by George Friedman
We are pleased to republish, with permission, this three-part analysis of the geopolitical impact of the U.S. presidential election by George Friedman, founder and Chief Intelligence Officer of Stratfor (www.stratfor.com), a respected private intelligence firm that has been termed “The Shadow CIA.” It describes the geopolitical landscape that will confront the next President, and then assesses the foreign policy proposals that a President Obama or President McCain will likely bring to bear. – Ed.
Part I: The New President and the Global Landscape
It has often been said that presidential elections are all about the economy. That just isn’t true. Harry Truman’s election was all about Korea. John Kennedy’s election focused on missiles, Cuba and Berlin. Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s elections were heavily about Vietnam. Ronald Reagan’s first election pivoted on Iran. George W. Bush’s second election was about Iraq. We won’t argue that presidential elections are all about foreign policy, but they are not all about the economy. The 2008 election will certainly contain a massive component of foreign policy.
We have no wish to advise you how to vote. That’s your decision. What we want to do is try to describe what the world will look like to the new president and consider how each candidate is likely to respond to the world. In trying to consider whether to vote for John McCain or Barack Obama, it is obviously necessary to consider their stands on foreign policy issues. But we have to be cautious about campaign assertions. Kennedy claimed that the Soviets had achieved superiority in missiles over the United States, knowing full well that there was no missile gap. Johnson attacked Barry Goldwater for wanting to escalate the war in Vietnam at the same time he was planning an escalation. Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by claiming that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. What a candidate says is not always an indicator of what the candidate is thinking.
It gets even trickier when you consider that many of the most important foreign policy issues are not even imagined during the election campaign. Truman did not expect that his second term would be dominated by a war in Korea. Kennedy did not expect to be remembered for the Cuban missile crisis. Jimmy Carter never imagined in 1976 that his presidency would be wrecked by the fall of the Shah of Iran and the hostage crisis. George H. W. Bush didn’t expect to be presiding over the collapse of communism or a war over Kuwait. George W. Bush (regardless of conspiracy theories) never expected his entire presidency to be defined by 9/11. If you read all of these presidents’ position papers in detail, you would never get a hint as to what the really important foreign policy issues would be in their presidencies.
Between the unreliability of campaign promises and the unexpected in foreign affairs, predicting what presidents will do is a complex business. The decisions a president must make once in office are neither scripted nor conveniently timed. They frequently present themselves to the president and require decisions in hours that can permanently define his (or her) administration. Ultimately, voters must judge, by whatever means they might choose, whether the candidate has the virtue needed to make those decisions well.
Virtue, as we are using it here, is a term that comes from Machiavelli. It means the opposite of its conventional usage. A virtuous leader is one who is clever, cunning, decisive, ruthless and, above all, effective. Virtue is the ability to face the unexpected and make the right decision, without position papers, time to reflect or even enough information. The virtuous leader can do that. Others cannot. It is a gut call for a voter, and a tough one.
This does not mean that all we can do is guess about a candidate’s nature. There are three things we can draw on. First, there is the political tradition the candidate comes from. There are more things connecting Republican and Democratic foreign policy than some would like to think, but there are also clear differences. Since each candidate comes from a different political tradition — as do his advisers — these traditions can point to how each candidate might react to events in the world. Second, there are indications in the positions the candidates take on ongoing events that everyone knows about, such as Iraq. Having pointed out times in which candidates have been deceptive, we still believe there is value in looking at their positions and seeing whether they are coherent and relevant. Finally, we can look at the future and try to predict what the world will look like over the next four years. In other words, we can try to limit the surprises as much as possible.
In order to try to draw this presidential campaign into some degree of focus on foreign policy, we will proceed in three steps. First, we will try to outline the foreign policy issues that we think will confront the new president, with the understanding that history might well throw in a surprise. Second, we will sketch the traditions and positions of both Obama and McCain to try to predict how they would respond to these events. Finally, after the foreign policy debate is over, we will try to analyze what they actually said within the framework we created.
Let me emphasize that this is not a partisan exercise. The best guarantee of objectivity is that there are members of our staff who are passionately (we might even say irrationally) committed to each of the candidates. They will be standing by to crush any perceived unfairness. It is Stratfor’s core belief that it is possible to write about foreign policy, and even an election, without becoming partisan or polemical. It is a difficult task and we doubt we can satisfy everyone, but it is our goal and commitment.The Post 9/11 World
Ever since 9/11 U.S. foreign policy has focused on the Islamic world. Starting in late 2002, the focus narrowed to Iraq. When the 2008 campaign for president began a year ago, it appeared Iraq would define the election almost to the exclusion of all other matters. Clearly, this is no longer the case, pointing to the dynamism of foreign affairs and opening the door to a range of other issues.
Iraq remains an issue, but it interacts with a range of other issues. Among these are the future of U.S.-Iranian relations; U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan and the availability of troops in Iraq for that mission; the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations and their impact on Afghanistan; the future of U.S.-Russian relations and the extent to which they will interfere in the region; resources available to contain Russian expansion; the future of the U.S. relationship with the Europeans and with NATO in the context of growing Russian power and the war in Afghanistan; Israel’s role, caught as it is between Russia and Iran; and a host of only marginally related issues. Iraq may be subsiding, but that simply complicates the world facing the new president.
The list of problems facing the new president will be substantially larger than the problems facing George W. Bush, in breadth if not in intensity. The resources he will have to work with, military, political and economic, will not be larger for the first year at least. In terms of military capacity, much will hang on the degree to which Iraq continues to bog down more than a dozen U.S. brigade combat teams. Even thereafter, the core problem facing the next president will be the allocation of limited resources to an expanding number of challenges. The days when it was all about Iraq is over. It is now all about how to make the rubber band stretch without breaking.
Iraq remains the place to begin, however, since the shifts there help define the world the new president will face. To understand the international landscape the new president will face, it is essential to begin by understanding what happened in Iraq, and why Iraq is no longer the defining issue of this campaign.A Stabilized Iraq and the U.S. Troop Dilemma
In 2006, it appeared that the situation in Iraq was both out of control and hopeless. Sunni insurgents were waging war against the United States, Shiite militias were taking shots at the Americans as well, and Sunnis and Shia were waging a war against each other. There seemed to be no way to bring the war to anything resembling a satisfactory solution.
When the Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, it appeared inevitable that the United States would begin withdrawing forces from Iraq. U.S expectations aside, this was the expectation by all parties in Iraq. Given that the United States was not expected to remain a decisive force in Iraq, all Iraqi parties discounted the Americans and maneuvered for position in anticipation of a post-American Iraq. The Iranians in particular saw an opportunity to limit a Sunni return to Iraq’s security forces, thus reshaping the geopolitics of the region. U.S. fighting with Iraqi Sunnis intensified in preparation for the anticipated American withdrawal.
Bush’s decision to increase forces rather than withdraw them dramatically changed the psychology of Iraq. It was assumed he had lost control of the situation. Bush’s decision to surge forces in Iraq, regardless by how many troops, established two things. First, Bush remained in control of U.S. policy. Second, the assumption that the Americans were leaving was untrue. And suddenly, no one was certain that there would be a vacuum to be filled.
The deployment of forces proved helpful, as did the change in how the troops were used; recent leaks indicate that new weapon systems also played a key role. The most important factor, however, was the realization that the Americans were not leaving on Bush’s watch. Since no one was sure who the next U.S. president would be, or what his policies might be, it was thus uncertain that the Americans would leave at all.
Everyone in Iraq suddenly recalculated. If the Americans weren’t leaving, one option would be to make a deal with Bush, seen as weak and looking for historical validation. Alternatively, they could wait for Bush’s successor. Iran remembers — without fondness — its decision not to seal a deal with Carter, instead preferring to wait for Reagan. Similarly, seeing foreign jihadists encroaching in Sunni regions and the Shia shaping the government in Baghdad, the Sunni insurgents began a fundamental reconsideration of their strategy.
Apart from reversing Iraq’s expectations about the United States, part of Washington’s general strategy was supplementing military operations with previously unthinkable political negotiations. First, the United States began talking to Iraq’s Sunni nationalist insurgents, and found common ground with them. Neither the Sunni nationalists nor the United States liked the jihadists, and both wanted the Shia to form a coalition government. Second, back-channel U.S.-Iranian talks clearly took place. The Iranians realized that the possibility of a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad was evaporating. Iran’s greatest fear was a Sunni Iraqi government armed and backed by the United States, recreating a version of the Hussein regime that had waged war with Iran for almost a decade. The Iranians decided that a neutral, coalition government was the best they could achieve, so they reined in the Shiite militia.
The net result of this was that the jihadists were marginalized and broken, and an uneasy coalition government was created in Baghdad, balanced between Iran and the United States. The Americans failed to create a pro-American government in Baghdad, but had blocked the emergence of a pro-Iranian government. Iraqi society remained fragmented and fragile, but a degree of peace unthinkable in 2006 had been created.
The first problem facing the next U.S. president will be deciding when and how many U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq. Unlike 2006, this issue will not be framed by Iraq alone. First, there will be the urgency of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Second, there will be the need to create a substantial strategic reserve to deal with potential requirements in Pakistan, and just as important, responding to events in the former Soviet Union like the recent conflict in Georgia.
At the same time, too precipitous a U.S. withdrawal not only could destabilize the situation internally in Iraq, it could convince Iran that its dream of a pro-Iranian Iraq is not out of the question. In short, too rapid a withdrawal could lead to resumption of war in Iraq. But too slow a withdrawal could make the situation in Afghanistan untenable and open the door for other crises.
The foreign policy test for the next U.S. president will be calibrating three urgent requirements with a military force that is exhausted by five years of warfare in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan. This force was not significantly expanded since Sept. 11, making this the first global war the United States has ever fought without a substantial military expansion. Nothing the new president does will change this reality for several years, so he will be forced immediately into juggling insufficient forces without the option of precipitous withdrawal from Iraq unless he is prepared to accept the consequences, particularly of a more powerful Iran.
The Nuclear Chip and a Stable U.S.-Iranian Understanding
The nuclear issue has divided the United States and Iran for several years. The issue seems to come and go depending on events elsewhere. Thus, what was enormously urgent just prior to the Russo-Georgian war became much less pressing during and after it. This is not unreasonable in our point of view, because we regard Iran as much farther from nuclear weapons than others might, and we suspect that the Bush administration agrees given its recent indifference to the question.
Certainly, Iran is enriching uranium, and with that uranium, it could possibly explode a nuclear device. But the gap between a nuclear device and weapon is substantial, and all the enriched uranium in the world will not give the Iranians a weapon. To have a weapon, it must be ruggedized and miniaturized to fit on a rocket or to be carried on an attack aircraft. The technologies needed for that range from material science to advanced electronics to quality assurance. Creating a weapon is a huge project. In our view, Iran does not have the depth of integrated technical skills needed to achieve that goal.
As for North Korea, for Iran a very public nuclear program is a bargaining chip designed to extract concessions, particularly from the Americans. The Iranians have continued the program very publicly in spite of threats of Israeli and American attacks because it made the United States less likely to dismiss Iranian wishes in Tehran’s true area of strategic interest, Iraq.
The United States must draw down its forces in Iraq to fight in Afghanistan. The Iranians have no liking for the Taliban, having nearly gone to war with them in 1998, and having aided the United States in Afghanistan in 2001. The United States needs Iran’s commitment to a neutral Iraq to withdraw U.S. forces since Iran could destabilize Iraq overnight, though Tehran’s ability to spin up Shiite proxies in Iraq has declined over the past year.
Therefore, the next president very quickly will face the question of how to deal with Iran. The Bush administration solution — relying on quiet understandings alongside public hostility — is one model. It is not necessarily a bad one, so long as forces remain in Iraq to control the situation. If the first decision the new U.S. president will have to make is how to transfer forces in Iraq elsewhere, the
second decision will be how to achieve a more stable understanding with Iran.
This is particularly pressing in the context of a more assertive Russia that might reach out to Iran. The United States will need Iran more than Iran needs the United States under these circumstances. Washington will need Iran to abstain from action in Iraq but to act in Afghanistan. More significantly, the United States will need Iran not to enter into an understanding with Russia. The next president will have to figure out how to achieve all these things without giving away more than he needs to, and without losing his domestic political base in the process.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban
The U.S. president also will have to come up with an Afghan policy, which really doesn’t exist at this moment. The United States and its NATO allies have deployed about 50,000 troops in Afghanistan. To benchmark this, the Russians deployed around 120,000 by the mid-1980s, and were unable to pacify the country. Therefore the possibility of 60,000 troops — or even a few additional brigades on top of that — pacifying Afghanistan is minimal. The primary task of troops in Afghanistan now is to defend the Kabul regime and other major cities, and to try to keep the major roads open. More troops will make this easier, but by itself, it will not end the war.
The problem in Afghanistan is twofold. First, the Taliban defeated their rivals in Afghanistan during the civil war of the 1990s because they were the most cohesive force in the country, were politically adept and enjoyed Pakistani support. The Taliban’s victory was not accidental; and all other things being equal, without the U.S. presence, they could win again. The United States never defeated the Taliban. Instead, the Taliban refused to engage in massed warfare against American airpower, retreated, dispersed and regrouped. In most senses, it is the same force that won the Afghan civil war.
The United States can probably block the Taliban from taking the cities, but to do more it must do three things. First, it must deny the Taliban sanctuary and lines of supply running from Pakistan. These two elements allowed the mujahideen to outlast the Soviets. They helped bring the Taliban to power. And they are fueling the Taliban today. Second, the United States must form effective coalitions with tribal groups hostile to the Taliban. To do this it needs the help of Iran, and more important, Washington must convince the tribes that it will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely — not an easy task. And third — the hardest task for the new president — the United States will have to engage the Taliban themselves, or at least important factions in the Taliban movement, in a political process. When we recall that the United States negotiated with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, this is not as far-fetched as it appears.
The most challenging aspect to deal with in all this is Pakistan. The United States has two issues in the South Asian country. The first is the presence of al Qaeda in northern Pakistan. Al Qaeda has not carried out a successful operation in the United States since 2001, nor in Europe since 2005. Groups who use the al Qaeda label continue to operate in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they use the name to legitimize or celebrate their activities — they are not the same people who carried out 9/11. Most of al Qaeda prime’s operatives are dead or scattered, and its main leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are not functional. The United States would love to capture bin Laden so as to close the books on al Qaeda, but the level of effort needed — assuming he is even alive — might outstrip U.S. capabilities.
The most difficult step politically for the new U.S. president will be to close the book on al Qaeda. This does not mean that a new group of operatives won’t grow from the same soil, and it doesn’t mean that Islamist terrorism is dead by any means. But it does mean that the particular entity the United States has been pursuing has effectively been destroyed, and the parts regenerating under its name are not as dangerous. Asserting victory will be extremely difficult for the new U.S. president. But without that step, a massive friction point between the United States and Pakistan will persist — one that isn’t justified geopolitically and undermines a much more pressing goal.
The United States needs the Pakistani army to attack the Taliban in Pakistan, or failing that, permit the United States to attack them without hindrance from the Pakistani military. Either of these are nightmarishly difficult things for a Pakistani government to agree to, and harder still to carry out. Nevertheless, without cutting the line of supply to Pakistan, like Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Afghanistan cannot be pacified. Therefore, the new president will face the daunting task of persuading or coercing the Pakistanis to carry out an action that will massively destabilize their country without allowing the United States to get bogged down in a Pakistan it cannot hope to stabilize.
At the same time, the United States must begin the political process of creating some sort of coalition in Afghanistan that it can live with. The fact of the matter is that the United States has no long-term interest in Afghanistan except in ensuring that radical jihadists with global operational reach are not given sanctuary there. Getting an agreement to that effect will be hard. Guaranteeing compliance will be virtually impossible. Nevertheless, that is the task the next president must undertake.
There are too many moving parts in Afghanistan to be sanguine about the outcome. It is a much more complex situation than Iraq, if for no other reason than because the Taliban are a far more effective fighting force than anything the United States encountered in Iraq, the terrain far more unfavorable for the U.S. military, and the political actors much more cynical about American capabilities.
The next U.S. president will have to make a painful decision. He must either order a long-term holding action designed to protect the Karzai government, launch a major offensive that includes Pakistan but has insufficient forces, or withdraw. Geopolitically, withdrawal makes a great deal of sense. Psychologically, it could unhinge the region and regenerate al Qaeda-like forces. Politically, it would not be something a new president could do. But as he ponders Iraq, the future president will have to address Afghanistan. And as he ponders Afghanistan, he will have to think about the Russians.
The Russian Resurgence
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Russians were allied with the United States. They facilitated the U.S. relationship with the Northern Alliance, and arranged for air bases in Central Asia. The American view of Russia was formed in the 1990s. It was seen as disintegrating, weak and ultimately insignificant to the global balance. The United States expanded NATO into the former Soviet Union in the Baltic states and said it wanted to expand it into Ukraine and Georgia. The Russians made it clear that they regarded this as a direct threat to their national security, resulting in the 2008 Georgian conflict.
The question now is where U.S.-Russian relations are going. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union a geopolitical catastrophe. After Ukraine and Georgia, it is clear he does not trust the United States and that he intends to reassert his sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. Georgia was lesson one. The current political crisis in Ukraine is the second lesson unfolding.
The re-emergence of a Russian empire in some form or another represents a far greater threat to the United States than the Islamic world. The Islamic world is divided and in chaos. It cannot coalesce into the caliphate that al Qaeda wanted to create by triggering a wave of revolutions in the Islamic world. Islamic terrorism remains a threat, but the geopolitical threat of a unifying Islamic power is not going to happen.
Russia is a different matter. The Soviet Union and the Russian empire both posed strategic threats because they could threaten Europe, the Middle East and China simultaneously. While this overstates the threat, it does provide some context. A united Eurasia is always powerful, and threatens to dominate the Eastern Hemisphere. Therefore, preventing Russia from reasserting its power in the former Soviet Union should take precedence over all other considerations.
The problem is that the United States and NATO together presently do not have the force needed to stop the Russians. The Russian army is not particularly powerful or effective, but it is facing forces that are far less powerful and effective. The United States has its forces tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan so that when the war in Georgia broke out, sending ground forces was simply not an option. The Russians are extremely aware of this window of opportunity, and are clearly taking advantage of it.
The Russians have two main advantages in this aside from American resource deficits. First, the Europeans are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas; German energy dependence on Moscow is particularly acute. The Europeans are in no military or economic position to take any steps against the Russians, as the resulting disruption would be disastrous. Second, as the United States maneuvers with Iran, the Russians can provide support to Iran, politically and in terms of military technology, that not only would challenge the United States, it might embolden the Iranians to try for a better deal in Iraq by destabilizing Iraq again. Finally, the Russians can pose lesser challenges in the Caribbean with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, as well as potentially supporting Middle Eastern terrorist groups and left-wing Latin American groups.
At this moment, the Russians have far more options than the Americans have. Therefore, the new U.S. president will have to design a policy for dealing with the Russians with few options at hand. This is where his decisions on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan will intersect and compete with his decisions on Russia. Ideally, the United States would put forces in the Baltics — which are part of NATO — as well as in Ukraine and Georgia. But that is not an option and won’t be for more than a year under the best of circumstances.
The United States therefore must attempt a diplomatic solution with Russia with very few sticks. The new president will need to try to devise a package of carrots — e.g., economic incentives — plus the long-term threat of a confrontation with the United States to persuade Moscow not to use its window of opportunity to reassert Russian regional hegemony. Since regional hegemony allows Russia to control its own destiny, the carrots will have to be very tempting, while the threat has to be particularly daunting. The president’s task will be crafting the package and then convincing the Russians it has value.
European Disunity and Military Weakness
One of the problems the United States will face in these negotiations will be the Europeans. There is no such thing as a European foreign policy; there are only the foreign policies of the separate countries. The Germans, for example, do not want a confrontation with Russia under any circumstances. The United Kingdom, by contrast, is more willing to take a confrontational approach to Moscow. And the European military capability, massed and focused, is meager. The Europeans have badly neglected their military over the past 15 years. What deployable, expeditionary forces they have are committed to the campaign in Afghanistan. That means that in dealing with Russia, the Americans do not have united European support and certainly no meaningful military weight. This will make any diplomacy with the Russians extremely difficult.
One of the issues the new president eventually will have to face is the value of NATO and the Europeans as a whole. This was an academic matter while the Russians were prostrate. With the Russians becoming active, it will become an urgent issue. NATO expansion — and NATO itself — has lived in a world in which it faced no military threats. Therefore, it did not have to look at itself militarily. After Georgia, NATO’s military power becomes very important, and without European commitment, NATO’s military power independent of the United States — and the ability to deploy it — becomes minimal. If Germany opts out of confrontation, then NATO will be paralyzed legally, since it requires consensus, and geographically. For the United States alone cannot protect the Baltics without German participation.
The president really will have one choice affecting Europe: Accept the resurgence of Russia, or resist. If the president resists, he will have to limit his commitment to the Islamic world severely, rebalance the size and shape of the U.S. military and revitalize and galvanize NATO. If he cannot do all of those things, he will face some stark choices in Europe.
Israel, Turkey, China, and Latin America
Russian pressure is already reshaping aspects of the global system. The Israelis have approached Georgia very differently from the United States. They halted weapon sales to Georgia the week before the war, and have made it clear to Moscow that Israel does not intend to challenge Russia. The Russians met with Syrian President Bashar al Assad immediately after the war. This signaled the Israelis that Moscow was prepared to support Syria with weapons and with Russian naval ships in the port of Tartus if Israel supports Georgia, and other countries in the former Soviet Union, we assume. The Israelis appear to have let the Russians know that they would not do so, separating themselves from the U.S. position. The next president will have to re-examine the U.S. relationship with Israel if this breach continues to widen.
In the same way, the United States will have to address its relationship with Turkey. A long-term ally, Turkey has participated logistically in the Iraq occupation, but has not been enthusiastic. Turkey’s economy is booming, its military is substantial and Turkish regional influence is growing. Turkey is extremely wary of being caught in a new Cold War between Russia and the United States, but this will be difficult to avoid. Turkey’s interests are very threatened by a Russian resurgence, and Turkey is the U.S. ally with the most tools for countering Russia. Both sides will pressure Ankara mercilessly. More than Israel, Turkey will be critical both in the Islamic world and with the Russians. The new president will have to address U.S.-Turkish relations both in context and independent of Russia fairly quickly.
In some ways, China is the great beneficiary of all of this. In the early days of the Bush administration, there were some confrontations with China. As the war in Iraq calmed down, Washington seemed to be increasing its criticisms of China, perhaps even tacitly supporting Tibetan independence. With the re-emergence of Russia, the United States is now completely distracted. Contrary to perceptions, China is not a global military power. Its army is primarily locked in by geography and its navy is in no way an effective blue-water force. For its part, the United States is in no position to land troops on mainland China. Therefore, there is no U.S. geopolitical competition with China. The next president will have to deal with economic issues with China, but in the end, China will sell goods to the United States, and the United States will buy them.
Latin America has been a region of minimal interest to the United States in the last decade or longer. So long as no global power was using its territory, the United States did not care what presidents Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua — or even the Castros in Cuba — were doing. But with the Russians back in the Caribbean, at least symbolically, all of these countries suddenly become more important. At the moment, the United States has no Latin American policy worth noting; the new president will have to develop one.
Quite apart from the Russians, the future U.S. president will need to address Mexico. The security situation in Mexico is deteriorating substantially, and the U.S.-Mexican border remains porous. The cartels stretch from Mexico to the streets of American cities where their customers live. What happens in Mexico, apart from immigration issues, is obviously of interest to the United States. If the current trajectory continues, at some point in his administration, the new U.S. president will have to address Mexico — potentially in terms never before considered.
The U.S. Defense Budget
The single issue touching on all of these is the U.S. defense budget. The focus of defense spending over the past eight years has been the Army and Marine Corps — albeit with great reluctance. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was not an advocate of a heavy Army, favoring light forces and air power, but reality forced his successors to reallocate resources. In spite of this, the size of the Army remained the same — and insufficient for the broader challenges emerging.
The focus of defense spending was Fourth Generation warfare, essentially counterinsurgency. It became dogma in the military that we would not see peer-to-peer warfare for a long time. The re-emergence of Russia, however, obviously raises the specter of peer-to-peer warfare, which in turn means money for the Air Force as well as naval rearmament. All of these programs will take a decade or more to implement, so if Russia is to be a full-blown challenge by 2020, spending must begin now.
If we assume that the United States will not simply pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but will also commit troops to allies on Russia’s periphery while retaining a strategic reserve — able to, for example, protect the U.S.-Mexican border — then we are assuming substantially increased spending on ground forces. But that will not be enough. The budgets for the Air Force and Navy will also have to begin rising.
U.S. national strategy is expressed in the defense budget. Every strategic decision the president makes has to be expressed in budget dollars with congressional approval. Without that, all of this is theoretical. The next president will have to start drafting his first defense budget shortly after taking office. If he chooses to engage all of the challenges, he must be prepared to increase defense spending. If he is not prepared to do that, he must concede that some areas of the world are beyond management. And he will have to decide which areas these are. In light of the foregoing, as we head toward the debate, 10 questions should be asked of the candidates:
- If the United States removes its forces from Iraq slowly as both of you advocate, where will the troops come from to deal with Afghanistan and protect allies in the former Soviet Union?
- The Russians sent 120,000 troops to Afghanistan and failed to pacify the country. How many troops do you think are necessary?
- Do you believe al Qaeda prime is still active and worth pursuing?
- Do you believe the Iranians are capable of producing a deliverable nuclear weapon during your term in office?
- How do you plan to persuade the Pakistani government to go after the Taliban, and what support can you provide them if they do?
- Do you believe the United States should station troops in the Baltic states, in Ukraine and Georgia as well as in other friendly countries to protect them from Russia?
- Do you feel that NATO remains a viable alliance, and are the Europeans carrying enough of the burden?
- Do you believe that Mexico represents a national security issue for the United States?
- Do you believe that China represents a strategic challenge to the United States?
- Do you feel that there has been tension between the United States and Israel over the Georgia issue?
Part II: Obama’s Foreign Policy Stance
Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate for president. His advisers in foreign policy are generally Democrats. Together they carry with them an institutional memory of the Democratic Party’s approach to foreign policy, and are an expression of the complexity and divisions of that approach. Like their Republican counterparts, in many ways they are going to be severely constrained as to what they can do both by the nature of the global landscape and American resources. But to some extent, they will also be constrained and defined by the tradition they come from. Understanding that tradition and Obama’s place is useful in understanding what an Obama presidency would look like in foreign affairs.
The most striking thing about the Democratic tradition is that it presided over the beginnings of the three great conflicts that defined the 20th century: Woodrow Wilson and World War I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and World War II, and Harry S. Truman and the Cold War. (At this level of analysis, we will treat the episodes of the Cold War such as Korea, Vietnam or Grenada as simply subsets of one conflict.) This is most emphatically not to say that had Republicans won the presidency in 1916, 1940 or 1948, U.S. involvement in those wars could have been avoided.
Patterns in Democratic Foreign Policy
But it does give us a framework for considering persistent patterns of Democratic foreign policy. When we look at the conflicts, four things become apparent.
First, in all three conflicts, Democrats postponed the initiation of direct combat as long as possible. In only one, World War I, did Wilson decide to join the war without prior direct attack. Roosevelt maneuvered near war but did not enter the war until after Pearl Harbor. Truman also maneuvered near war but did not get into direct combat until after the North Korean invasion of South Korea. Indeed, even Wilson chose to go to war to protect free passage on the Atlantic. More important, he sought to prevent Germany from defeating the Russians and the Anglo-French alliance and to stop the subsequent German domination of Europe, which appeared possible. In other words, the Democratic approach to war was reactive. All three presidents reacted to events on the surface, while trying to shape them underneath the surface.
Second, all three wars were built around coalitions. The foundation of the three wars was that other nations were at risk and that the United States used a predisposition to resist (Germany in the first two wars, the Soviet Union in the last) as a framework for involvement. The United States under Democrats did not involve itself in war unilaterally. At the same time, the United States under Democrats made certain that the major burdens were shared by allies. Millions died in World War I, but the United States suffered 100,000 dead. In World War II, the United States suffered 500,000 dead in a war where perhaps 50 million soldiers and civilians died. In the Cold War, U.S. losses in direct combat were less than 100,000 while the losses to Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans and others towered over that toll. The allies had a complex appreciation of the United States. On the one hand, they were grateful for the U.S. presence. On the other hand, they resented the disproportionate amounts of blood and effort shed. Some of the roots of anti-Americanism are to be found in this strategy.
Third, each of these wars ended with a Democratic president attempting to create a system of international institutions designed to limit the recurrence of war without directly transferring sovereignty to those institutions. Wilson championed the League of Nations. Roosevelt the United Nations. Bill Clinton, who presided over most of the post-Cold War world, constantly sought international institutions to validate U.S. actions. Thus, when the United Nations refused to sanction the Kosovo War, he designated NATO as an alternative international organization with the right to approve conflict. Indeed, Clinton championed a range of multilateral organizations during the 1990s, including everything from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and later the World Trade Organization. All these presidents were deeply committed to multinational organizations to define permissible and impermissible actions.
And fourth, there is a focus on Europe in the Democratic view of the world. Roosevelt regarded Germany as the primary threat instead of the Pacific theater in World War II. And in spite of two land wars in Asia during the Cold War, the centerpiece of strategy remained NATO and Europe. The specific details have evolved over the last century, but the Democratic Party — and particularly the Democratic foreign policy establishment — historically has viewed Europe as a permanent interest and partner for the United States.
Thus, the main thrust of the Democratic tradition is deeply steeped in fighting wars, but approaches this task with four things in mind:
- Wars should not begin until the last possible moment and ideally should be initiated by the enemy.
- Wars must be fought in a coalition with much of the burden borne by partners.
- The outcome of wars should be an institutional legal framework to manage the peace, with the United States being the most influential force within this multilateral framework.
- Any such framework must be built on a trans-Atlantic relationship.
Democratic Party Fractures
That is one strand of Democratic foreign policy. A second strand emerged in the context of the Vietnam War. That war began under the Kennedy administration and was intensified by Lyndon Baines Johnson, particularly after 1964. The war did not go as expected. As the war progressed, the Democratic Party began to fragment. There were three factions involved in this.
The first faction consisted of foreign policy professionals and politicians who were involved in the early stages of war planning but turned against the war after 1967 when it clearly diverged from plans. The leading political figure of this faction was Robert F. Kennedy, who initially supported the war but eventually turned against it.
The second faction was more definitive. It consisted of people on the left wing of the Democratic Party — and many who went far to the left of the Democrats. This latter group not only turned against the war, it developed a theory of the U.S. role in the war that as a mass movement was unprecedented in the century. The view (it can only be sketched here) maintained that the United States was an inherently imperialist power. Rather than the benign image that Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman had of their actions, this faction reinterpreted American history going back into the 19th century as violent, racist and imperialist (in the most extreme faction’s view). Just as the United States annihilated the Native Americans, the United States was now annihilating the Vietnamese.
A third, more nuanced, faction argued that rather than an attempt to contain Soviet aggression, the Cold War was actually initiated by the United States out of irrational fear of the Soviets and out of imperialist ambitions. They saw the bombing of Hiroshima as a bid to intimidate the Soviet Union rather than an effort to end World War II, and the creation of NATO as having triggered the Cold War.
These three factions thus broke down into Democratic politicians such as RFK and George McGovern (who won the presidential nomination in 1972), radicals in the street who were not really Democrats, and revisionist scholars who for the most part were on the party’s left wing.
Ultimately, the Democratic Party split into two camps. Hubert Humphrey led the first along with Henry Jackson, who rejected the left’s interpretation of the U.S. role in Vietnam and claimed to speak for the Wilson-FDR-Truman strand in Democratic politics. McGovern led the second. His camp largely comprised the party’s left wing, which did not necessarily go as far as the most extreme critics of that tradition but was extremely suspicious of anti-communist ideology, the military and intelligence communities, and increased defense spending. The two camps conducted extended political warfare throughout the 1970s.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter symbolized the tensions. He came to power wanting to move beyond Vietnam, slashing and changing the CIA, controlling defense spending and warning the country of “an excessive fear of Communism.” But following the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he allowed Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser and now an adviser to Obama, to launch a guerrilla war against the Soviets using Islamist insurgents from across the Muslim world in Afghanistan. Carter moved from concern with anti-Communism to coalition warfare against the Soviets by working with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghan resistance fighters.
Carter was dealing with the realities of U.S. geopolitics, but the tensions within the Democratic tradition shaped his responses. During the Clinton administration, these internal tensions subsided to a great degree. In large part this was because there was no major war, and the military action that did occur — as in Haiti and Kosovo — was framed as humanitarian actions rather than as the pursuit of national power. That soothed the anti-war Democrats to a great deal, since their perspective was less pacifistic than suspicious of using war to enhance national power.
The Democrats Since 9/11
Since the Democrats have not held the presidency during the last eight years, judging how they might have responded to events is speculative. Statements made while in opposition are not necessarily predictive of what an administration might do. Nevertheless, Obama’s foreign policy outlook was shaped by the last eight years of Democrats struggling with the U.S.-jihadist war.
The Democrats responded to events of the last eight years as they traditionally do when the United States is attacked directly: The party’s anti-war faction contracted and the old Democratic tradition reasserted itself. This was particularly true of the decision to go to war in Afghanistan. Obviously, the war was a response to an attack and, given the mood of the country after 9/11, was an unassailable decision. But it had another set of characteristics that made it attractive to the Democrats. The military action in Afghanistan was taking place in the context of broad international support and within a coalition forming at all levels, from on the ground in Afghanistan to NATO and the United Nations. Second, U.S. motives did not appear to involve national self-interest, like increasing power or getting oil. It was not a war for national advantage, but a war of national self-defense.
The Democrats were much less comfortable with the Iraq war than they were with Afghanistan. The old splits reappeared, with many Democrats voting for the invasion and others against. There were complex and mixed reasons why each Democrat voted the way they did — some strategic, some purely political, some moral. Under the pressure of voting on the war, the historically fragile Democratic consensus broke apart, not so much in conflict as in disarray. One of the most important reasons for this was the sense of isolation from major European powers — particularly the French and Germans, whom the Democrats regarded as fundamental elements of any coalition. Without those countries, the Democrats regarded the United States as diplomatically isolated.
The intraparty conflict came later. As the war went badly, the anti-war movement in the party re-energized itself. They were joined later by many who had formerly voted for the war but were upset by the human and material cost and by the apparent isolation of the United States and so on. Both factions of the Democratic Party had reasons to oppose the Iraq war even while they supported the Afghan war.
Understanding Obama’s Foreign Policy
It is in light of this distinction that we can begin to understand Obama’s foreign policy. On Aug. 1, Obama said the following: “It is time to turn the page. When I am President, we will wage the war that has to be won, with a comprehensive strategy with five elements: getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan; developing the capabilities and partnerships we need to take out the terrorists and the world’s most deadly weapons; engaging the world to dry up support for terror and extremism; restoring our values; and securing a more resilient homeland.”
Obama’s view of the Iraq war is that it should not have been fought in the first place, and that the current success in the war does not justify it or its cost. In this part, he speaks to the anti-war tradition in the party. He adds that Afghanistan and Pakistan are the correct battlefields, since this is where the attack emanated from. It should be noted that on several occasions Obama has pointed to Pakistan as part of the Afghan problem, and has indicated a willingness to intervene there if needed while demanding Pakistani cooperation. Moreover, Obama emphasizes the need for partnerships — for example, coalition partners — rather than unilateral action in Afghanistan and globally.
Responding to attack rather than pre-emptive attack, coalition warfare and multinational postwar solutions are central to Obama’s policy in the Islamic world. He therefore straddles the divide within the Democratic Party. He opposes the war in Iraq as pre-emptive, unilateral and outside the bounds of international organizations while endorsing the Afghan war and promising to expand it.
Obama’s problem would be applying these principles to the emerging landscape. He shaped his foreign policy preferences when the essential choices remained within the Islamic world — between dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously versus focusing on Afghanistan primarily. After the Russian invasion of Georgia, Obama would face a more complex set of choices between the Islamic world and dealing with the Russian challenge.
Obama’s position on Georgia tracked with traditional Democratic approaches:
“Georgia’s economic recovery is an urgent strategic priority that demands the focused attention of the United States and our allies. That is why Senator Biden and I have called for $1 billion in reconstruction assistance to help the people of Georgia in this time of great trial. I also welcome NATO’s decision to establish a NATO-Georgia Commission and applaud the new French and German initiatives to continue work on these issues within the EU. The Bush administration should call for a U.S.-EU-Georgia summit in September that focuses on strategies for preserving Georgia’s territorial integrity and advancing its economic recovery.”
Obama avoided militaristic rhetoric and focused on multinational approaches to dealing with the problem, particularly via NATO and the European Union. In this and in Afghanistan, he has returned to a Democratic fundamental: the centrality of the U.S.-European relationship. In this sense, it is not accidental that he took a preconvention trip to Europe. It was both natural and a signal to the Democratic foreign policy establishment that he understands the pivotal position of Europe.
This view on multilateralism and NATO is summed up in a critical statement by Obama in a position paper:
“Today it’s become fashionable to disparage the United Nations, the World Bank, and other international organizations. In fact, reform of these bodies is urgently needed if they are to keep pace with the fast-moving threats we face. Such real reform will not come, however, by dismissing the value of these institutions, or by bullying other countries to ratify changes we have drafted in isolation. Real reform will come because we convince others that they too have a stake in change — that such reforms will make their world, and not just ours, more secure.
“Our alliances also require constant management and revision if they are to remain effective and relevant. For example, over the last 15 years, NATO has made tremendous strides in transforming from a Cold War security structure to a dynamic partnership for peace.
“Today, NATO’s challenge in Afghanistan has become a test case, in the words of Dick Lugar, of whether the alliance can ‘overcome the growing discrepancy between NATO’s expanding missions and its lagging capabilities.’”
Obama’s European Problem
The last paragraph represents the key challenge to Obama’s foreign policy, and where his first challenge would come from. Obama wants a coalition with Europe and wants Europe to strengthen itself. But Europe is deeply divided, and averse to increasing its defense spending or substantially increasing its military participation in coalition warfare. Obama’s multilateralism and Europeanism will quickly encounter the realities of Europe.
This would immediately affect his jihadist policy. At this point, Obama’s plan for a 16-month drawdown from Iraq is quite moderate, and the idea of focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan is a continuation of Bush administration policy. But his challenge would be to increase NATO involvement. There is neither the will nor the capability to substantially increase Europe’s NATO participation in Afghanistan.
This problem would be even more difficult in dealing with Russia. Europe has no objection in principle to the Afghan war; it merely lacks the resources to substantially increase its presence there. But in the case of Russia, there is no European consensus. The Germans are dependent on the Russians for energy and do not want to risk that relationship; the French are more vocal but lack military capability, though they have made efforts to increase their commitment to Afghanistan. Obama says he wants to rely on multilateral agencies to address the Russian situation. That is possible diplomatically, but if the Russians press the issue further, as we expect, a stronger response will be needed. NATO will be unlikely to provide that response.
Obama would therefore face the problem of shifting the focus to Afghanistan and the added problem of balancing between an Islamic focus and a Russian focus. This will be a general problem of U.S. diplomacy. But Obama as a Democrat would have a more complex problem. Averse to unilateral actions and focused on Europe, Obama would face his first crisis in dealing with the limited support Europe can provide.
That will pose serious problems in both Afghanistan and Russia, which Obama would have to deal with. There is a hint in his thoughts on this when he says, “And as we strengthen NATO, we should also seek to build new alliances and relationships in other regions important to our interests in the 21st century.” The test would be whether these new coalitions will differ from, and be more effective than, the coalition of the willing.
Obama would face similar issues in dealing with the Iranians. His approach is to create a coalition to confront the Iranians and force them to abandon their nuclear program. He has been clear that he opposes that program, although less clear on other aspects of Iranian foreign policy. But again, his solution is to use a coalition to control Iran. That coalition disintegrated to a large extent after Russia and China both indicated that they had no interest in sanctions.
But the coalition Obama plans to rely on will have to be dramatically revived by unknown means, or an alternative coalition must be created, or the United States will have to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan unilaterally. This reality places a tremendous strain on the core principles of Democratic foreign policy. To reconcile the tensions, he would have to rapidly come to an understanding with the Europeans in NATO on expanding their military forces. Since reaching out to the Europeans would be among his first steps, his first test would come early.
The Europeans would probably balk, and, if not, they would demand that the United States expand its defense spending as well. Obama has shown no inclination toward doing this. In October 2007, he said the following on defense: “I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space. I will slow our development of future combat systems, and I will institute an independent defense priorities board to ensure that the quadrennial defense review is not used to justify unnecessary spending.”
Russia, Afghanistan and Defense Spending
In this, Obama is reaching toward the anti-war faction in his party, which regards military expenditures with distrust. He focused on advanced war-fighting systems, but did not propose cutting spending on counterinsurgency. But the dilemma is that in dealing with both insurgency and the Russians, Obama would come under pressure to do what he doesn’t want to do — namely, increase U.S. defense spending on advanced systems.
Obama has been portrayed as radical. That is far from the case. He is well within a century-long tradition of the Democratic Party, with an element of loyalty to the anti-war faction. But that element is an undertone to his policy, not its core. The core of his policy would be coalition building and a focus on European allies, as well as the use of multilateral institutions and the avoidance of pre-emptive war. There is nothing radical or even new in these principles. His discomfort with military spending is the only thing that might link him to the party’s left wing.
The problem he would face is the shifting international landscape, which would make it difficult to implement some of his policies. First, the tremendous diversity of international challenges would make holding the defense budget in check difficult. Second, and more important, is the difficulty of coalition building and multilateral action with the Europeans. Obama thus lacks both the force and the coalition to carry out his missions. He therefore would have no choice but to deal with the Russians while confronting the Afghan/Pakistani question even if he withdrew more quickly than he says he would from Iraq.
The make-or-break moment for Obama will come early, when he confronts the Europeans. If he can persuade them to take concerted action, including increased defense spending, then much of his foreign policy rapidly falls into place, even if it is at the price of increasing U.S. defense spending. If the Europeans cannot come together (or be brought together) decisively, however, then he will have to improvise.
Obama would be the first Democrat in this century to take office inheriting a major war. Inheriting an ongoing war is perhaps the most difficult thing for a president to deal with. Its realities are already fixed and the penalties for defeat or compromise already defined. The war in Afghanistan has already been defined by U.S. President George W. Bush’s approach. Rewriting it will be enormously difficult, particularly when rewriting it depends on ending unilateralism and moving toward full coalition warfare when coalition partners are wary.
Obama’s problems are compounded by the fact that he does not only have to deal with an inherited war, but also a resurgent Russia. And he wants to depend on the same coalition for both. That will be enormously challenging for him, testing his diplomatic skills as well as geopolitical realities. As with all presidents, what he plans to do and what he would do are two different things. But it seems to us that his presidency would be defined by whether he can change the course of U.S.-European relations not by accepting European terms but by persuading them to accommodate U.S. interests.
An Obama presidency would not turn on this. There is no evidence that he lacks the ability to shift with reality — that he lacks Machiavellian virtue. But it still will be the first and critical test, one handed to him by the complex tensions of Democratic traditions and by a war he did not start
Part III: McCain’s Foreign Policy Stance
John McCain is the Republican candidate for president. This means he is embedded in the Republican tradition. That tradition has two roots, which are somewhat at odds with each other: One root is found in Theodore Roosevelt’s variety of internationalism, and the other in Henry Cabot Lodge’s opposition to the League of Nations. Those roots still exist in the Republican Party. But accommodations to the reality the Democrats created after World War II — and that Eisenhower, Nixon and, to some extent, Reagan followed — have overlain them. In many ways, the Republican tradition of foreign policy is therefore more complex than the Democratic tradition.
Roosevelt and the United States as Great Power
More than any other person, Roosevelt introduced the United States to the idea that it had become a great power. During the Spanish-American War, in which he had enthusiastically participated, the United States took control of the remnants of the Spanish empire. During his presidency a few years later, Roosevelt authorized the first global tour by a U.S. fleet, which was designed to announce the arrival of the United States with authority. The fleet was both impressive and surprising to many great powers, which at the time tended to dismiss the United States.
For Roosevelt, having the United States take its place among the great powers served two purposes. First, it protected American maritime interests. The United States was a major trading power, so control of the seas was a practical imperative. But there was also an element of deep pride — to the point of ideology. Roosevelt saw the emergence of the United States as a validation of the American experiment with democracy and a testament to America as an exceptional country and regime. Realistic protection of national interest joined forces with an ideology of entitlement. The Panama Canal, which was begun in Roosevelt’s administration, served both interests.
The Panama Canal highlights the fact that for Roosevelt — heavily influenced by theories of sea power — the Pacific Ocean was at least as important as the Atlantic. The most important imperial U.S. holding at the time was the Pacific territory of the Philippines, which U.S. policy focused on protecting. Also reflecting Roosevelt’s interest in the Pacific, he brokered the peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and increased U.S. interests in China. (Overall, the Democratic Party focused on Europe, while the Republican Party showed a greater interest in Asia.)
The second strand of Republicanism emerged after World War I, when Lodge, a Republican senator, defeated President Woodrow Wilson’s plan for U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Lodge had supported the Spanish-American War and U.S. involvement in World War I, but he opposed league membership because he felt it would compel the United States to undertake obligations it should not commit to. Moreover, he had a deep distrust of the Europeans, whom he believed would drag the United States into another war.
The foundations of Republican foreign policy early in the 20th century therefore consisted of three elements:
- A willingness to engage in foreign policy and foreign wars when this serves U.S. interests.
- An unwillingness to enter into multilateral organizations or alliances, as this would deprive the United States of the right to act unilaterally and would commit it to fight on behalf of regimes it might have no interest in defending.
- A deep suspicion of the diplomacy of European states grounded on a sense that they were too duplicitous and unstable to trust and that treaties with them would result in burdens on — but not benefits for — the United States.
This gave rise to what has been called the “isolationist” strand in the Republican Party, although the term “isolation” is not by itself proper. The isolationists opposed involvement in the diplomacy and politics of Europe. In their view, the U.S. intervention in World War I had achieved little. The Europeans needed to achieve some stable outcome on their own, and the United States did not have the power to impose — or an interest in — that outcome. Underlying this was a belief that, as hostile as the Germans and Soviets were, the French and British were not decidedly better.
Opposition to involvement in a European war did not translate to indifference to the outcome in the Pacific. The isolationists regarded Japan with deep suspicion, and saw China as a potential ally and counterweight to Japan. They were prepared to support the Chinese and even have some military force present, just as they were prepared to garrison the Philippines.
There was a consistent position here. First, adherents of this strand believed that waging war on the mainland of Eurasia, either in China or in Europe, was beyond U.S. means and was dangerous. Second, they believed heavily in sea power, and that control of the sea would protect the United States against aggression and protect U.S. maritime trade. This made them suspicious of other maritime powers, including Japan and the United Kingdom. Third, and last, the isolationists deeply opposed alliances that committed the United States to any involvement in war. They felt that the decision to make war should depend on time and place — not a general commitment. Therefore, the broader any proposed alliance involving the United States, the more vigorously the isolationists opposed it.
Republican foreign policy — a product of the realist and isolationist strands — thus rejected the idea that the United States had a moral responsibility to police the world, while accepting the idea that the United States was morally exceptional. It was prepared to engage in global politics but only when it affected the direct interests of the United States. It regarded the primary interest of the United States to be protecting itself from the wars raging in the world and saw naval supremacy as the means toward that end. It regarded alliances as a potential trap and, in particular, saw the Europeans as dangerous and potentially irresponsible after World War I — and wanted to protect the United States from the consequences of European conflict. In foreign policy, Republicans were realists first, moralists a distant second.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the United States in 1941, the realist strand in Republican foreign policy appeared to be replaced with a new strand. World War II, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach to waging it, created a new reality. Republican isolationists were discredited politically; their realism was seen as a failure to grasp global realities. Moreover, the war was fought within an alliance structure. Parts of that alliance structure were retained, and supplemented grandly, after the war. The United States joined the United Nations, and the means chosen to contain the Soviet Union was an alliance system, with NATO — and hence the Europeans — as the centerpiece.
Moralism vs. Realism
The Republicans were torn between two wings after the war. On the one hand, there was Robert Taft, who spoke for the prewar isolationist foreign policy. On the other hand, there was Eisenhower, who had commanded the European coalition and had an utterly different view of alliances and of the Europeans. In the struggle between Taft and Eisenhower for the nomination in 1952, Eisenhower won decisively. The Republican Party reoriented itself fundamentally, or so it appeared.
The Republicans’ move toward alliances and precommitments was coupled with a shift in moral emphasis. From the unwillingness to take moral responsibility for the world, the Republicans moved toward a moral opposition to the Soviet Union and communism. Both Republicans and Democrats objected morally to the communists. But for the Republicans, moral revulsion justified a sea change in their core foreign policy; anti-communism became a passion that justified changing lesser principles.
Yet the old Republican realism wasn’t quite dead. At root, Eisenhower was never a moralist. His anti-communism represented a strategic fear of the Soviet Union more than a moral crusade. Indeed, the Republican right condemned him for this. As his presidency progressed, the old realism re-emerged, now in the context of alliance systems.
But there was a key difference in Eisenhower’s approach to alliances and multilateral institutions: He supported them when they enabled the United States to achieve its strategic ends; he did not support them as ends in themselves. Whereas Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, saw the United Nations as a way to avoid war, Eisenhower saw it as a forum for pursuing American interests. Eisenhower didn’t doubt the idea of American exceptionalism, but his obsession was with the national interest. Thus, when the right wanted him to be more aggressive and liberate Eastern Europe, he was content to contain the Soviets and leave the Eastern Europeans to deal with their own problems.
The realist version of Republican foreign policy showed itself even more clearly in the Nixon presidency and in Henry Kissinger’s execution of it. The single act that defined this was Nixon’s decision to visit China, meet Mao Zedong, and form what was, in effect, an alliance with Communist China against the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War weakened the United States and strengthened the Soviet Union; China and the United States shared a common interest in containing the Soviet Union. An alliance was in the interests of both Beijing and Washington, and ideology was irrelevant. (The alliance with China also revived the old Republican interest in Asia.)
With that single action, Nixon and Kissinger reaffirmed the principle that U.S. foreign policy was not about moralism — of keeping the peace or fighting communism — but about pursuing the national interest. Alliances might be necessary, but they did not need to have a moral component.
While the Democrats were torn between the traditionalists and the anti-war movement, the Republicans became divided between realists who traced their tradition back to the beginning of the century and moralists whose passionate anti-communism began in earnest after World War II. Balancing the idea of foreign policy as a moral mission fighting evil and the idea of foreign policy as the pursuit of national interest and security defined the fault line within the Republican Party.
Reagan and the Post Cold War World
Ronald Reagan tried to straddle this fault line. Very much rooted in the moral tradition of his party, he defined the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” At the same time, he recognized that moralism was insufficient. Foreign policy ends had to be coupled with extremely flexible means. Thus, Reagan maintained the relationship with China. He also played a complex game of negotiation, manipulation and intimidation with the Soviets. To fund the Contras — guerrillas fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua — his administration was prepared to sell weapons to Iran, which at that time was fighting a war with Iraq. In other words, Reagan embedded the anti-communism of the Republicans of the 1950s with the realism of Nixon and Kissinger. To this, he added a hearty disdain for Europe, where in return he was reviled as a cowboy. The antecedents of this distrust of the Europeans, particularly the French, went back to the World War I era.
The collapse of communism left the Republicans with a dilemma. The moral mission was gone; realism was all that was left. This was the dilemma that George H. W. Bush had to deal with. Bush was a realist to the core, yet he seemed incapable of articulating that as a principle. Instead, he announced the “New World Order,” which really was a call for multilateral institutions and the transformation of the anti-communist alliance structure into an all-inclusive family of democratic nations. In short, at the close of the Cold War, the first President Bush adopted the essence of Democratic foreign policy. This helps explain Ross Perot’s run for the presidency and Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton. Perot took away the faction of the Republican Party that retained the traditional aversion to multilateralism — in the form of NAFTA, for example.
It was never clear what form George W. Bush’s foreign policy would have taken without 9/11. After Sept. 11, 2001, Bush tried to re-create Reagan’s foreign policy. Rather than defining the war as a battle against jihadists, he defined it as a battle against terrorism, as if this were the ideological equivalent of communism. He defined an “Axis of Evil” redolent of Reagan’s “Evil Empire.” Within the confines of this moral mission, he attempted to execute a systematic war designed to combat terrorism.
It is important to bear in mind the complexity of George W. Bush’s foreign policy compared to the simplicity of its stated moral mission, which first was defined as fighting terrorism and later as bringing democracy to the Middle East. In the war in Afghanistan, Bush initially sought and received Russian and Iranian assistance. In Iraq, he ultimately reached an agreement with the Sunni insurgents whom he had formerly fought. In between was a complex array of covert operations, alliances and betrayals, and wars large and small throughout the region. Bush faced a far more complex situation than Reagan did — a situation that, in many instances, lacked solutions by available means.
McCain: Moralist or Realist?
Which brings us to McCain and the most important questions he would have to answer in his presidency: To what extent would he adopt an overriding moral mission, and how would he apply available resources to that mission? Would McCain tend toward the Nixon-Kissinger model of a realist Republican president, or to the more moralist Reagan-Bush model?
Though the answers to these questions will not emerge during campaign season, a President McCain would have to answer them almost immediately. For example, in dealing with the Afghan situation, one of the options will be a deal with the Taliban paralleling the U.S. deal with the Iraqi Sunni insurgents. Would McCain be prepared to take this step in the Reagan-Bush tradition, or would he reject it on rigid moral principles? And would McCain be prepared to recognize a sphere of influence for Russia in the former Soviet Union, or would he reject the concept as violating moral principles of national sovereignty and rights?
McCain has said the United States should maintain a presence in Iraq for as long as necessary to stabilize the country, although he clearly believes that, with the situation stabilizing, the drawdown of troops can be more rapid. In discussing Afghanistan, it is clear that he sees the need for more troops. But his real focus is on Pakistan, about which he said in July: “We must strengthen local tribes in the border areas who are willing to fight the foreign terrorists there. We must also empower the new civilian government of Pakistan to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education.”
McCain understands that the key to dealing with Afghanistan lies in Pakistan, and he implies that solving the problem in Pakistan requires forming a closer relationship with tribes in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. What McCain has not said — and what he cannot say for political and strategic reasons — is how far he would go in making agreements with the Pashtun tribes in the area that have been close collaborators with al Qaeda.
A similar question comes up in the context of Russia and its relations with other parts of the former Soviet Union. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Georgia, McCain said, “The implications of Russian actions go beyond their threat to the territorial integrity and independence of a democratic Georgia. Russia is using violence against Georgia, in part, to intimidate other neighbors such as Ukraine for choosing to associate with the West and adhering to Western political and economic values. As such, the fate of Georgia should be of grave concern to Americans and all people who welcomed the end of a divided Europe, and the independence of former Soviet republics. The international response to this crisis will determine how Russia manages its relationships with other neighbors.”
McCain has presented Russia’s actions in moral terms. He also has said international diplomatic action must be taken to deal with Russia, and he has supported NATO expansion. So he has combined a moral approach with a coalition approach built around the Europeans. In short, his public statements draw from moral and multilateral sources. What is not clear is the degree to which he will adhere to realist principles in pursuing these ends. He clearly will not be a Nixon.
Whether he will be like Reagan, or more like George W. Bush — that is, Reagan without Reagan’s craft — or a rigid moralist indifferent to consequences remains in question.
It is difficult to believe McCain would adopt the third option. He takes a strong moral stance, but is capable of calibrating his tactics. This is particularly clear when you consider his position on working with the Europeans. In 1999 — quite a ways back in foreign policy terms — McCain said of NATO, “As we approach the 50th anniversary of NATO, the Atlantic Alliance is in pretty bad shape. Our allies are spending far too little on their own defense to maintain the alliance as an effective military force.”
Since then, Europe’s defense spending has not soared, to say the least. McCain’s August 2008 statement that “NATO’s North Atlantic Council should convene in emergency session to demand a cease-fire and begin discussions on both the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to South Ossetia” must be viewed in this context.
In this statement, McCain called for a NATO peacekeeping force to South Ossetia. A decade before, he was decrying NATO’s lack of military preparedness, which few dispute is still an extremely significant issue.
But remember that presidential campaigns are not where forthright strategic thinking should be expected, and moral goals must be subordinate to the realities of power. While McCain would need to define the mix of moralism and realism in his foreign policy, he made his evaluation of NATO’s weakness clear in 1999. Insofar as he believes this evaluation still holds true, he would not have to face the first issue that Barack Obama likely would — namely, what to do when the Europeans fail to cooperate. McCain already believes that they will not (or cannot).
Instead, McCain would have to answer another question, which ultimately is the same as Obama’s question: Where will the resources come from to keep forces in Iraq, manage the war in Afghanistan, involve Pakistanis in that conflict and contain Russia? In some sense, McCain has created a tougher political position for himself by casting all these issues in a moral light. But, in the Reagan tradition, a moral position has value only if it can be pursued, and pursuing those actions requires both moral commitment and Machiavellian virtue.
Therefore, McCain will be pulled in two directions. First, like Obama, he would not be able to pursue his ends without a substantial budget increase or abandoning one or more theaters of operation. The rubber band just won’t stretch without reinforcements. Second, while those reinforcements are mustered — or in lieu of reinforcements — he will have to execute a complex series of tactical operations. This will involve holding the line in Iraq, creating a political framework for settlement in Afghanistan and scraping enough forces together to provide some pause to the Russians as they pressure their periphery.
McCain’s foreign policy — like Obama’s — would devolve into complex tactics, where the devil is in the details, and the details will require constant attention.
The Global Landscape and the Next President
Ultimately, it is the global landscape that determines a president’s foreign policy choices, and the traditions presidents come from can guide them only so far. Whoever becomes president in January 2009 will face the same landscape and limited choices. The winner will require substantial virtue, and neither candidate should be judged on what he says now, since no one can anticipate either the details the winner will confront or the surprises the world will throw at him.
George Friedman is the founder (1996) and chief executive officer of Stratfor, a private company based in Austin, Texas, that publishes intelligence for governments, businesses and individuals. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Cornell, and taught political science at Dickinson College. He is the author of several books, most recently America’s Secret War (Doubleday, 2004), as well as numerous articles on national security and intelligence, and is a frequent guest commentator on major U.S. news networks.