COHA in the Public Arena

McCain’s foreign policy echoes interventionist era

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Here’s John McCain’s model for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, enunciated in a television interview this week: “Teddy Roosevelt – speak softly and carry a big stick.”

“I am a Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” he said.

As the U.S. presidential election campaign draws into its final stretch, that remark says as much about McCain’s world view as do his campaign speeches listing foreign policy credentials, the places he has visited and the many foreign leaders he has met. McCain’s assessment of Roosevelt borders on hero worship.

In a 2002 memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain devoted a 22-page chapter to Roosevelt and described him in terms that could also apply to the author: impetuous, intemperate, egotistical, self-confident, impatient, courageous.

Roosevelt, one of the four presidents whose faces are hewn into the rock of Mount Rushmore, is the political patron saint of what McCain has called “national greatness conservatism,” a belief that the United States is the greatest force for good in the world.

In history books in the United States, Roosevelt is generally remembered for building the Panama Canal, for giving his name to the teddy bear, for starting the national parks system and for winning a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese war.

In Latin America and parts of Asia, he tends to be seen as the bellicose American who came up with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, a concept that the United States had the right to exercise “international police powers” to right “chronic wrongdoing” in Latin America. Chronic wrongdoing as defined by the U.S. president, of course.

The interventionist doctrine Roosevelt proclaimed halfway through his two terms (1901 to 1909) was used by him and several of his successors to justify sending U.S. troops to Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

“Roosevelt is the antihero in Latin America and a source of inspiration for today’s neoconservatives,” says Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington research group.

The first foreign policy debate between McCain and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, did little to shed light on how McCain would apply, or adapt, the “Speak softly and carry a big stick” doctrine to the 21st century and a world in which the balance of power has been shifting away from the United States, a trend almost certain to accelerate as a result of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

On the day McCain, who was born in 1936, much closer to the 19th century than the 21st, talked about the Big Stick, Chinese astronauts made their first spacewalk, Russian warships were heading toward exercises in the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War, and the unfettered capitalism the United States had long held up as a model appeared to be on its deathbed.

America’s military stick, still by far the world’s biggest, is being whittled down by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his debate with Obama, McCain suggested as one possible way out of the financial crisis a spending freeze on everything but defense, veterans affairs and social security programs. There were no takers for that guns-over-butter idea.

McCain’s most extensive foreign policy outline since he won his party’s nomination in March would, if carried out, antagonize China, worsen already strained relations with a resurgent (and nuclear-armed) Russia, undermine the United Nations and set the United States against the majority of countries not fully under democratic rule – and that includes a good number of its allies.

“We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact – a League of Democracies – that can harness the vast influence of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world,” McCain said. Foreign Policy Magazine, an independent publication, described such a league as one of his 10 worst ideas.

Hyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington research group, said the league was “a polite way of saying ‘club of all countries we like, designed to exclude and probably gang up on all the countries we don’t like.”‘

Displaying the impetuousness he admires in Teddy Roosevelt, McCain telephoned the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, after Russia struck back with overwhelming military force in response to an attempt by Georgia to wrest control of a breakaway province this summer. “I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, ‘Today we are all Georgians,”‘ McCain reported later.

Every American? Did he take a poll? Even before the Russian invasion of Georgia, McCain advocated kicking Russia out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations to punish it for what he called “nuclear blackmail and cyber attacks.” India and Brazil would be added to the group, China left outside, at least until it moves to political liberalization.

Some of McCain’s opponents call him McSame and say his election would be tantamount to a third term for President George W. Bush. That view seems to be wrong. The line McCain has been taking on Russia, Iran and North Korea echoes the Bush administration’s first term, the “if you aren’t with us you are against us” phase that was tempered in the more pragmatic second term.

With America’s standing in the world at a low ebb, one measure of McCain’s relative lack of success in portraying himself as a statesman on the global stage came in a poll the BBC conducted among 22,000 people in 22 countries and published in September. On average, 46 percent thought foreign relations would improve if Obama won the presidency. Just 20 percent thought they would get better with McCain.