Senator Congeniality

McCain used to be well liked around the world. Recently, his reputation has taken a hit. But as president, he could refurbish it—in tandem with America’s.

What happened to the global standing of Senator John McCain?

A year ago, in travels to Germany, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, I found a good deal of support for the Republican senator in his bid to become the next president. His willingness to move on the issue of climate change, his strong stance against torture and for the closure of Guantánamo Bay, and his rhetoric about the need for multilateralism were all winning him kudos. There was even talk about how McCain might be able to work with European conservatives such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (and, if the Tories came to power in Britain, with David Cameron) to rebuild the transatlantic relationship-with echoes of the 1980s comparison with Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterand and Kohl. He was the preferred choice for the Republican nomination, especially when compared to the others in the field (principally former-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was viewed as the hothead of the pack). And when compared to his expected likely opponet, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the sense was that both candidates would be improvements on the George W. Bush administration.

What changed? Well, to start, Senator McCain had to win the nomination of a party whose rank-and-file, for the most part, agreed with the direction President Bush had taken the country. As a senator from Arizona, McCain could be a critic of the administration; as a candidate, he had different priorities-and one was making peace with the base of the Republican Party. Europeans, even European conservatives, didn't have any ballots to cast in the primary process.

And the information revolution means that candidates no longer have the luxury of having separate messages for domestic constituencies and international audiences. Twenty years ago, McCain's "bomb bomb Iran" skit would, at most, have merited a short reference in a newspaper article. Today, thanks to the internet, millions around the world could see the clip. Over time, McCain's image in Europe changed-from maverick statesman to reckless cowboy.

So Europe-or at least significant sections of it-slipped away. But what about the rest of the world?

Several months ago, National Interest senior-editor Dan Drezner thought that enthusiasm for the man who ended up as the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, "would be concentrated in places where elites are enthusiastic about him and his policies. This would mean Europe, Africa and Latin America, I suspect. Other regions-the Middle East, Russia and Asia-might be less receptive."

In the past, that would have been true. In most recent presidential elections, there has been a Republican "tilt" in those areas of the world Drezner identified as less likely to be enthusiastic about the Obama candidacy.

This is because, in the past, Republicans were perceived to have clearer "organizing principles" for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy than the traditionally fractious Democrats. Richard Haass summed up the traditional Republican view: that the United States concerned itself with what a country did and responded accordingly. Nations that were cooperative and helpful in advancing the American agenda-usually defined in terms of security and trade (with a nod to democratic reform)-could expect consideration of their interests in return. A classic example: during the Reagan administration, when Saudi Arabia, feeling threatened by Iran, requested advanced weaponry from the United States. Congress demanded restrictions, but Ronald Reagan said simply, "We don't put conditions on friends."

But that sense of Republican consistency has been weakened by the current administration. Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma supported the U.S. coalition in Iraq-and got colored revolutions for their troubles. Poland defied "Old Europe" on Washington's behalf-and got frozen out of reconstruction contracts in Iraq (and was rejected on visa-free travel for its citizens to travel to the United States). Gulf Emirates kept oil flowing and the dollar propped up, and discovered their investments in America were unwelcome. In terms of foreign-policy "discipline," Republicans have started to act, well, like Democrats.

In places like Japan or Russia, elite preferences for Republicans have been defined by the assumption that Wall Street played a major role in shaping the party's foreign policy preferences-an emphasis on promoting stability and trade. But Wall Street competes now with an evangelical "Main Street" that places much more importance on fighting evildoers and spreading freedom and is much less enthuasistic about globalization and free trade. The uneasy coexistence of the old establishment Republican realists with the neoconservatives and the "red state" nationalists on the McCain team was always a cause for concern. The apparent "exodus" of at least some of the realists-and the signal sent by the nomination of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate-has diminished enthusiasm for the Republican ticket taking over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How does all of this play out? On the one hand, one of McCain's strongest selling points as a candidate-his experience and long years of service-has been weakened because few leaders have rallied around his proposals. On the League of Democracies, for instance, there has been a high degree of silence from other heads of state. On the other, it means that, in contrast to the heightened and inflated expectations around Obama, an McCain administration would start with low expectations, so that incremental steps-a partial withdrawal from Iraq, some degree of compromise on climate change-might in fact partially reverse anti-American sentiment if coming from someone seen by global public opinion as a "third term of Bush."