As America gets ready to elect a new president, wonks the world over are frustrated. They're trying to get beyond campaign-trail platitudes and figure out how the candidates would actually conduct foreign policy if elected-and it's a largely fruitless task. To most of these insiders, Barack Obama is an unknown quantity, while John McCain remains a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.
On Friday, two distinguished guests, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, attempted to shed some light on these questions at an event sponsored by The National Interest. The coauthors of "McCain's Choice," which appears in the current issue of TNI, and America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (PublicAffairs, 2008), they focused on the Republican side of the equation. But they also found time to address policy divides on the other side of the aisle. Nikolas K. Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, moderated the discussion.
Gvosdev kicked things off by asking if the era of conservative "consensus" on foreign policy was ending. George W. Bush has "pushed the envelope" so far, he said, that major divides between the "two streams of thought" in the Republican Party-realism and neoconservatism-are now readily apparent. He then welcomed Chollet and Goldgeier, adding that their "outside perspective" (both are Democrats) would make the discussion an interesting one.
Goldgeier, a professor at George Washington University, then took the microphone. He posed the big question that Republican foreign-policy types faced after the cold war: what now? The "glue" of the Communist threat had held the party together for years, but a disparate coalition of traditional realists, neoconservatives, isolationists and "contract [with America] Republicans" was beginning to break up. Two documents drafted during the waning days of the first Bush administration, he said, highlight those divisions.
One, the Pentagon's 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, emphasized preserving U.S. hegemony and swatting down strategic competitors before they could challenge Washington. The other, a private memo from then-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to his successor, Warren Cristopher, took a "very different approach." His advice? Pay more attention to emerging environmental and economic challenges, the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism and less to the great powers. These Republican fissures, Goldgeier said, are still "alive and well today."
Next to speak was Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Echoing Goldgeier, he said that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the conservative movement struggled to find a foreign-policy "bumper sticker" to replace containment. After the September 11 attacks, many believed that new ones had emerged: the war on terror and preemption. Yet Chollet argued that there was only "an illusion of unity" in the Republican coalition.
This debate is again boiling over, according to Chollet: military types, realists and isolationists are already seeking a new big idea. In the question-and-answer session, he went so far as to say that the neocons are preparing to return to their "comfort zone": the "outside." There, they'll do what they did during the wilderness years of the 1990s: write articles and push for their causes célèbres.
So what of the presidential candidates? Goldgeier pointed out that democracy promotion, in both its liberal-internationalist and neoconservative flavors, is politically unpopular, which will constrain whomever occupies a post-Bush Oval Office. Either Obama or McCain will come under enormous pressure to extricate U.S. forces from Iraq, resolve the Iran imbroglio and solve Afghanistan, regardless of what they intend to do. Moreover, there's not such a huge divide between them: Chollet pointed out that both emphasize multilateralism, institution building, addressing climate change and ending torture in their public rhetoric. And what about the candidates' personal foreign-policy philosophies? Goldgeier flatly admitted that "we don't know" if Obama really has a "particular worldview"; Chollet argued that it was impossible to classify McCain, a "gut" operator, in a "neat category."
Then there's the matter of whether neoconservatives and liberal internationalists are really all that different. Chollet argued that they were, saying that while the former believe that whatever Washington does is "inherently legitimate," the latter are more concerned with institutions: Bill Clinton agonized over whether Security Council approval was necessary to intervene in Kosovo. Yet spreading markets and freedom underlie both philosophies.
Whither American foreign policy? It's unsurprising that after two hours of discussion, the general consensus was that none exists. Only time will tell-and events which have yet to occur will dictate what an Obama or McCain administration does.
Andrew E. Title is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.