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Multilateral Like Bush

Why you should be deeply, deeply suspicious when John McCain talks about the importance of alliance-building.

On March 26th, John McCain gave a much-hyped foreign policy speech at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. It was his way of signaling both his commitment to restoring America's alliances and his desire to separate himself from the diplomatic blunders of the Bush administration. And it went over like gangbusters. David Broder, dean of the Washington pundit class, gushingly proclaimed the speech was "an implicit rebuke to the mind-set of the current White House" and went so far as to equate it with Barack Obama's speech on race.

"We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies," McCain said, in an echo of George Bush's 2000 campaign promise to play nice with our friends. "If we're an arrogant nation," Bush said at the time, "they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us." And we all know how that turned out.

Only a press corps so enamored with McCain could imagine that one of the staunchest supporters of the Iraq War would be capable of breaking with the current administration's unilateral adventurism. Despite his conciliatory rhetoric, McCain's hawkish views, and his long history of castigating allies who do not agree with him, leave little reason to believe that when it comes to restoring America's image, credibility, and alliances, he would be much different than George W. Bush. A brief look at these four crucial policy areas explains why.

1. NATO and our democratic allies. Perhaps the greatest window into McCain's ability to deal with America's allies comes from his handling of the rupture that occurred within NATO prior to the start of the Iraq War. The debate over whether to invade was, after all, the greatest diplomatic crisis that America's most critical alliance had faced in its 60 years.

On this front, his record is not good. In fact, some of McCain's statements made those from Donald "Old Europe" Rumsfeld seem tame by comparison. Speaking at an international security conference in Germany a month before the war, a frustrated McCain lashed out at our European allies, calling them "vacuous and posturing." Later that year, in an interview, he referred to the French and Germans as "our adversaries." He said that former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "looks little like the ally that anchored our presence in Europe throughout the Cold War. … A German Rip Van Winkle from the 1960s would not understand the lack of political courage and cooperation with its allies on the question of Iraq exhibited in Berlin today." McCain also unleashed on two other critical players, accusing France and Russia of putting their "commercial interests above international law, world peace, and the political ideals of Western civilization."

Moreover, creating a "League of Democracies," McCain's signature proposal for how the U.S. should relate to its democratic allies, is likely dead on arrival. Similar ideas have been suggested many times in the past by both liberal and conservative foreign policy intellectuals. (The first presidential candidate to propose it was Pat Robertson in 1988.) When liberals propose it, they generally hope to strengthen the multilateral architecture that already exists by adding a new international institution. But when conservatives like McCain do, it is rightly perceived as an end run around the U.N. Security Council--little more than another way of giving multilateral legitimacy to the use of force when the others fail. Many Europeans would likely interpret the League of Democracies this way and would resist it out of fear of undercutting the U.N. and supplanting NATO. Even the British and the French, who both sit on the U.N. Security Council, would likely object to the creation of an organization that gives them such a privileged international position. Additionally, many emerging democracies, such as Brazil, would probably see it as a U.S.-dominated organization that is merely an attempt to further institutionalize the idea of "a coalition of the willing."

2. Russia. McCain's hard-line stance toward Russia has already raised eyebrows. He frequently says of Vladimir Putin, "I've looked into his eyes, and I saw three letters--K.G.B." Couple that saber-rattling with his desire to kick Russia out of the G-8--a provocative and perhaps reckless action that would signal to the world's second greatest nuclear power that the United States views it as an enemy--and the U.S. would likely have a massive diplomatic crisis on its hands. Plus, European countries, such as Germany, that are dependent on Russian gas, are seriously concerned about redrawing Cold War lines and once again having a hostile nuclear armed power in their backyard.

3. Iran. McCain's approach to Iran is no more comforting. He recently said that Iran was "obviously pursuing nuclear weapons," directly contradicting the National Intelligence Estimate released in December, which concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program and is significantly further away than previously thought from being able to develop the bomb (although it continues to enrich uranium). At a campaign stop last year, McCain joked about bomb, bomb, bombing Iran, and in 2006 he introduced a resolution in the Senate calling on FIFA to ban Iran from the World Cup--a silly little stunt meant to score cheap political points, but not one befitting of a presidential candidate. Perhaps most worryingly, McCain has surrounded himself with advisors--like Bill Kristol and James Woolsey--who have been staunch advocates of striking Iran, and his Iran policy has been endorsed by none other than Vice President Dick Cheney. "I would guess that John McCain and I are pretty close to agreement [on Iran]," Cheney said last February.

If McCain were to follow through on one of his many threats to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, it would likely cause a diplomatic crisis as grave as the one that preceded the war in Iraq. Our European allies--especially the Germans, French, and British, who have worked hard to both pressure and negotiate with Iran--would likely balk at military action. And it is unlikely that our Arab allies in the Persian Gulf would relish the idea of an escalation of violence in their neighborhood, particularly if it could lead to a naval conflict in the Persian Gulf, further choking off the world's oil supplies. In the end, a U.S. attack would probably be just that--a unilateral attack. (This to say nothing of the fact that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would likely: fail to eliminate its nuclear program in the long-term; result in a massive Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in Iraq; and leave us more isolated in the world.)

4. North Korea. In 1994 McCain attacked Bill Clinton's agreement with North Korea, arguing, "I know what they understand, and that is the threat of extinction." He hasn't dropped his hawkish line toward the Hermit Kingdom since: He supported President Bush's decision in 2001 to cut off discussions with North Korea, and when six years of failure led to a North Korean nuclear test in 2007, his response was to lead the charge in blaming the Clinton Administration.

While Kim Jong Il certainly isn't worthy of our coddling, this type of saber rattling will find little audience with two important partners: South Korea and China. China has played a central role in the negotiations surrounding North Korea's nuclear weapons, but some of McCain's past comments over his frustration with its role cast doubts over his ability to engage effectively. In 2006, McCain called China "immature" over its lack of effort in addressing North Korea and threatened, "If [China] continue[s] to vacillate as they have all last week in the United Nations, then there are consequences in our relationship." Meanwhile, the new South Korean government has actively sought to improve diplomatic ties with its northern neighbor and would seem an unlikely supporter of McCain-style "diplomacy."


Try as he might to distance himself from George Bush's abrasive foreign policy, John McCain has too long of a record to outrun. On Russia, Iran, and North Korea, he will have a policy of confrontation and escalation. His dismissive approach towards international institutions (and at times our closest allies), as well as his long history of verbally belittling other countries, cast real doubt on his ability to handle delicate diplomatic situations. In short, John McCain's claim that he is the right man to break with the Bush administration and build a "global coalition for peace and freedom" simply strains credulity.

Ilan Goldenberg is the Policy Director and Max Bergmann is the Deputy Policy Director of the National Security Network.

By Ilan Goldenberg and Max Bergmann