The Realist Candidates

Fareed Zakaria on the realism of the two presidential candidates:

Rhetoric about transcendent threats and mortal dangers grips the American imagination. But it also twists U.S. foreign policy in ways that can prove to be extremely costly to the country and the world.

I think that both candidates are realists dressed up in idealist rhetoric. Zakaria argues that the world more closely resembles Barack Obama’s vision of it than John McCain’s. But I would reformulate that as, The world’s challenges will be more responsive to Barack Obama’s remedies than to John McCain’s. It’s easy to caricature McCain’s vision of Russia and China and the “Rise of the Rest” as threats to American hegemony, but the fact remains that they are. The real debate is whether their emergence (or resurgence in Russia’s case) as global powers is the kind of geopolitical event that can be countered, or whether it is the product of broader historical forces that we are powerless to resist but might be able to channel.

McCain’s response (the former) is anchored in American exceptionalism, whereby Manifest Destiny reflects America’s personal relationship to history. Obama’s response (the latter) is based on a sense that America’s (and the West’s) monopoly on history is coming to an end, and we’d do well to seek opportunities for extending our power and influence by adapting it to the new realities.

I don’t think either candidate will hesitate to use force when necessary to defend America’s interest. But if the world becomes nothing but “transcendent threats and mortal dangers,” as Zakaria says, the result will be American foreign policy twisted in extremely costly ways. And so far, that is the only language McCain has found to express his vision.