Will this be the foreign policy trump-card?

Will this be the foreign policy trump-card?


    Is McCain’s plan for a ‘League of Democracies’ the answer?

On May Day of last year, John McCain addressed the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. As the Republican primary candidate with the most foreign policy experience, his remarks received a significant amount of attention.

The key idea in the speech was that, if elected President, McCain would call a summit of the Democratically-elected world leaders, and discuss with them how global problems might be solved. He described the idea as ‘a League of Democracies’. This was explicitly targetted at the less-Democratic regimes in Moscow and Beijing, and their ability to frustrate international intervention in certain crises by casting vetoes from their permanent seats on the UN Security Council.

McCain was not proposing to abolish the UN (though that would be a vote-winner in much of the US), but rather that where the UN failed to act, that a formal organisation comprising members of NATO, NAFTA, and other democracies would be able to respond with a degree of multilateral legitimacy.

What makes this speech interesting in the current climate is the following passage:

“A decade ago, the great Russian people had thrown off communist tyranny and seemed determined to build democracy and a free market and to join the West. Today, Russia looks more and more like some 19th-century autocracy, marked by diminishing political freedoms, shadowy intrigue, and mysterious assassinations. Beyond its borders Moscow has tried to expand its influence over its neighbors in Eastern, Central and even Western Europe. While the more democratic Russia of the 1990s sought to deepen its ties with Europe and America, today a more authoritarian Moscow manipulates Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas to compel silence and obedience, and to try to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. The Russian government is even more brutal toward the young democracies on its periphery, threatening them with trade embargoes and worse if they move too close to the West. It supports separatist movements in Georgia and Moldova and openly intervened in Ukraine’s presidential elections.

Barack Obama recently went on a whistlestop tour of Europe and the Middle East in an effort to sure up his foreign policy credentials defecit. It worked to a degree, and the US is (I believe) receptive to the idea of being loved and admired by Europe once again, but would prefer a less rigid means of conducting foreign policy. Multilateralism comes with its own problems, and I believe that the Democratic Party position of general support for the UN would come under extreme pressure if this plan becomes a centre-piece of the election.

There are two problems for Obama here. The first is that American psephological discourse (popularised by the ‘West Wing’) recognises ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ issues, and the trick is, not to suggest the best policy for each, but to tailor the election to one set or the other. ‘Mommy issues’ (being shorthand for Healthcare, Jobs, Environment, and Education) are traditionally the preserve of the Democratic Party; ‘Daddy issues’ (such as National Security, Defense Spending, Immigration, Foreign Policy) are traditionally better for Republicans. If, so popular wisdom goes, the 2008 election is all about Medicare and Social Security, Obama wins. If it is all about Iran and North Korea, expect to see President McCain sworn in next January.

The second problem is personal. The threat of Islamic terrorism is ‘new’ – in the public consciousness it began in September 2001. Iraq became a battlefield in the 1990s and Afghanistan only this century. Obama is comfortable with ‘new’. But another Cold War with Russia bring back memories of the twentieth century – Cuba, McCarthyism, the Space Race and Kennan’s Long Telegram. When the Republic of Georgia declared independence from the USSR (9th April 1991), Barack Obama was still in his twenties. Will Americans want a fresh new leader with a new approach, or with the Kremlin recovering its strength might Americans want a leader who pledges fidelity to all aspects of the legacy of the man who ‘won the Cold War’: Ronald Reagan?

I have been fairly outspoken as to how thouroughly clumsy, almost unprofessional, the McCain campaign has been since he won the Florida primary. And yet the slickest and best-funded campaign in electoral history, that of Barack Obama, is struggling to hold a lead outside the margin of error. If the election becomes about ‘Daddy’ issues, things will only get more uncomfortable for the Democrats. The bigger the South Ossetia conflict becomes, the easier it becomes to imagine John McCain as the next President of the United States.


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