Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) clashed Friday night in the first of three presidential debates. Oddly enough, on the debate's official topic, foreign policy and national security, both candidates turned in tentative performances. But the lack of decisive exchanges and memorable moments shouldn't obscure what are significantly different views about how the next administration should pursue foreign policy.
The debate, held in Oxford, Miss., came as discussions on a $700 billion bailout for the financial industry continued to grip Washington, creating stress on Wall Street and Main Street.
Although the candidates agreed on certain issues -- including the need for a bailout -- they clearly differ on a future vision for America on the world stage. Should the world be divided into camps of allies vs. enemies or a world where America leads by example?
During the debate, McCain worked hard to further the idea that he has the experience to serve as president, saying he won't need any "on-the-job training," and adding, " I'm ready to go at it right now." He took delight in describing places he had been and recounted a story about visiting Georgia that highlighted Russian President Vladimir Putin's influence there.
"By the way, I went there Georgia once, and we went inside and drove in, and there was a huge poster. And this is -- this is Georgian territory. And there was a huge poster of Vladimir Putin, and it said, 'Vladimir Putin, our president.'"
Clearly, McCain -- with a military career and three decades in Congress -- has traveled more than Obama. He tried to paint Obama has both inexperienced and naïve in the foreign affairs arena.
McCain's experience has led him to a vision of how to orchestrate a new world order:
"The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council. I have proposed a league of democracies, a group of people -- a group of countries that share common interests, common values, common ideals; they also control a lot of the world's economic power. We could impose significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect."
Of course, there are two large problems with creating this "league of democracies": China and Russia.
The power of both countries has surged in the last few years. China's economy has been growing at a searing pace, the country now holds about $1 trillion of U.S. Treasuries and Beijing has increased its influence in places like Africa and Latin America. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been caught up in a seven-year struggle against terrorism.
The Russians have overcome their malaise of the 1990s as oil and mineral values have surged. As Moscow's confidence has increased, a Putin-led Russia has demonstrated ambitions to return to a primary role on the world stage, and this could cause problems for the U.S. For example, Russia reacted to the U.S.'s missile defense program in Eastern Europe by offering missiles to Iran to protect itself from potential attacks on its nuclear reactors.
Despite Russia's and China's growing influence, McCain would make every effort to shut them out of important decisions. But how effective would a U.S.-led embargo of Iran be if Russia and China failed to go along?
McCain's vision is simple: Us vs. Them. This uncomplicated picture of the world may prove impractical. Worse, it could create an atmosphere reminiscent of the Cold War.
Obama has a different view of the world. During the debate, he remembered a time when the U.S. was respected around the world for its values:
"You know, my father came from Kenya. That's where I get my name. And in the '60s, he wrote letter after letter to come to college here in the United States because the notion was that there was no other country on Earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world."
Obama would try and return the U.S. to its former preeminence by working hard to improve ties with our allies and engaging our enemies in dialogue.
Obama assailed McCain -- and the Bush Administration -- for a myopic focus on the conflict in Iraq. "Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Sen. McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone," he said.
Obama rejects the notion that the U.S. cannot work with China and Russia. He recognized that the focus on Iraq has allowed for greater influence of China and summed up the consequences:
"In the meantime, we've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active in countries like -- in regions like Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. They are -- the conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq."
He suggested the U.S. return not only return to its former values, but also have a wider strategic focus:
"So we have put all chips in, right there, and nobody is talking about losing this war. What we are talking about is recognizing that the next president has to have a broader strategic vision about all the challenges that we face. That's been missing over the last eight years. That sense is something that I want to restore."
The candidates proposed two very different pictures of the future. McCain would return to a policy similar to what we experienced during the Cold War, while Obama would work to develop a broader strategic vision that recognizes that the world has changed.