When George W. Bush first campaigned for the presidency, his foreign policy plans hinged on building a stronger economic and political relationship with Latin America, especially Mexico, and reducing U.S. involvement in small-scale military engagements in general, and “nation building” in particular. When he took office 2001, he inherited a nation at peace, with a record budget surplus.

When Bush steps down next January, he will leave a vastly different foreign affairs legacy, as well as a major to-do list for his successor. The next president will run a nation at war. He or she will contend with America’s standing around the world in decline, questions about our use of torture, genocide in Darfur, fraying relations with international institutions, and insufficient efforts to halt nuclear proliferation.

Despite saturation coverage of the presidential campaign, we have rarely had the opportunity to hear, or actually read, the candidates own views – in their own words – on these important issues. Yes, we’ve heard a sound bite here and another one-liner there, but it’s hard to know where they stand on some of the most important global issues of our day.

Looking for their exact words and a way to compare and contrast the positions of Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), and Barack Obama (D-IL) on a range of global cooperation issues? Read on.

The following analysis is based on several sources: the candidates’ voting records in the Senate, articles they have written, and their platforms as articulated during the campaign, as well as their comments in debates, public appearances, and the Citizens for Global Solutions’ candidate questionnaire. At this time, Clinton and Obama have responded to the questionnaire, while McCain has not.

U.S. Image Abroad

America’s image in the world has declined over the past several years. This was affirmed by a 2007 poll by Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), in conjunction with BBC World Service. On average across the 26 countries polled, 30% said the United States has a mostly positive influence in the world while 51% said the United States has a mostly negative influence.

This recent data runs counter to similar polling done in the 1990s. At that time, views of the United States were predominantly positive. According to World Public Opinion.org, PIPA’s webzine: “Comparing 1999 State Department data and recent Pew data, favorable views of the United States have dropped in the UK from 83 percent to 56 percent, in Germany from 78 percent to 37 percent, in Morocco from 77 percent to 49 percent, in Indonesia from 75 to 30 percent, in France from 62 to 39 percent, from Turkey from 62 to 12 percent and in Spain from 50 to 23 percent.”

The 2007 poll cited two major reasons for the decline of our nation’s image around the world:

• 75% disapprove of the how the U.S. is handing the Iraq War; and,

• 69% disapprove of U.S. treatment of detainees in Guantanamo and other prisons.

Clinton said in response to the Citizens for Global Solutions questionnaire that she believes that the decline of our nation’s image actually provides the next president “a moment of opportunity to restore America’s global standing and convince the world that America can lead once again.” She believes this can be achieved “by reintroducing ourselves to the world…this should be a moment of renewed global engagement, as there are so many problems requiring renewed American attention.”


Clinton and Obama differ on how they would carry out diplomacy as president to enhance our nation’s image.

Obama has consistently said, “We need to rediscover the power of diplomacy. So I said very early on in this campaign that I will meet not just with our friends but with our enemies, not just the leaders I like, but leaders I don’t.”

Meanwhile, Clinton is opposed to Obama’s idea. “We simply cannot legitimize rogue regimes or weaken American prestige by impulsively agreeing to presidential-level talks with no preconditions,” she said. “It may sound good, but it doesn’t meet the real world test of foreign policy.”

On the issue of meeting with not only our “friends but with our enemies” McCain recently took a dig at Obama’s philosophy, especially as it pertains to the new Cuban leader Raul Castro. “I don’t know if he is naïve or not,” McCain said. “I know he’s inexperienced, but that approach is something that I think would only serve to legitimize a person who has a many, many year record – decades of record of cruelty and oppression of the people of Cuba.”

To boost our nation’s image abroad, McCain writes in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that we should look to the history books for some lessons. “America needs to revive the democratic solidarity that united the West during the Cold War. We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves. We must be willing to listen to our democratic allies.”

As already mentioned, Obama thinks the United States is trapped by the “Bush-Cheney approach to diplomacy that refuses to talk to leaders we don’t like.”

Obama believes that, “Not talking doesn’t make us look tough – it makes us look arrogant, it denies us opportunities to make progress, and it makes it harder for America to rally international support for our leadership. On challenges ranging from terrorism to disease, nuclear weapons to climate change, we cannot make progress unless we can draw on strong international support.”

He feels that this type of direct diplomacy will help restablish our nation’s image and credibility around the world. Echoing President John F. Kennedy, he has said, “And I will send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says, ‘You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.”


The Bush administration has essentially condoned the use of torture and harsh interrogation techniques over the past several years. Many believe that these practices are outside the bounds of the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The administration has reinterpreted the Geneva Conventions to deny legal protection to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and CIA-run holding tanks. All three major candidates have said they will close the Guantanamo Bay prison.

On March 8, Bush vetoed legislation preventing CIA interrogators from using harsh interrogation techniques.

The day before Bush’s veto, Obama said “We need a Commander in Chief who has never wavered on whether or not it is acceptable for America to torture, because it is never acceptable…I believe that we must reject torture without equivocation because it does not make us safe, it results in unreliable intelligence, it puts our troops at risk, and it contradicts core American values. When I am president, the American people and the world will be able to trust that I will outlaw torture.”

McCain, who himself was tortured as a POW in Vietnam, said in a Republican Presidential debate that, “We could never gain as much we would gain from that torture as we lose in world opinion. We do not torture people. It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are. And a fact: The more physical pain you inflict on someone, the more they’re going to tell you what they think you want to know.”

Interestingly, McCain voted against the legislation that Bush vetoed in early March, even though the bill would have outlawed “waterboarding” and other interrogation techniques the senator had previously repudiated. In explaining his vote, the Senator’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann said, McCain feels “it’s a good thing that (the CIA can use) enhanced interrogation techniques that are not revealed in your newspaper.”

In a September 2007 Democratic Presidential debate, Clinton said she opposed any use of torture “period.” This was the first time, it appears, that she expressed her opposition to all kinds of use of torture, according to The New York Daily News. She shifted her position, according to her staff, after meeting in April 2007 with a group of retired generals.

Genocide in Darfur

The crisis in Sudan’s western province of Darfur began in early 2003 when rebel groups in Darfur began to attack Sudanese government targets, claiming that the region is neglected by the government in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. In response to the attacks, the Sudanese government mounted a campaign that has killed hundreds of thousands of Darfurians, caused millions to flee their homes, and wrought untold devastation. In addition to sponsoring horseback attacks by nomadic Arab militias known as the janjaweed, the Government of Sudan has launched aerial bombardment campaigns and helicopter gunship attacks against the people of Darfur.

In September 2004, the United States conducted an independent investigation and declared the events in Darfur genocide. However, Citizens for Global Solutions (my organization) and others in the NGO community have sensed a disconnect between the Bush administration’s rhetoric on Darfur versus its actions.

Clinton said in her Citizens for Global Solutions questionnaire that, “There is a real mismatch between the urgency of the genocide in Darfur, where innocent civilians are dying every day, and an international response…. the truth is that the United States has failed to exercise effective leadership to stop a four year-long campaign of genocide in Darfur….

“Rather than pressure the perpetrators of genocide to stop the killing, for four years we have been negotiating compromise after feckless compromise with the Khartoum regime, while it continues its campaign of atrocities. To stop the genocide, the international community needs to deploy a large, capable force with a robust enforcement mandate to protect civilians….The U.S. needs urgently to change the calculus in Khartoum and stop the genocide.

“With our allies and our partners in Africa, we need to take immediate steps – economic, military – to let Khartoum know we will not tolerate continued genocide. These steps should include more effective sanctions by the U.S., the EU and the UNSC.”

In his questionnaire, Obama said, “As President, I will bring the international community together through American leadership to stop the killing and prevent a second wave of genocide in Darfur. I have been speaking out since 2004, calling on NATO, the U.N. Security Council, and the African Union to take strong action to stop the genocide in Darfur…

“The United States must intensify pressure on China to use its leverage to secure Khartoum’s agreement to the expeditious deployment of the hybrid African Union-UN peacekeeping force. Washington must also play a greater and more consistent diplomatic role in supporting a political process to bring about peace on the ground. Finally, the United States must be prepared to implement meaningful measures, including imposition of multilateral sanctions, an arms embargo, and a no fly zone for Sudanese flights over Darfur if the Khartoum government continues to prevent deployment of the peacekeepers.

“I firmly believe that the United States, like all nations who stand for freedom and respect for human rights, has the moral responsibility to condemn, in the strongest manner possible, the actions of the Sudanese government against its own people.

“When I am President, the United States will maintain high-level, consistent, and sustained involvement in Darfur until the violence has stopped and the conflict has been resolved.”

Meanwhile, Senator McCain writes that the U.S. must not only learn from our past mistakes, but keep all options on the table in order to stop the killing.

“Africa continues to offer the most compelling case for humanitarian intervention. With respect to the Darfur region of Sudan, I fear that the United States is once again repeating the mistakes it made in Bosnia and Rwanda. In Bosnia, we acted late but eventually saved countless lives. In Rwanda, we stood by and watched the slaughter and later pledged that we would not do so again. The genocide in Darfur demands U.S. leadership. My administration will consider the use of all elements of American power to stop the outrageous acts of human destruction that have unfolded there.”

U.S.-UN Relations

The onset of the Iraq War caused immense tension between the United States and the United Nations. This historic 60-year relationship became further strained when Bush appointed John Bolton to be our nation’s UN ambassador in 2005.

Though the United States is the largest contributor to the UN’s budget, it has also become the largest debtor to the world body. Each year, Congress is responsible for approving the payments requested by the administration for U.S. assessed contributions to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets. Currently, past U.S. obligations to the United Nations amount to $1.5 billion. This debt has been accumulated over the past many years, due to underfunding by the administration and the Congress. If the Bush administration’s current budget passes as is this year, the United States will be another $610 million short of what it owes to UN peacekeeping operations, pushing the U.S. debt to the United Nations above $2 billion.

Senators Obama and Clinton, in their responses to our questionnaire, were quite consistent when it came to paying our nation’s fair share.

“The United States should play a leading role in the United Nations, including by pushing to implement important reforms,” Obama said. “I believe our ability to effectively lead the UN is undermined when we do not fulfill our financial obligations at the UN.

“I support meeting our obligations to fund assessed peacekeeping operations and doing our share to fund voluntary peacekeeping operations. I do not support the creation and funding of the United Nations Emergency Peace Service,” Obama said.

Clinton also spoke about the importance of U.S. funding. “It will be a priority of my administration that we meet our financial obligations to the UN, as doing so is essential for the UN to fulfill the mandates we ask it to undertake, and for the United States to be credible in our efforts to promote reform there.”

She went further than Obama when it came to looking for answers to make peacekeeping efforts more effective.

“The enduring weakness of UN peacekeeping is the inability to field forces in sufficient numbers when it counts. There are a number of proposals to address this problem, while preserving the essential principal that all UN peacekeeping operations require both the formal authorization and genuine political support of the UN Security Council. The UNEP Service is one of several proposals intended to plug this gap. As President it will be a priority to build bipartisan support for an approach to UN peacekeeping that can both address U.S. concerns, while making it possible for UN peacekeeping to be as effective as possible.”

Meanwhile, McCain, in his Foreign Affairs article, proposed a League of Democracies to “complement” the UN.

“We should link democratic nations in one common organization: a worldwide League of Democracies. This would be unlike Woodrow Wilson’s doomed plan for the universal-membership League of Nations. Instead, it would be similar to what Theodore Roosevelt envisioned: like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty. The organization could act when the UN fails — to relieve human suffering in places such as Darfur, combat HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion better policies to confront environmental crises, provide unimpeded market access to those who endorse economic and political freedom, and take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems.

“This League of Democracies would not supplant the UN or other international organizations but complement them by harnessing the political and moral advantages offered by united democratic action. By taking steps such as bringing concerted pressure to bear on tyrants in Burma (renamed Myanmar by its military government in 1989) or Zimbabwe, uniting to impose sanctions on Iran, and providing support to struggling democracies in Serbia and Ukraine, the League of Democracies would serve as a unique handmaiden of freedom. If I am elected president, during my first year in office I will call a summit of the world’s democracies to seek the views of my counterparts and explore the steps necessary to realize this vision — just as America led in creating NATO six decades ago.”

International Criminal Court

The United States has made promoting and protecting human rights and the punishment for those individuals that abuse these rights a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Americans acknowledge the need to prosecute individuals who perpetrate the most heinous crimes anywhere in the world.

At the end of the 20th century, one of the bloodiest in human history, the international community adopted a treaty creating the world’s first independent and permanent court to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – the International Criminal Court (ICC). This court will act only if national courts are destroyed or unable to handle the case, or are deliberately shielding the accused from justice.

President Bill Clinton signed the Rome Treaty near the end of his term in office. Bush then reversed our nation’s policy in regards to the ICC.

In January 2005, McCain came out in favor of the United States joining the court, when he said, “I want us in the ICC.” This comment came at The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Since his “I want us in the ICC” comment, McCain has not repeated such a sweeping statement in regards to the United States joining the Court. In 2006, however, McCain did urge that the U.S. cooperate in support of the Court’s Darfur investigation. “U.S. and allied intelligence assets, including satellite technology, should be dedicated to record any atrocities that occur in Darfur so that future prosecutions can take place,” he said. “We should publicly remind Khartoum that the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes in Darfur and that Sudanese leaders will be held personally accountable for attacks on civilians.”

Clinton notes that “the worst fears about the ICC” have not evolved, but she does not say she will re-sign the Rome Treaty.

“There is broad support in this country across political and ideological divides that perpetrators of genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes must be held accountable,” she said in her Citizens for Global Solutions’ questionnaire.

“When President Clinton signed the Rome Treaty, he noted our serious concerns about the treaty. But he signed, nonetheless, to underline this basic principle, and to signal that the United States would seek to address the concerns we had about the treaty, as well as to ensure that the institution operated as effectively as possible. The Bush administration’s ‘unsigning’ of the ICC not only damaged our international standing, it also separated us from our allies, with whom we have a shared interest in promoting accountability for war crimes and atrocities.

“Fortunately, some of the worst fears about the ICC have not been borne out. The institution was created to prompt the development of justice institutions in countries that lacked them, and to assure accountability for the worst human rights crimes in countries where those institutions do not exist. It has over the past eight years operated on that basis. The ICC has also avoided politicized prosecutions.

“The Bush administration has begun to cooperate with the ICC in allowing referral of indicted war criminals in Darfur to the Court, and signaling a willingness to share information with the Court pertaining to those prosecutions.

“Consistent with my overall policy of reintroducing the United States to the world, I will as President evaluate the record of Court, and reassess how we can best engage with this institution and hold the worst abusers of human rights to account.”

Obama said in his questionnaire that it’s “premature to commit” to signing the Rome treaty.

“Now that it is operational, we are learning more and more about how the ICC functions. The Court has pursued charges only in cases of the most serious and systemic crimes and it is in America’s interests that these most heinous of criminals, like the perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur, are held accountable. These actions are a credit to the cause of justice and deserve full American support and cooperation. Yet the Court is still young, many questions remain unanswered about the ultimate scope of its activities, and it is premature to commit the U.S. to any course of action at this time.

“The United States has more troops deployed overseas than any other nation and those forces are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden in the protecting Americans and preserving international security. Maximum protection for our servicemen and women should come with that increased exposure. Therefore, I will consult thoroughly with our military commanders and also examine the track record of the Court before reaching a decision on whether the U.S. should become a State Party to the ICC.”

Obama’s former foreign policy advisor, Samantha Power said in an early March interview with The Irish Times that many things need to happen before Obama could think about signing the Rome Treaty.

“Until we’ve closed Guantánamo, gotten out of Iraq responsibly, renounced torture and rendition, shown a different face for America, American membership of the ICC is going to make countries around the world think the ICC is a tool of American hegemony.

“If Barack Obama ratified the ICC or announced his support for it on day one, two things would happen. One, it would have the chance of discrediting the ICC in the short term, and two, he would so strain his relations with the U.S. military that it would actually be very hard to recover. There’s a whole lot of internal diplomacy, internal conversations about sovereignty and so forth that have to be had before you can think about that.”

Nuclear Proliferation

U.S. foreign policy can play a leading role in making the world a safer place for generations to come by preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Despite public opinion polls that illustrate that nearly 60% of the American public wants the U.S. to act within a global cooperative framework, the United States has acted on its own, ignoring and often defying both the wishes of its allies and its own best interests. It has single-handedly undermined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by offering nuclear technology to a non-signatory, pursued new breeds of nuclear weapons, and has remained silent on the issue of disarmament. Other countries inside and outside of the NPT have taken note and continue to produce nuclear weapons. U.S. non-proliferation policy needs a significant overhaul in order to address the security threats of today.

In the summer of 2007, Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs that, “America must lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years… This will require the active cooperation of Russia… We must also work with Russia to update and scale back our dangerously outdated Cold War nuclear postures and de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads. And we should take advantage of recent technological advances to build bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty… I will work to negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material….

“[W]e should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran….[W]e must develop a strong international coalition to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program… I will not take the military option off the table.”

Meanwhile, in the winter of 2007, Clinton also explained her views on nuclear proliferation in Foreign Affairs. “Like Iran, North Korea responded to the Bush administration’s effort to isolate it by accelerating its nuclear program, conducting a nuclear test, and building more nuclear weapons. Only since the State Department returned to diplomacy have we been able, belatedly, to make progress….

“To reassert our nonproliferation leadership, I will seek to negotiate an accord that substantially and verifiably reduces the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. This dramatic initiative would send a strong message of nuclear restraint to the world, while we retain enough strength to deter others from trying to match our arsenal. I will also seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 2009, the tenth anniversary of the Senate’s initial rejection of the agreement. This would enhance the United States’ credibility when demanding that other nations refrain from testing….

“As president, I will do everything in my power to ensure that nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and the materials needed to make them are kept out of terrorists’ hands. My first goal would be to remove all nuclear material from the world’s most vulnerable nuclear sites and effectively secure the remainder during my first term in office.”

McCain, also in his winter 2007 Foreign Affairs article notes that he would convene a “summit of the world’s leading powers” to discuss nuclear nonproliferation and to revisit the notion that “non-nuclear-weapons states have a right to nuclear technology.”

Another agenda item at that summit would be the “automatic suspension of nuclear assistance to states that the agency [International Atomic Energy Agency] cannot guarantee are in full compliance with safeguard agreements.” He also says the IAEA’s annual budget should be “substantially increased so that the agency can meet its monitoring and safeguarding tasks.”

Farewell, Unilateralists

While candidates often campaign on a certain platform, and then do a complete 180-degree turn away from those promises once in office, these comments by Clinton, McCain, and Obama do offer glimpses of their worldviews.

Obama and Clinton would seem to embrace a more cooperative U.S. foreign policy than McCain. Obama’s view of diplomacy stands out as holding the greatest potential for what he calls “change.” It would be unique – and refreshing – for the president of the United States to speak directly with not only our “friends,” but also our “enemies.” This open door-type of diplomacy, with our nation’s commander-in-chief leading the way, would be a bold new model in today’s interconnected world.

While McCain appears to propose a less “cooperative” foreign policy than Obama or Clinton, it’s certainly much more multilateral than the Bush administration’s track record. McCain recognizes that our nation’s image has been tarnished, and has proposed various ways for the United States to not only be viewed as a “super power” but to been seen as a “super partner,” especially in regards to increasing funds for the IAEA and support for the ICC’s investigation into the genocidal acts in Darfur.

Bush will leave his successor many daunting foreign policy challenges due to his eight years unilateralist foreign policy. Thankfully, the three contenders left standing recognize what is in front of them and are all proposing an array of more cooperative foreign policy solutions.

Howard Salter, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the director of external relations at Citizens for Global Solutions.

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