Center for Strategic Communication

or Deconstructing John McCain 

by Matthew B. Morris 

John McCain gave what was billed as a major foreign policy speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on March 26. In the speech he described himself as a “realistic idealist:”

I am an idealist, and I believe it is possible in our time to make the world we live in another, better, more peaceful place, where our interests and those of our allies are more secure, and American ideals that are transforming the world, the principles of free people and free markets, advance even farther than they have. But I am, from hard experience and the judgment it informs, a realistic idealist. I know we must work very hard and very creatively to build new foundations for a stable and enduring peace. We cannot wish the world to be a better place than it is.

Hillary Clinton took advantage of McCain’s speech on foreign policy philosophy to link McCain to Bush policies:

Like President Bush, Senator McCain continues to oppose a swift and responsible withdrawal from Iraq. Like President Bush, Senator McCain discounts the warnings of our senior military leadership of the consequences of the Iraq war on the readiness of our armed forces, and on the need to focus on the forgotten front line in Afghanistan. Like President Bush, Senator McCain wants to keep us tied to another country’s civil war, and said “it would be fine with me” if U.S. troops were in Iraq for 50 or even 100 years. That in a nutshell is the Bush/McCain Iraq policy.

The response from the Obama campaign was similar, with the added argument that Obama represents a real contrast to McCain’s philosophy in his emphasis on issues like “poverty and genocide, climate change and disease” as major international foci for an Obama presidency, along with the threat of terrorism.

McCain framed his foreign policy speech in terms of his lifelong experience with war, emphasizing that his personal disdain for war is shaped by his service in Vietnam. Throughout the speech he expresses his hatred of war, perhaps in an attempt to discredit the image that has been perpetuated about him as a supposed war-monger.

Rhetorically, this serves to set up his experience as the framework within which he would like his philosophy and policies to be viewed. This may serve to distance McCain from Bush, in that while their policies may have some similarities, the experiences that inform their philosophies are very different.

From a strategic communication perspective, there are two issues in McCain’s speech that are especially interesting: public diplomacy and ideology.

Steve Corman has made the case in a previous CSC journal article that credibility is a key issue candidates must deal with in public diplomacy. McCain sees a hasty withdrawal from Iraq as the most dangerous thing America could do to our credibility:

We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq. It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal. Our critics say America needs to repair its image in the world. How can they argue at the same time for the morally reprehensible abandonment of our responsibilities in Iraq?

McCain’s main public diplomacy effort seems aimed at reinvigorating our alliances:

We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.

This represents a possible move by McCain toward a more sophisticated understanding of communication, beyond the transmission model of communication that emphasizes delivering messages to the audience towards a more transactional model. In order to improve on this, it is important to consider whose voices will be heard within this international dialog.

What this and many other comments within the speech show is that his willingness to negotiate extends primarily to those who share our own ideology. The frequent links between “freedom,” “democracy” and “free markets” throughout McCain’s speech show that the underlying assumption behind his philosophy is that neo-liberal late capitalism equals freedom.

While McCain says that America needs to stop supporting the corrupt regimes in the Muslim world, a primary al Qaeda demand, he also indicates that his goal in doing so is to expand the regime of “freedom,” understood as neo-liberal late capitalism. This ideological system excludes a large portion of the world’s population as part of the international discourse, perhaps contributing to the recourse to alternative discourses (such as terrorism) as a means for those outside the hegemonic ideology to send us messages.       

Although it is a difficult task, allowing for freedom of ideological perspective among discursive partners is an important part of opening American public diplomacy beyond being able to communicate with those who think the way we do. It would be interesting to see the candidates take this into account, and show their faith in their own ideological perspective by allowing for the possibility of it being called into question.