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Would McCain or Obama be Better for Britain?

Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the United States during 9/11, writes in the Telegraph:
I have no idea - I have never met him - what Obama thinks of Britain, though in one of his attacks against Bush, he dismissively brackets the UK with Togo. McCain, whom I knew well and liked, is to all appearances a declared anglophile. But, none of this is relevant. America will act on an unsentimental calculation of where its national interest lies. The problem with the rhetoric of the Special Relationship is that it implicitly denies this reality, putting a burden of expectation on the ties between our two countries, which they cannot bear.

Whoever wins, Britain must rest its relationship with America on four propositions: is America our single most important ally and partner? Absolutely. Does this mean that our national interests will always coincide? Absolutely not. Should we stand up for our interests when they diverge from the Americans? Absolutely. Will having rows with the US from time to time fatally undermine the closeness of the relationship? Absolutely not.
While Meyer concludes with a subtle endorsement for Obama, overall he leaves the impression that neither Obama nor McCain will necessarily be better for Britain, since "America will act on an unsentimental calculation of where its national interest lies." That is, it does not matter who is president, because the United States will always act the same way, based on what is in its best interests.  As President Lincoln once said: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

However, the argument that neither president will be better for Britain (or other allies in Europe, or the transatlantic alliance as a whole) attributes too little influence to the US executive branch.  The fact is, different presidents push different policies and weigh the importance of allie's opinions differently.  If Al Gore had been president in 2003, there is a good chance the US would not be at war in Iraq (or at least would have approached it in a less unilateral way), which would have prevented the transatlantic alliance from reaching a major low following the Iraq invasion. 

McCain and Obama have different approaches to foreign relations, different world views, and different personal styles -- and one of them will be "better" for Britain than the other, regardless of events.


In immediate response to the Russia-Georgia war, it has been popular to say that we are witnessing the 'return' of history. This was the title of a post by Stanley Crossick, crossposted on the Atlantic Review. There have been many who have heralded the return of history, some even more or less directly after Francis Fukuyama wrote his seminal essay 'The End of History?'. Most recently, Bob Kagan has written a book called 'The Return of History and the End of Dreams', which stems from the essay 'End of Dreams, Return of History'.

Francis Fukuyama answers some of the critics in his Washington Post column 'They Can Only Go So Far'. One interesting point Fukuyama makes is that we can't paint all forms of autocracy with one brush, that there are important differences between various forms of authoritarianism. He also argues that none of the current forms have an idea:

The facile historical analogies to earlier eras have two problems: They presuppose a cartoonish view of international politics during these previous periods, and they imply that "authoritarian government" constitutes a clearly defined type of regime -- one that's aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order. In fact, today's authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions.

The thing to say about 'The End of History' is that people generally misunderstand it. Fukuyama himself says so, and Blake Hounshell nods in agreement on Foreig Policy's Passport blog. It's unclear to me whether the idea is misunderstood by the many who have debated it in writing. Bob Kagan certainly gets the point.

Continue reading "Authoritarianisms"

Realpolitik vs. Values at Foreign Policy Conference of German Greens

Heinrich Böll Stiftung Berlin (image file)The 'Heinrich Böll Stiftung' - the political foundation affiliated with the German green party - is having its annual foreign policy conference next week, on September 11th and 12th. It will be a big issue conference, focusing on the question of ideals versus interests in foreign policy. The German greens are one of the broadest green parties that exist, and have a lively internal debate between party leaders on realism versus a more pacifistic foreign politics. It was Joshka Fischer, German Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, who took the Germans into the Kosovo war back in 1999.

Fischer, now something of a foreign policy star, won't be attending. However, a former MFA of Poland, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, will. Rotfeld is also a former Director of SIPRI. Other speakers include Ahmed Rashid, Steven Weber, and two members of the current leadership of the greens, Renate Künast and Reinhard Bütikofer.

You can find the programme via this page (page in German, programme also available in English)

The Heinrich Böll Stiftung recently moved to a new office in Berlin Mitte, which frankly looks boring, but is very energy-efficient! We hope to give you some details of the view from the inside, next week.

Russian Interests

On the Cato at Liberty blog, Benjamin H. Friedman notes that many commentators fatally misunderstand Russian foreign policy, due to an excessive focus on the intentions of the current government:

Commentators of all stripes seem to assume that Russia’s move into Georgia was driven by its increasingly autocratic nature. [...] It is worth considering whether this is a misperception. A powerful body of political science argues that states’ foreign policy actions are driven mostly by their circumstance and interests, not their regime type or the personality of the leaders. Regime type and personality affect how states interpret their circumstances, but maybe not as much as we tend to think. The United States is not particularly tolerant of seemingly hostile states in its near abroad either, whether they are democracies or not.

Continue reading "Russian Interests"

New Europe, brought to you by John McCain

Having long secured the GOP nomination, John McCain has had plenty of opportunity for tacking back to the centre. It was to be expected that he chose to do precisely that in a recent foreign policy speech. In doing so, he has however angered the conservative wing of his party, as a Cliff Kincaid piece on GOPUSA demonstrates:
[I]f the liberals get beyond their differences with McCain on Iraq, they will not only vote for him but promote his agenda as president. Then, as Rush Limbaugh notes, it may eventually be possible to change the name of the United States of America: "We'll call ourselves New Europe." In the process, true conservatism as a political force will be finished in the U.S.

The tragedy of this approach is that it comes from a man who served his country in uniform and risked his life on behalf of the U.S. McCain would have been a natural choice to lead a campaign for restoration of American sovereignty in foreign affairs. He could have been "The American President Americans have been waiting for."
The piece, called 'McCain's Incoherent World Order' reveals yet another split in the Republican party: between sovereignists, or as Steve Clemons disparagingly calls them, 'pugnacious nationalists', and neoconservatives. McCain's politics are a choice for neoconservatism. Although McCain downplayed it in his speech, he still seems eager to go on foreign adventures.

The lesson McCain has drawn from the Bush administration is not that the neoconservative agenda of aggressive democracy promotion is wrong, but rather that the unilateral manner in which this was executed -- through Bush' 'coalition of the willing' and defiance of international law such as the Geneva conventions -- has been both unhelpful and wrong. Principles and pragmatism tend to coincide in McCain's politics. Partially because of that, though, it is difficult to see how he could bridge the gap with liberals with regard to Iraq.

Related posts in the Atlantic Review:

• Neocons and Pragmatists Compete over Influence on McCain

40th Anniversary of Senator Fulbright's "Arrogance of Power" Speech

John McCain's League of Democracies

Senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has repeated his calls for a 'league of democracies' in a Financial Times op-ed directed at Europe.
We need to renew and revitalise our democratic solidarity. We need to strengthen our transatlantic alliance as the core of a new global compact – a League of Democracies – that can harness the great power of the more than 100 democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.

At the heart of this new compact must be mutual respect and trust. We Americans recall the words of our founders in the Declaration of Independence, that we must pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed.

The words about respect and trust are welcome. However, the idea of a leage of democracies is also likely to run into some opposition among America's European allies. The reasons McCain gives for his league of democracies, both in the FT and in a May 2007 speech reported on in the Washington Post, have much to do with America's perceived national interest. On issues like confronting the 'turn towards autocracy' in Russia, 'acting where the UN fails to act' on a problem like Darfur and providing 'unimpeded market access' to open market democracies, continental Europe has completely different perceived interests.

Continue reading "John McCain's League of Democracies"

US Presidential Candidates: Who's Good for Europe?

As much as many Americans are looking forward for policy change, Europe is hoping for a multinational foreign policy under a new administration in the United States. In an article addressed to our "Dear Americans", former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt asks (in German; following translation and editing by Sonja Bonin) what Europe can expect from the next US president:

How do you intend to end the war in Iraq and what should Iraq look like afterwards?

What is your goal in Afghanistan? Eliminating just Al-Qaeda or the Taliban as well? Establishing democracy?

Should Al-Qaeda evade to Pakistan for good, perhaps even gaining access to nuclear weapons, would you military intervene?

What is your strategy for a peaceful solution of the decades-old conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors? Will you support the establishment of a Palestinian state?

What is the future US policy regarding Iran?

Continue reading "US Presidential Candidates: Who's Good for Europe?"