John McCain

U.S. Foreign Policy Can't Be a Choice Between McCain and Trump

The ailing senator is right that "half-baked, spurious nationalism" is wrong. But so is his brand of hawkish intervention.


Official Senate Photo

Suffering from cancer and in his 80s, Sen. John McCain is closing out a long, storied career in military service and politics. True to his reputation as a free-talking "maverick," he is not going gentle into that good night, but blasting his own party's leader, Donald Trump. At yesterday's Liberty Medal ceremony, McCain let it rip when it came to attacking the president's vision of America in the world today:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain "the last best hope of earth" for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

McCain is surely correct that Trump's iteration of America First is not only "half-baked" but disastrous to Americans, especially when it comes to issues such as free trade and immigration, where the United States has long been a shining city on a hill, opening our markets to imports (and hence exports) and especially to people born elsewhere. "We live in a land made of ideals," said McCain, historically though not consistently a defender of immigrants, "not blood and soil." Yes to all this: The United States is not so exceptional that it will continue to flourish if it walls itself off from the world via isolationism when it comes to commerce and people from other countries.

But McCain was not simply—or even primarily—talking about trade and immigration policy. Over the span of his career, he has been one of the most consistently bellicose members of the House and the Senate, rarely if ever finding a reason not to go to war with one country or another. In 2013, he denounced Sen. Rand Paul and other non-interventionists as "wacko birds" because the Kentuckian raised clear and serious concerns about drone strikes on American citizens and the surveillance state. McCain pushed mightily not only to arm supposedly moderate rebels in Syria, but to put boots on the ground there too. As much as any single person in power other than Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, he is responsible for the rolling disaster that has been U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. For all the blood we have spilled so far in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2001, we have accomplished virtually nothing positive and the end of our involvement is nowhere in sight. Yet McCain's answer to virtually all global conflicts is to escalate and, if possible, send troops along with bombs, missiles, and other forms of military support.

"We have done great good in the world," McCain said in his speech,

That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don't.

The senator is certainly right that Donald Trump's foreign policy (to the extent he has anything resembling one) is incoherent—half-baked and spurious to a fault. Yet Trump so far is from isolationist (remember his humanitarian bombing in Syria?) or a peacenik president (as some libertarians once hoped). Like McCain throughout his career, Trump is calling for massive and perpetual military spending and it's clear that he sees diplomacy as secondary to the flexing of American might as the best way to keep order around the globe. In fact, McCain shares with Trump (who dodged the Vietnam draft via college and medical deferments) the belief that the United States is the indispensable nation and the center of the known universe. They are both firm believers in "national greatness," even as their definitions differ somewhat.

Which is to say that neither McCain nor Trump should define the limits of what America should be in the 21st century, especially when it comes to foreign policy, which has been too "militarized" since the Cold War. Rather than foreign policy built on confrontation, occupation, and conflict, we need a radically different approach, one that puts economic and cultural trade front and center, and one that opens us up to the world in way that will predictably enrich Americans even as it makes us safer from terrorism and war. This could take the form laid out by Rand Paul in his 2013 speech, "Containment and Radical Islam." In his opening remarks, Paul defined himself as "a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist" and declared, "When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched and wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be." "Libertarian realism" when it comes to foreign policy is an idea whose time has come. "American defense policy should be characterized by strategic restraint," says political scientist and veteran Will Ruger. "Its economic policy must be one of free trade, and its diplomacy ought to be focused on articulating—but not aggressively imposing—liberal values and the benefits of free markets."

Trump is a loud-mouthed bully when he talks about his vision for the country he leads. He demeans and diminishes people born elsewhere (especially those from Mexico) and his grasp of even basic facts seems weaker than a child's. Yet simply because Trump is wrong doesn't make McCain right.

We can thank Sen. McCain for his service to his country, but we follow his foreign policy advice at the cost of America's future.