McCain’s successor on world stage must redefine US engagement


Now that Sen. John McCain has been laid to rest in Annapolis, who will assume his mantle, not only in the halls of the U.S. Congress but around the world? McCain was the leading tribune for robust American engagement in global affairs, the keeper of the faith in the efficacy of American power to advance the cause of peace and freedom throughout the world. From security conferences in Munich and Singapore to battlefields in Georgia and Syria, the late senator served as America’s senior spokesman of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus — and his passing creates a vacuum.

After delivering her father’s eulogy, some have suggested that Meghan McCain should take up the torch of her father’s legacy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested that there is an entire cadre of “McCainites” among the younger generation in Congress who will continue John McCain’s legacy.

{mosads}Yet any successor to McCain must realize that to succeed him, stirring speeches about American leadership and calls to arms to fight tyranny around the world are not enough. Indeed, “McCain-esque” rhetoric is insufficient to address the reality that growing numbers of Americans are questioning the central principle of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus: that the sustained deployment of U.S. power around the world is indispensable for managing an international system that promotes peace and stability through greater integration and interconnection and creates conditions for the spread of liberal values.

Both the primary and general elections campaigns in 2016 made this clear. The “next McCain” must face squarely, as Sir Lawrence Freedman has advised, must come to grips that the sentiment which helped to drive an “America First narrative” in U.S. politics “has substantial support in the United States.”

In the final two years of his life and political career, John McCain was starting to address the roots of this shift. McCain was correct, as work done by the project for U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs corroborates, that most Americans are not in favor of withdrawing into isolationism. Americans don’t want to end their involvement in global affairs — but they want to amend that role.

McCain’s successor must realize that catchphrases so dear to the Washington foreign policy community, such as “American global leadership” or the “importance of a liberal, rules-based international order,” have become disconnected from people’s experiences. They are losing their relevance and their resonance, in part from repetitious, almost ritualistic invocation.

At the same time, there is an interesting but important convergence from both left and right sides of the U.S. political spectrum, both centering on the question of efficacy. The narrative around U.S. engagement has eroded because of the apparent inability of the United States to achieve its objectives or promote its values — that interventions made in the name of safeguarding human rights, for example, seem to worsen rather than improve the situation, while measures such as enlarging alliances and trade pacts which promise to lower costs and burdens for the United States seem to do the opposite. This contributes to a growing skepticism about the competence of the United States and a loss of confidence in an American ability to achieve positive change.

Any new tribune for robust American engagement also must re-examine the domestic social compact. One of the things driving more skeptical attitudes is that the costs of maintaining U.S. engagement in the world, and the benefits that have accrued from the international system that the U.S. played the leading role in designing and sustaining, have not been spread equally across the population. There are clear “winners” and “losers” from globalization and U.S. interventions.

In the past, the general response to criticism of American global engagement has been to point to the aggregate benefits to the country as a whole, rather than to appreciate how costs and setbacks have affected specific communities within the country. U.S. political leaders who support continued American involvement must do a much better job articulating the benefits that average Americans enjoy because of the U.S. role in the world — linking American engagement abroad to lower interest rates at home, job creation from trade, lower costs of living, and the ability to receive a much wider range of goods and services — while openly acknowledging where costs are incurred.

Part of this process requires a greater willingness to honestly grapple with the mixed results of some of the more recent major U.S. interventions overseas. The apparent inability of much of the political establishment to take responsibility for apparent major failures in U.S. foreign policy has been an important source of eroding popular support for internationalism. While the 2003 Iraq war looms most prominently in popular consciousness, the perception of the 2011 Libya operation, originally celebrated as a success, as turning into failure, and the ongoing lack of apparent progress in Afghanistan, are eroding confidence in the current course and direction of U.S. policy.

In turn, advocates for robust American involvement must be better prepared to articulate clear limits to what U.S. power can achieve, set achievable objectives and, most critically, cut losses when a particularly policy does not appear to be working.

A true successor to John McCain as the principal spokesman for America’s role in the world will not reiterate and regurgitate past speeches. Instead, McCain’s heirs must articulate a new narrative that acknowledges the recent mistakes that have led to skepticism on the part of the U.S. public towards American global engagement, but still sees benefits to reforming the system rather than withdrawing from it.

Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy’s staff college in Newport, Rhode Island, and former editor of the foreign policy journal The National Interest. The views expressed are his own.

Tags global engagement John McCain Lindsey Graham Political positions of John McCain United States

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