On the eve of the Democratic convention, most Canadians prefer Barack Obama to John McCain for U.S. president. But the Canadian policy establishment is not so sure. This time, the people are right.

Why? First, because changing times demand new thinking. Second, because the enormous damage to American standing in the world and to international co-operation caused by Bush's foreign policy will require a complete break to repair. Obama is the more credible candidate on both scores. And third, because sometimes Canadian interests transcend bilateral trade relations and this is one of those times.

The United States will remain the most powerful state on the planet, but its dominance will diminish.

The Asians, with the exception of Japan, have long been just consumers of world history, reacting defensively to the surges of Western commerce, power and thought. No more; they, especially China, Japan and Korea, are producing history again as they did prior to the Industrial Revolution.

As well, the European Union is becoming more powerful, with a combined GDP of almost $17 trillion, military spending of $256 billion, and 75 per cent of the world's aid to poorer countries. Further, Russia is "back," as Georgia learned the hard way. With 14,000 nuclear weapons and countless petrodollars, Russia intends neither to be taken for granted nor to be dominated.

And Latin America, primarily Brazil, is asserting itself at the world's top tables, including the WTO, the UN Security Council and the G8/13. A constructive, forward-looking world view is needed in Washington for a globe that cannot be dominated.

Bush's foreign policy has been catastrophic, from the eternal war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the horrors of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram, illegal renditions, the unilateral reinterpretation of the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, the abrogation of international arms control treaties and Kyoto, to the malign neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, neo-con fantasies about empire, and the triple deficits - trade, current account and budgetary.

According to the U.S. Pew Global Attitudes project, international support for America is at its lowest ebb, having declined in 26 of 33 countries polled since 2002 (in some cases to single digits). Significantly, a majority of Americans now consider that a major problem.

U.S. unilateralism has also prejudiced global governance, the system of international institutions and treaties that previous U.S. administrations did more to create than any other government. The world wants and needs an administration in Washington that it admires morally as well as respects militarily, and one that leads co-operatively. The world wants to believe in the U.S. again.

If most of the world wants a clear break from the Bush years, and if most Americans do, too, and if a more co-operative approach to global issues is likely to be the only successful strategy for all concerned, who would make the better president?

Both Obama and McCain would be better than the incumbent. But the election of Obama, partly because of his race and age, would signal that America is capable of serious change and of keeping faith with its vast promise.

Further, Obama's is the more cosmopolitan world view. Because he was born of a Kenyan father and a globe-trotting mother, because he spent childhood years in Indonesia, even because part of his U.S. upbringing was in offshore Hawaii, he is arguably the most worldly candidate ever to run for the U.S. presidency.

McCain's formative experiences, notably in the U.S. navy, which 12 miles out of Norfolk is a law unto itself, in Vietnam where his capture obscured the scale of the disaster enveloping his comrades-in-arms, and his 20-year tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee have been very different. His is essentially a power-based, allies-and-enemies world view, albeit more respectful of allies than the incumbent is. He sees national security (military power) as his strong suit and seems more interested in being commander-in-chief than president. That plays well in "red states" but to most of the rest of the world it looks like more of the disastrous same.

Their differences are most pronounced, and most revealing, on Iraq. In 2002, in the Illinois state legislature, Obama was prescient in his judgment that "the invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East ... and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."

McCain, on the contrary, supported the decision to invade Iraq, continues to support that decision, believes the surge is leading to victory, and contemplates a lengthy stay in a hospitable Iraq.

Obama has characterized McCain's position as strategically myopic. Obama sees Iraq as the wrong war, and wants U.S. forces out by mid-2009, a time frame embarrassingly close, for McCain and Bush, to that of the current Iraqi government.

McCain shows little sign of appreciating how deep a hole the Bush administration has dug for his country worldwide. Interestingly, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, campaign contributions from U.S. military members favour Obama almost six to one.

But what about the bilateral trade relationship, on which so much well-being depends? McCain, the free-trader, would likely be the better choice but it is Congress where trade power resides and where protectionism thrives. Anything short of a Democratic meltdown in November means Congress will be dominated by Democrats in any case.

Even when Congress was ruled by Republicans, the Department of Homeland Security was allowed to progressively "thicken" the Canadian border. The election of McCain would entail no economic guarantees for Canada. And on policies from Afghanistan to climate change, both McCain and Obama would expect more from their allies.

The world, including Canada, needs the U.S. to return to the astute, principled leadership it once provided. The world is more likely to accept that kind of leadership from someone who represents a break with the unpopular, exceptionalist, military based, unilateral policies of the Bush administration.

The cosmopolitan Obama would be that break. That's why Canadians are right to prefer him.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.