McCain identifies closely with the unilateralist instincts and Manichean worldview of the coalition of Israel-centred neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who dominated the first term of President George W. Bush's administration and place a premium on military power, as opposed to diplomacy or other forms of "soft power".
Indeed, McCain is surrounded by advisers, such as his main foreign policy spokesman, Randy Scheunemann, from both traditions. But he reportedly also consults closely with their nemeses, the foreign policy "realists", most notably former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, James Baker, and Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell. While not shy about using military power or acting unilaterally as a last resort, they place greater emphasis on diplomacy and working with other countries to further U.S. national interests.
Obama, on the other hand, is generally seen as grounded in the "liberal internationalist" school, whose founding is credited to President Woodrow Wilson and which became the basis for the U.S.- and western-led multilateral order -- presided over by the United Nations, the two Bretton Woods institutions, and an embryonic World Trade Organisation -- elaborated in large part by President Franklin Roosevelt in the waning days of World War II.
However . . .
[A] number of influential realists, most recently Bush's first-term secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, have come out in strong support of Obama and are also found among his top advisers.
Indeed, the candidate has himself extolled as a model the foreign policy record of former President George H.W. Bush's administration -- widely considered the most realist of the past generation -- and publicly stressed his admiration for the ranking member on Biden's committee, Republican realist Sen. Richard Lugar who, along with another Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel, has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state under Obama.
The inclusion of prominent realists -- who, more than any other school, constitute what could be called the foreign policy "Establishment" -- as advisers in both campaigns may be designed primarily to reassure independent and centrist voters that their respective candidates will avoid radical departures of the kind that resulted in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the influence of the neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists reached their zenith.
But whoever wins the Nov. 4 election is likely to come to office in January with a foreign policy team that spans a fairly broad spectrum of advisers susceptible to fundamental disagreements regarding the definition of U.S. national interests, the appropriate use of military force, and the degree to which Washington should rely on multilateral institutions, as opposed to taking unilateral action, if those interests are threatened.
I think the reality is that an Obama administration, which is looking increasingly likely to follow as opposed to a McCain administration, would most likely pursue much more of a classical or even neo-classical Realist School-type foreign policy. And to what extent he would also incorporate Wilsonian-style Liberal Interventionism, I think, is much less clear - or even likely - of a predictable outcome going forward.