In two widely noticed speeches this week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and President George W. Bush called Americans to a global leadership worthy of the country’s best traditions. They offered a compelling critique of the cramped worldview that has turned our political leaders increasingly inward. And they identified the fulcrum around which the intellectual battle over America’s proper place in the world will take shape.
Given the enormous stakes, it’s worth pausing to reflect for a moment on the two addresses and what they represent at this moment of political life.
In normal times, it would be unexceptional to hear a sitting senator and a former president call for strong alliances, an open economic system, and the promotion of human rights. McCain and Bush’s emphasis on America’s role in upholding international order would fit the approach of any post-World War II president, Republican or Democratic. Today, their calls are front page news. Many of the very fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy are now contested.
What made these two speeches so extraordinary was just how unexceptional their message would have been at any other time in recent decades. Bush called for “the projection of American leadership,” and for “America’s role in sustaining and defending an international order rooted in freedom and free markets.” McCain observed that maintaining that global leadership “has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy” by doing so. “We would not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent,” McCain added. “We wouldn’t deserve to.”
The two offered more than just an eloquent call for Americans to rise to leadership; they each emphasized the concrete benefits that have accrued from it. “The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day,” McCain said, “has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.” By investing blood and treasure in the construction of a better world, “we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous.”
Bush proceeded similarly. “Since World War II,” he noted, “America has encouraged and benefited from the global advance of free markets, from the strength of democratic alliances, and from the advance of free societies.” No exercise in pure altruism, the effort was also “a raw calculation of interest.” Free trade helped make the country a global economic power, and the expansion of freedom helped safeguard it at home.
These basic calls, and their implicit critiques of the Trump administration’s sometimes nativist expressions, generated news coverage and controversy. But that controversy stems more from the expansive boundaries of our current debate, and less from any particular suggestions that McCain and Bush offered up.
For all the disagreements over the years between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, and within the parties themselves, there has existed among most of the national leadership a general consensus on foreign policy ends. Three central principles enjoyed widespread acceptance.
First, to keep the peace America sought strong alliances, underwritten by a powerful military and the stationing of U.S. troops abroad. Second, to increase prosperity America pursued an open international economic system and progressively freer trade. Third, to defend freedom America sought the expansion of human rights and democratic systems around the world.
The debates focused mostly on means rather than ends: How big of a military is required, and how much defense spending is affordable? How should Washington pursue free trade, and with whom? What’s the best way to support democracy and human rights, and what should we do about friendly autocracies? When should the United States conduct humanitarian interventions?
Today, each of the traditional goals – and not just the means – is under debate. It has become an open question whether alliances contribute meaningfully to American security, or merely extend a defense umbrella under whose protection other countries grow rich. For all the evidence that free trade increases economic growth and expands employment, support for trade liberalization has grown politically toxic. And whether the United States should actively promote human rights abroad – and whether such efforts are effective, even if desirable – are questions arising with increasing frequency.
The current divide in worldview between so-called globalists and so-called nationalists dwarfs the traditional partisan and ideological disagreements. And the divide consists of more simply than President Trump on one side, and the foreign policy establishment on the other. The contest goes on within the administration itself, on Capitol Hill and even in the president’s approach; he’s described himself as both a nationalist and a globalist.
In this context, McCain and Bush’s efforts to contest the debate are vital. As the two observe, America’s role in establishing and preserving global order has paid enormous dividends, not least for Americans themselves. The United States is freer, more secure, and richer because of the leadership it has exercised. The country’s disproportionate burdens have generated disproportionate benefits. And in many cases, there is no alternative to U.S. action. We draw inward at the world’s peril, and our own.
Yet the defenders of America’s traditional role – McCain and Bush and all the others – must also examine why it hasn’t worked for everyone. The burdens and benefits of U.S. leadership, and the globalization it helped foster, are unevenly distributed across our population. The next step required after defending an expansive worldview is to address the downsides of it. This is, of course, far easier said than done. Yet doing so is, in many ways, the project of our time: ensuring that a globally active and leading United States benefits all Americans.
As our political leaders take up this charge – as they must – they could do worse than turn to the insights offered by McCain and Bush. The two leaders have seen much, had successes and made mistakes and, one suspects, learned something in the process. They have also challenged Americans to pursue an enlightened, broadly defined form of national interest, and one that accords with the universal values we hold dear. Their call is in accordance with America’s best traditions. It is consonant with our country’s exceptional role. And it is in the service of national greatness.
I hope that the two addresses spur sober discussion and soul-searching, both among America’s foreign policy leaders and among thinkers across the board. Their ideas should generate neither knee-jerk rejection by political opponents nor unthinking acceptance among admirers. Instead, they should further catalyze a national debate about what the United States, at this moment in its history, should do to pursue its people’s interests and values. It’s a discussion that foreign policy leaders need to take outside the Beltway, both to inform the American people about the benefits of international order and to hear about the consequences of America’s global role for those who live and work outside the elite corridors. The aim should be a broad recommitment to a leading role for the United States in the world, one that is both effective abroad and politically sustainable at home.
That may all be too much to hope for in our charged political times. Time will tell.