Seventy years ago, back when John McCain was a toddler babbling nonsense, the U.S. turned toward international cooperation on economic issues. With the Anglo-American Trade Agreement in 1938 America started down the road to the great success of the post-World War II era--the policies that led to recovery from war, a return to global prosperity, and the containment of communism. McCain is now a senior citizen, but he's back to babbling nonsense, as when he confuses the G-8 with NATO. Senator McCain is a leading proponent of macho unseriousness in foreign affairs--and while, yes, it's a campaign year, and silly stuff is in season, the foolish things he's been saying still matter. Perhaps especially in the international arena, such unthinking talk isn't cheap. It's a costly corrosive, and it has the potential to rob us of much that our country has achieved.
The 1938 trade agreement reversed both the older American tradition of protective tariffs and the more recent, Depression-fostered stance of autarky. Its architect, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, always meant the agreement to amount to more than a mere bilateral trade agreement; as Hull said, it marked a first step toward a "world program" that, as market-oriented programs should, "would emanate from many centers." With it, the U.S. and U.K. set an example that other countries--first the other democracies, but eventually, Hull hoped, even the more autocratic nations--would want to follow, of negotiating economic stability and deriving political stability from it. For decades, Hull had been promoting the idea that American leadership and international cooperation would be necessary for "world economic rehabilitation" before he achieved even the partial success of 1938, and even then, it was clear that the establishment of world peace remained a distant hope. But within ten years, Hull's dreams had become reality in statements of Allied war aims, in the Bretton Woods and United Nations agreements, in the Marshall Plan and the American determination to underwrite international development and economic stability wherever it could.
The G-8 began life when it became clear the U.S. alone couldn't stand behind this system, after Richard Nixon in 1971 let the dollar float free from the golden anchor to which Franklin Roosevelt had tethered it. But the emergence of the group of seven or G-7, which in the 1990s became the G-8, reflected an international commitment to preserving the global system the Americans and their allies had created. Like the Roosevelt-era institutions, it was set to work on an experimental basis, addressing problems using consensus. Its informality and flexibility marks a contrast with other international bodies, and suits it to the furthering of "common values."
For the entirety of the Bretton Woods and G-8 eras, this system of international cooperation has coexisted with the policy of containment and military threat, directed against the Soviets and the communist countries outside the market economy. International cooperation, development aid, market prosperity, a place in the counsels of major nations--these were the carrots to containment's stick. Nor were the two mutually exclusive; the offer of community membership and its benefits always entailed the threat of ostracism and its punishments. NATO was the international system's constant companion.
That the details of G-8 management were, like those of the Federal Reserve, a bit too boring and complex for theatrics has probably served all of us well; the more economics is a competent, humble pursuit like dentistry, as Keynes said, the better off we are. But now McCain has dragged the G-8 to center stage, saying on March 26, "We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India, but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia's nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom."
Expanding the G-8 might not be terrible, but McCain goes well beyond the legitimately debatable question of whether it turned out to be a good idea to invite Russia into the G-8, to a confusion of the G-8 with NATO, an absorption of the carrot into the stick. Moreover, McCain's NATO has a revealingly askew geography. In real life, it stretches from the Pacific across the Atlantic to embrace the bulk of Europe, but in McCain's speech it constitutes a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea--why, it's almost as if he wanted us to think of another line, perhaps a ferrous drapery, running from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, and a recognition that a state of Cold War existed. And maybe one does: but McCain's Cold War is all punishment and no reward. Which is not how we won the last one.
The incoming president--whoever it is--will almost assuredly enjoy a brief window when he or she can enjoy international good will simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush. International goodwill would be an excellent asset for charting a course to end the war in Iraq and to return the fight against terrorism to a sane path. McCain's belligerence suggests he can't wait to squander this honeymoon.
Nor is such loose macho boasting limited to the sort of politician who would sample a lesser Beach Boys tune for his foreign policy statements. Hillary Clinton’s offer to “obliterate” Iran should Tehran prove so foolish and wicked as to attack Israel demonstrates that swaggering trash-talk appeals across party and gender lines.
Maybe it's all just rhetoric, nothing more than campaign theater, a bit of cultural posturing. But all we have had, for almost a decade, is the same sort of exclusively punitive posturing. It has already robbed us of America's commitment to basic human liberties: the ludicrous and fictional macho brutality of Jack Bauer on "24"-- which is, of course, just cultural theater--provided greater inspiration to the administration's lawyers than the actual lessons of history and law. Perhaps we have had about as much loose talk as we can stand. If we can't agree to protect our commitment to human decency against our enthusiasm for macho swagger, can we at least stand by our commitment to human prosperity?
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.