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McCain's Universalism vs. Obama's Particularism

By Gregory Scoblete

The frequently sharp exchanges between Barack Obama and John McCain over whether to negotiate with Iran is but the opening volley in what will be a months-long debate about American foreign policy. Though a raft of issues divides the two camps, there is a deeper ideological division that has nothing do with diplomacy or military force.

When it comes to U.S. security, McCain is a universalist and Obama is a particularist.

The concepts of universalism and particularism were sketched out in the early days of the Cold War by George Kennan, an official in President Truman's State Department and the architect of America's containment strategy. According to the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, Kennan saw the universalistic approach as one which assumed "that if all countries could be induced to subscribe to certain standards or rules of behavior" than the rivalries and human emotions that begat conflict would fade away.

To a universalist, America is only secure when, to borrow the phrase, "freedom is on the march." The key to American security is the active spread of American values and institutions around the globe. While many neoconservatives subscribe to such a view, it long predates their ascendancy in political and policy-making circles. At the time Kennan wrote, universalists were apt to put their faith in international institutions (which reflected, however opaquely, Western parliamentary procedures) rather than global military dominance.

Particularists, on the other hand, do not believe the world's political diversity represents a threat to the U.S. However deplorable, particularists believe that tyranny, autocracy, corruption and misrule will remain a fixture in international relations so long as human beings remain fallible. Those with a particularist mindset tend to govern as "realists" - more inclined toward international cooperation, even if it entails dealing with tyrants. As Gaddis wrote in Strategies of Containment, particularists could tolerate "varying degrees of enmity in the world so long as it was neither consolidated nor coordinated."

With the important caveat that campaign oratory is an imperfect guide to future performance, it's increasingly clear that McCain hews closer to the universalist camp, while Obama is more of a particularist.

Take McCain first. He has stated, repeatedly, that America's security rests in the propagation of its values. "It is the democracies of the world that will provide the pillars upon which we can and must build an enduring peace," he said in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. In the pages of Foreign Affairs, he noted that "the protection and promotion of the democratic ideal, at home and abroad, will be the surest source of security and peace for the century that lies before us."

Many politicians, Obama included, have spoken of the universal appeal of American values. But McCain's argument is different. He's not merely stating that they are appealing, but that they universally applicable and that it is in our interest to apply them.

In a long article on McCain's foreign policy views for the New York Times Magazine reporter Matt Bai noted that "McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain's view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet."

McCain frequently peppers his foreign policy speeches with quotes from the Founding Fathers on the potential for the American revolution to transcend its borders, implying, if not a mandate, than at least a precedent for such a capacious view.

In his World Affairs Council speech, McCain said the U.S. had "numerous overlapping interests" with China, but cautioned that "until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values."

In other words merely cooperating is insufficient. Only until China changes its political system to mirror ours will we enjoy good relations. In his own Foreign Affairs essay, Obama wrote that America's "essential challenge" when it comes to China is to "build a relationship that broadens cooperation while strengthening our ability to compete." Unlike McCain, he does not stake the future of U.S.-China relations on the latter's political liberalization.

The contrast with Russia is equally apparent. McCain has been a harsh critic of Russia, not because it has threatened the U.S., but because it has walked away from its democratic reforms and taken to periodically bullying its neighbors. McCain has suggested booting Russia from the G8 group of industrial democracies and refers to them as a "revanchist" power - an incendiary term implying a Russian desire to reoccupy Eastern Europe.

Obama, however, is more circumspect. "Although we must not shy away from pushing for more democracy and accountability in Russia, we must work with the country in areas of common interest," he said to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Rather than threaten Russia, Obama proceeded to lay out a case for cooperation on non-proliferation issues.

But it is McCain's hallmark proposal - that the U.S. create a "league of democracies" - that best illustrates his universalist thinking. Such a league, McCain argued, "can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values..." Implicit in this argument is that ideological affinity begets shared interests. Where the dictator-friendly U.N. is uncooperative, McCain believes that a grouping of democracies would be more effective. Such a league, he said, would pressure regimes "with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval" and could "impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions."

Obama's particularist predilections are harder to discern, but still evident. He speaks frequently of the appeal of American values and the imperative to promote democracy. Yet Obama will more often link American security with the relative income levels and personal dignity of those beyond our borders, and not to the political system under which they live. He has put a higher price on stability and cooperation with great powers than on ideological conversion.

Beneath Obama's stated preference for diplomacy when dealing with North Korea or Iran lies a clear subtext: barring acts of overt aggression, America can co-exist in a world with these loathsome, nuclear-armed regimes. His objection to the Iraq war carried a similar implication. Containing Iraq was preferable to conquering it.

Although these are theoretical maxims, the real world consequences are clear enough. Because universalism rejects the legitimacy of non-democratic systems and has global ambitions, it is inherently destabilizing. Non-democratic states have little incentive to cooperate with the U.S. if they believe we are intent on subverting their governments. Similarly, because universalism does not recognize the legitimacy of autocratic governments, it too easily dismisses their security interests as the product of political false consciousness.

Particularlism too is not without its dangers. Because it values stability, it can remain dangerously passive toward emerging threats. Since it accepts the presence of non-democratic governments, it will miss, or deliberately overlook, opportunities to promote a more liberal world order. It can be captive to the status quo.

Despite its present distribution along partisan lines, universalism and particularism are not partisan categories. While each campaign has a clear preference, they're not dogmatic. McCain, for instance, has suggested that he is a "realistic idealist" and counts as advisors men like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, who are staunch particularists. Obama's camp can lapse into universalism when they suggest that America has a national security mandate to promote dignity among the world's benighted.

But if they occasionally veer from the path, the road each man wishes to take America down is clear. The only question that remains is: where do we want to go?

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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