What most sharply defines the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain? Every reader could suggest an answer, but perhaps the most consequential issue separating the candidates is the future of U.S.-Russia relations.
McCain has been relentless in his anti-Moscow belligerence, harping especially on rapid NATO expansion to squeeze Russia, and even calling for its expulsion from the G-8, the consortium of leading industrial nations. A staple of McCain's stump speech has been his leering claim to have looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and seen not soul, but three letters - K-G-B. On Russia, McCain makes George W. Bush seem like a prudent statesman.
One of Obama's political triumphs is the way he outflanked McCain on national security issues, preventing the Republican from portraying him as dangerously timid. Thus, when Russia went to war in Georgia, Obama, while more measured than McCain, was fierce in his criticism of Moscow.
Obama has spoken positively about the ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, although with the cagey caveat that their admissions depend on meeting NATO "criteria for membership" - which neither nation will do anytime soon. McCain is prepped for a new Cold War; Obama is looking for a thaw.
During the old Cold War, ironically, a vigorous structure of dialogue and cooperation defined East-West relations - everything from nongovernmental interchanges among scientists to the arms control regime. That structure was dismantled, with nothing doing more damage to the "trust but verify" mutuality that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev achieved than the Bush administration's cavalier abandonment of treaty obligations - especially the American abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which led immediately to Russia's repudiation of START II), and the disregard of obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. If Obama becomes president, his simple reaffirmation of American intentions to abide by treaties would begin a transformation of U.S.-Russia relations.
Indeed, the issue of treaties will be immediately targeted by the next president because the START I treaty, which provides the only mechanism for verified arms reduction, is set to expire in 2009. In 2010, the NPT is set to be reviewed by its signatories.
Judging from the candidates' overall approaches, it seems clear that McCain would do nothing to invigorate these agreements, or to fulfill their legally binding terms, while Obama would seize these deadlines as an opportunity to restore the Moscow-Washington structure of cooperation on what remains the world's most pressing piece of unfinished business. U.S.-Soviet partnership on the urgent project of getting rid of nuclear weapons was what ended the Cold War; a renewal of that partnership now could usher in a new era of international collaboration.
Both sides need it. Without Russian support, the United States will never bring its disastrous entanglements with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran to resolution, and Obama knows that. He also knows, conversely, that Russian sensitivity about adjacent territories through which a dozen invasions have come over the centuries is not to be waved away with rhetoric about democracy. Moscow's near-abroad security matters.
Beyond policies that separate McCain and Obama, there is the question of temperament. Cold War history is instructive. If the judicious Franklin D. Roosevelt, instead of the hot-headed Harry Truman, had presided over the crucial post-World War II period, would the deadly conflict with Stalin's tyranny have unfolded the way it did? When the demonic Stalin died in 1953, might a less belligerent response from Washington (as even Winston Churchill hoped) have checked the arms race right then?
Presidents who used martial swagger to cloak personal insecurity took America disastrously to war in Asia three times. Psychological animus of the sort that defines McCain has been a feature of this country's most significant foreign policy failures. Obama represents another mode of leadership altogether.
The financial crisis that continues to roll across the globe, like an endless earthquake, is irrefutable proof that old categories of regional and national dispute - including the East-West divide - no longer apply. What the world needs now is an unprecedented strategic partnership between Moscow and Washington, bridging Europe and Asia, north and south, as the ground of political and economic renewal. McCain, stuck in the past, hasn't a clue of this future. Obama speaks from it.