Every candidate must articulate a vision for American leadership in the world. The three candidates' rhetoric is indistinguishable in this regard. It is difficult to imagine a candidate who doesn't want the United States to "collaborate with its allies" or strengthen an international regime that promotes freedom and security.
But for John McCain, the future of American leadership seems stuck in the past. In a recent speech outlining his nuclear security policy, McCain made constant reference to American leadership during the Cold War. While lessons certainly can be learned from America's policies in the Cold War (and even the immediate post-Cold War era), many of the assumptions held during those times are no longer valid.
First, although nuclear proliferation is a major concern to U.S. foreign policymakers, it is by no means, "the highest priority," as McCain claims. The nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, which defined the Cold War, is over. And while Iranian nuclear ambitions pose a threat to our regional ally Israel, that threat is by no means immediate. Iran does not have nuclear weapons today. Next week, Iran still will not have them. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran was "three to eight years away" from a nuclear weapon. But in just two years, the U.S. will have spent over $540 billion in Iraq (incidentally, in that time nearly 42 million children will lose one or both parents to AIDS unless we reevaluate our "priorities").
Second, tough talk and exclusion won't bring the U.S. any closer to solving problems with its adversaries. McCain continues to advocate for the isolation of Tehran and Pyongyang, claiming that negotiations will grant their leaders undeserved legitimacy. While that may be true, it does not change the reality that the first step towards conflict resolution is communication. But McCain goes so far as to ridicule Obama for proposing to talk to foreign leaders without precondition. Perhaps McCain forgets that not talking to our enemies during the Cold War nearly resulted in the deployment of nine tactical nuclear weapons against the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Despite the Kennedy administration's public hard-line stance with the Soviets, many of Kennedy's advisors, including Secretary of Defense McNamara were desperate to know what Russian Premier Kruschev was thinking. McNamara recalls in his memoirs that "misinformation, miscalculation, and misjudgment" nearly brought the U.S. to nuclear annihilation.
Finally, the age of unipolarity in international relations is over. In his recent Foreign Affairs article, Richard Haas explains that the world is no longer dominated by one or even several states, but by dozens of actors who wield various types of power. This may come as a surprise to Senator McCain, if he expects world leaders to rally around the American president simply because they always have in the past.
This is not to say that the world no longer wants American leadership. Many around the world are closely following this election. A recent poll conducted by a British newspaper for the favorite candidate in the U.S. election, shows that Europeans favored Obama with 52% of the vote, compared to McCain's 15%. The world still wants American leadership, but they want it to come from a new kind of leader.