceful measures will be of dubious effect. Take the Russian action against Georgia. Neither the United States nor NATO is about to challenge the Russians in a shooting war. The intervention has been a wakeup call for the West. Russia supplies some 40 percent of Western Europe's energy. It is nuclear armed. It would be able to veto any action by the United Nations Security Council. As a practical matter, only strong diplomatic positions taken by the European Union, NATO, and Group of Seven economic powers are likely to move the Russians — and not much.

In the wake of the Russian incursion, steps must be taken to strengthen not only Georgia's autonomy but that of Ukraine and the Baltic states. All want to join Europe rather than remain under Russia's thumb. A high-risk strategy would involve positioning NATO troops along the eastern borders of these countries, should the countries request them, to deter further Russian intimidation. If the Russians moved anyway, we would be on the brink of general war.

China, too, wishes to dominate its neighbors. But, ahead of that priority, China wishes to gain sufficient economic and financial power to feed, educate, and find jobs for its huge population. The domestic Chinese economy must grow about 8 percent annually just to hold even. The United States and its partners must engage China economically and financially both to help and channel its growth. A first priority must be to keep China within the World Trade Organization, and its rules, after China's leading role in breaking up recent global negotiations.

There are no easy options regarding Iran either. Any nation with the technical capability to do so — North Korea stands as a prime example — can acquire nuclear weapons if it wishes to spend its national wealth for that purpose. Israel took out nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria, but it would be more difficult to do so in Iran. Its facilities are decentralized and hardened. Moreover, an Israeli action against Iran would provide it with a pretext to generate revenge actions not only against Israel but against Western nations, by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, for instance. The populous, coming generation in Iran wants to westernize and will reject the present regime. But, until then, the frustrating but probably necessary U.S. course will be to converse with the coming generation while keeping international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, and encouraging Iranian movements toward modernization and democracy.

Meantime, Iran is continuing willfully on its path to nuclear-power status while threatening Israel's existence, filtering agents and weapons into Iraq, and financing Hamas and other groups attacking Israel. Russia, in turn, is helping Iran with nuclear technical assistance and has reverted to its old Soviet role of fomenting trouble for the United States and other Western nations in all parts of the Middle East and in newly independent states in central Asia. It is the same old Great Game being played again by the same players in the same part of the world.

Surveying this landscape, it is clear that tough-talking Cold War era strategies will have little effect, except where we are willing to directly intervene militarily, almost universally a dubious course. Nor will Be-Nice, UN-based, multilateral initiatives be effective in dealing with sovereign nations bent willfully on courses they think serve their interests. Policies appealing to the brotherhood of man are unimpressive to those brothers and sisters willing to play outside the rules in order to serve themselves.

We are entering a post-post-Cold War era in which no single approach will deal with the many problems in front of us. We are faced with great-power ambitions being pursued by powerful, nuclear-armed nations. We also face terrorist movements which are not state-based.

A good beginning would be to return to the old, sometimes discredited, usually unasked question U.S. Presidents should pose to their advisors as a new Administration undertakes the fundamental review of all policies and options that takes place in its first weeks in office. The question is: What policies and measures are most likely in this instance to serve the American national interest and keep the American people safe?

Imagine, for a moment, that President George W. Bush had asked such a question of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and his other key national-security advisors when they proposed a U.S. military intervention in Iraq before they knew definitively if weapons of mass destruction were present in that country. Things would look a great deal different now.

New Presidents often come to office lacking prior knowledge which would enable them to ask the right questions. President Harry Truman, for instance, assumed office completely ignorant of the existence of nuclear weapons. He gave orders to use those weapons without fully examining other options. Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's principal advisor, once told me that "we came to office (in 1961) thinking we knew everything and soon learned we knew little." Kennedy had to undergo a Bay of Pigs, Berlin Crisis, Cuban Missile Crisis, and embroilment in Vietnam before he began to get it. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, relied on JFK's holdover advisors to guide Vietnam policy which, had he lived, JFK might have challenged. It took Johnson four years to get it. President Carter came to the White House relatively ignorant and never did get it. President Bush, it seems to me, gets it now but way too late.

I have seen little in the pronouncements and policy papers of either Obama or McCain to make me conclude they have much more now than general inclinations toward international policy approaches. Obama expresses his generation's commendable instinct toward global action and peaceful means to address global problems. McCain expresses a traditional, Cold War-era inclination toward use of U.S. power in pursuit of predetermined vital interests. Both, it seems to me, are too given to expressing in moral terms policy questions best addressed through practical assessments of options and their probable effects. That is the way a professional administration, once formed, begins to operate.

Obama is relatively inexperienced, but he has high intelligence and generally good instincts. I believe McCain to be temperamentally unsuited to the presidency. Let us hope both are pushed hard in their televised fall debates in order to draw them out on foreign-policy issues which cannot be addressed by soundbites.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of