George W. Bush and John Kerry could agree on one point in the first presidential debate: Nuclear proliferation -- specially the risk of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons -- represents the most serious threat we face. But the difference in how the two candidates approach the problem illustrates a more fundamental political divide that will stretch beyond this election. That split is about the means of making American power effective as well as the grounds for using it.
As Bush sees it, the United States can best protect itself through two means: the forward projection of American military power and a confident assertion of American ideals of democracy and capitalism. If allies come along with us when we intervene, they come; if not, not. We cannot allow other countries to deter us from fully using our power.
As Kerry sees it, the United States can best protect itself when it leads the world community. No other country has a veto on American policy, which needs to be focused on terrorism. But rather than conducting policy as a monologue, we have to listen to our allies and negotiate to gain wide cooperation, especially in dealing with such nonstate threats as al-Qaeda. And rather than imposing our ideals by force, we need to bring people elsewhere around to our views. Where Bush with his aggressive unilateralism would spend American power, Kerry wants that power conserved and enlarged through diplomacy and alliances.
These two conceptions of how to create effective power are rooted in different understandings of the Cold War. Conservatives believe Ronald Reagan's military buildup and unambiguous rejection of the “evil empire” drove the Soviet Union into the ground, while liberals hold that the alliances built after World War II contained Soviet expansion and that the internal failures of the Soviet system ultimately caused it to implode.
The same divergence in worldview appears in regard to protecting Americans from nuclear terrorism. For Bush, the risk that Iraq might have eventually produced weapons of mass destruction and given them to terrorists remains the ultimate justification for going to war, despite the Duelfer report's findings that Saddam Hussein had neither the weapons nor a weapons program when the United States invaded. The Duelfer report shows that the Iraq War was not, in fact, preemptive; there was no imminent or “gathering” threat to preempt. The war was, at best, preventive -- it eliminated an indefinite risk.
Kerry and most liberals do not disagree about preemption: If a threat is imminent, a nation has a right to strike first. The disagreement is about preventive war, where there is time for negotiation and alliance building and possibly for alternative measures short of war that can achieve the necessary results. To thwart nuclear terrorism, Kerry also puts more emphasis on securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union.
No doubt the conservative vision appeals to a formidable part of the American character. The liberal vision, however, is neither weak nor so subtle that people can't understand it. It doesn't take an advanced degree to know that it's better to have the world on your side.
The United States certainly ought to use force, with or without allies, if nothing but force will stop nuclear arms from getting into terrorists' hands. But the circumstances are rarely so clear, and, as Iraq has shown, a war intended to eliminate one danger may multiply others. The U.S. occupation has earned America new enemies and our enemies new friends, and it has given Iran and North Korea both the opportunity and the incentive to step up their nuclear programs. The desperate isolation of the latter could make it particularly apt to sell weapons to terrorists.
Bush now calls for perseverance in Iraq, and that may mean staying there indefinitely. Kerry urges a multilateral strategy for training and reconstruction and, by saying that Iraq was the wrong focus for the war on terrorism, suggests that we need to extract ourselves expeditiously and get back to waging the right war. Like Bush, Kerry says we must succeed in Iraq, but his criteria for success do not appear to be the same. Bush turned Iraq into an American ideological crusade, and Kerry may more readily give that up.
While Iraq is our most immediate foreign crisis, the choice facing Americans extends much further. In 2000, many voters thought the candidates had no important foreign-policy differences; this time they're unlikely to make that mistake, and the world hangs on their choice. But however the election goes, the debate about how to use our power effectively won't be over in November.
Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.