Both Candidates Embrace Diplomacy
Tone Struck by McCain and Obama Contrasts With That of Recent Political Campaigns

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Over the past decade, Sen. John McCain has dismissed France and Germany as unreliable allies, suggested that the United States would attack North Korea even if South Korea objected, and called for "rogue-state rollback" to help "overthrow odious regimes that rule these states."

But, campaigning for the presidency this year, the Republican from Arizona has struck a different tone. "We must be willing to listen to our democratic allies," he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. "Being a great power does not mean that we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume that we have all the wisdom, knowledge, and resources necessary to succeed. . . . To be a good leader, America must be a good ally."

Diplomacy is back.

In sharp distinction with other recent presidential contests, the candidates from both major parties now equate American strength overseas with a willingness to work closely with other nations and within international institutions. Thus McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, are battling over who can best work with allies, engage nations and raise the United States' global standing. The two men even made highly publicized overseas trips in the midst of their campaigns, with Obama meeting leaders in the Middle East and Europe, and McCain making similar stops -- as well as touring Canada and Latin America.

In the 2004 campaign, by contrast, President Bush scorned the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), for suggesting that U.S. foreign policy needed to pass a "global test" to be legitimate. In the 1996 race, Republican Sen. Robert J. Dole (Kan.) railed against the United Nations, spitting out with scorn the name of then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In 1992, the campaign of Democratic challenger Bill Clinton printed T-shirts mocking the "around-the-world tour" of President George H.W. Bush, listing every country he had visited amid a period of U.S. economic turmoil.

Robert Kagan, a foreign policy expert who has advised the McCain campaign, said the current campaigns are responding to a feeling among Americans that the U.S. image has faltered among other democracies, in part because of the detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and allegations of torture. "Clearly, Americans -- and not just the liberal elites -- are not happy with the bad reputation we have around the world," he said. "We do care what others think."

"We had this unhealthy spasm of unilateralism and pride in which we could go it alone," said Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "The pendulum has swung back."

The worldwide economic crisis may further force the next president to work closely with other nations; the global flow of investments makes it all but impossible for any country to go its own way on international economic policy. Already, the United States has shifted its position on investing federal funds to stabilize banks after European leaders embraced the concept.

David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Commerce Department official, said the next president will have an opportunity to work with other nations to reshape and revitalize international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

"It is going to fall to the next president to be the architect of these new institutions -- the first since Truman," he said. "These institutions have sputtered along in the past decade or two without the kind of crisis that forces changes. It is a window of opportunity for America to advance a global agenda."

While both candidates are distancing themselves from Bush, the president has paved the way for greater engagement through substantial changes in his foreign policy approach -- shifts that have infuriated some conservatives and have altered the campaign's foreign policy debate.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have largely adopted the approach to North Korea advocated by Kerry in 2004 -- bilateral talks accompanied by multilateral discussions -- to prod Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. This year, the president authorized a senior U.S. diplomat to join multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear weapons, a move that European allies had urged for several years. And Syria, long shunned by the administration, is back out of the diplomatic doghouse.

The call for greater diplomacy has been echoed by other prominent figures. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has made a series of speeches arguing that U.S. foreign policy has become excessively militarized and that the State Department needs more resources. A bipartisan group of former secretaries of state last month made the case for direct talks with adversaries such as Iran.

Of course, McCain and Obama differ sharply on some foreign policy issues, notably how long to prosecute the war in Iraq. McCain has sought to portray Obama as naive and inexperienced in foreign affairs, seizing on the Illinois Democrat's comment during the primary debates in which he expressed willingness to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea within his first year as president. Obama later amended that to say such meetings would occur only after extensive preparation by lower-level officials.

McCain has also signaled that he would take a tougher line on Iran, seeking to quickly enact enhanced political, economic and financial sanctions shortly after taking office -- a diplomatic push that could cause tensions with European allies.

But McCain's aides say he would also take dramatic steps in his first 100 days to reassure allies, including issuing an executive order closing the Guantanamo detention center and transferring detainees to U.S. facilities.

The Obama campaign has tended to ignore the Bush administration's second-term shifts, instead painting all of the Bush years as a disaster for diplomacy.

"Eight years of bluster and refusing to engage our adversaries has clearly left the United States less safe and less respected in the world," spokesman Hari Sevugan said. "Barack Obama emphasizes diplomacy because he wants to use all elements of American power -- including the power of direct, aggressive American diplomacy with all nations -- to create new opportunities to protect the American people."

But Kagan, the McCain adviser, said it is difficult to overcome serious differences even with some of Washington's closest allies, including whether to contribute more troops to Afghanistan and how strongly to confront Russia.

"We cannot ignore the fact that other countries have interests that are counter to ours," he said. "When all the smiling stops, you are back to some basic, intractable problems."

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