McCain and American Engagement: A Dangerous Option

by Gordon Adams 

John McCain has been much celebrated for his stirring Philadelphia critique of the Trump foreign policy as “half baked, spurious nationalism.”

Although he is absolutely right to blister Trump’s eccentric, tweet-driven non-strategy, McCain’s alternative policy would send America down a dangerous and self-defeating road toward a world that exists only in his imagination—with dangerous consequences for the world and for the US, given the dramatic changes in the global landscape over the past 20 years.

McCain is a firm believer in the God-given duty of America to be the hegemonic, indispensable leader of the globe. Like many exceptionalists, including Barack Obama, he believes that the US created the rules of the international system and is the only viable candidate today to continue to enforce those rules. It is worth quoting him at some length, just to get the flavor of his dedication to the idea that America must govern globally:

We [with Joe Biden] believed in our country and in our country’s indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity….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.


We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. 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. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

It is the kind of well-crafted rhetoric designed to lift you out of your seat in a full-throated paroxysm of celebration for the rightness of America, the gifts it, and only it, gave to the world, and the American duty to keep on giving those gifts as the “as best hope of earth.” I am sure, if I had been there, I would have absorbed the spine-tingle and leapt to my feet.

What McCain is calling for, though, is a suicide mission for America because it both misrepresents the American past and, more dangerously, would send America hurtling into confrontation after confrontation, without end, in ways that would erode America’s role in the world even further.

The world McCain remembers has changed, and continues to change even more rapidly, as power relations shift and as other powers rise. The United States no longer dominates the global economy. Not only is the Chinese economy larger than that of the US, in purchasing power, it will be larger in standard GDP by the mid-2020s. What’s more, countries south of the equator produce half the world’s global product and nearly half of global trade. The US is a debtor nation, not the creditor nation it was at the start of the Cold War. American no longer writes the economic rules; it needs help.

The currency of what Harvard’s Joe Nye calls “soft power”—American culture, values, myths, democracy—is rapidly disappearing. Culture is now global, not American. There is no longer one set of values that dominates the global space; it was a myth to believe there was. Democracy is actually in retreat, with more than 25 of them failing since 2000. And American democracy has reached new lows as a form of political practice, given the stalemate that has existed in DC for more than 20 years and the sheer insanity that characterizes Washington, DC today. Moreover, a new “governance myth” has compelling power for countries seeking economic growth and international influence: state directed economies, like China, Singapore, and way back South Korea as well.

Global Power Rebalanced

The rebalancing of the global system is evident in every direction. A rising China explicitly re-balances the US in the Pacific and is building new institutions and programs like the 56-country Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (to which the US does not belong, but France, German, and Britain do), and the “One Belt, One Road” development strategy linking Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Europe.

China is far from alone in re-balancing the global order. India is also rising as an economic and increasingly political power. Turkey has chosen to distance itself from the US and even its NATO partners, rebalancing between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. A weak Russian hand, played strongly by Vladimir Putin, is clearly intended to balance U.S. power. In the Middle East Iran has clearly extended its influence, while Saudi Arabia competes.

Even the American military, over which McCain exercises considerable stewardship, the changing global order is beginning to appear. The American military remains globally dominant, the only one that can fly, sail, deploy everywhere. American soldiers are deployed everywhere, even Niger, as most Americans just discovered. But the record of this dominant capability has been spotty at best. U.S. military deployment to Iraq cannot be called an unparalleled victory; the jury is distinctly out in Afghanistan; and the global struggle with terrorist organizations may be proving counterproductive. Other militaries are rising—China, India most obviously, but also a host of Southeast and East Asian militaries—in a region that now surpasses Europe in its military spending.

Gideon Rachman captures this global trend:

The relative decline of U.S. economic and political power – allied to the much more rapid decline of European power – is encouraging rival nations to explore whether the United States can be challenged and whether, in this new world, there are also new strategic and ideological alternatives to the paths promoted in Washington and Brussels.

In this centrifugal globe, the Trump unilateral “foreign policy,” such as it is, is only accelerating a rebalancing that was already underway, as allies regroup, distance themselves, and take care of their own. More important, it is no longer the mythical world McCain described. Acting as if that world still existed, as if the US could just step up and be the indispensable leader, flies in the face of this evolution.

McCain himself implicitly confessed the bankruptcy of his vision of the indispensable leadership role for the US in his New York Times column on Middle East strategy. He points out that the current administration, like the previous one, has been too focused on a counter-Islamic State strategy and is missing the reality that adversaries are taking advantage of the United States everywhere else. He complained about Iranian intervention in other countries and warned that “Both within countries and between them, the regional order in the Middle East is rapidly collapsing. American power and influence is diminishing there, largely because over the past eight years the United States has withdrawn from the region. The resulting vacuum is being filled by anti-American forces.”

A Different Kind of Engagement

McCain is right about the order collapsing, but wrong about the source of that collapse or the cause of the current turmoil. It was the ill-informed and inept US invasion of Iraq, which he supported, that unspooled the then-existing balance of power in the region. The US could scarcely set a shaky Iraq on its feet, let alone be the indispensable rule-maker for the region once it had made that strategic error. One of the regional balancers, Iraq, was gone, and the US role in the region changed permanently.

The re-balancing was well underway by then, with the Iranians exercising their influence, the Saudis countering, the Turks entering in, and the Russians expanding their foothold. Too bad he called them “anti-American forces.” That’s a misleading and distracting meme, for they are now the powers in the region, and the US has become the “dispensible” nation. Trying to reverse this status the old-fashioned, John-McCain way is doomed to failure. More US forces in the region will not create stability, only exacerbate instability. He seems to recognize that, since he calls for a strategy for the Middle East, but offers absolutely no detail about what a strategy would look like.

America is going to have to engage differently, if it survives the embarrassment and dangerous proclivities of its current head of state. Americans must recognize that the United States is one nation among many; other countries have real power and real views about what the global rules need to be in the future. The United States is going to have to be a better negotiator, with greater humility, and must “play well with others” to advance national interests and solve the global and regional agendas of security, growth, stability, and climate change. It’s a truly multilateral world now.


Gordon Adams

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at the School of International Service, American University and, since 2008, a Distinguished Fellow (non-resident) at the Stimson Center both in Washington, DC. He taught at American University and George Washington University from 1999-2015. From 1993-97 he was Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget, the senior Clinton White House official for national security and foreign policy budgets. He is the co-editor of Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy (Georgetown, 2014), co-author of Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home (Routledge, 2010), and author of The Iron Triangle: The Politics of Defense Contracting (Transaction Press 1981). He was founder and Director of the Defense Budget Project from 1983-93. He has a Ph.D from Columbia University. He writes frequently on foreign policy and national security issues for a wide variety of publications. He is also a working professional actor.



  1. McCain isn’t alone.
    –from the Republican Platform 2016–p.41
    After nearly eight years of a Democratic Commander-in-Chief who has frequently placed strategic and ideological limitations and shackles on our military, our enemies have been emboldened and our national security is at great risk. Our country faces a national security crisis, and only by electing a Republican to the White House will we restore law and order to our land and safety to our citizens.
    We are the party of peace through strength. We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world.

  2. Bravo. The idiotic US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has inflicted enormous damage on America and the Middle East. Foolish squandering of fantastic sums on unnecessary “defense” further weakens the US, year in and year out.

  3. The problem that has always plagued the US foreign policy and military decisions especially in the middle East is AIPAC. Our politicians and most of the so called experts in the “think tanks” always first sought out AIPAC’s and Tel Aviv’s position on these issues. US administrations past and present always have a different definition and meaning of our strategic and national security interests in the middle east. Don’t just create problems to have a reason to start a war because that is what your very influential friend desires.

  4. McCain’s attitude in foreign policy as a protege of Barry Goldwater used to be scary! But he is changing and his better side is coming out perhaps it’s due to his fragile health and inevitability! But after all his patriotism can never be questioned!

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