The World Is Waiting

Memo to undecideds: The better diplomat will make the better president.

AFP/Getty Images

"I know where to go...I know what to do..."

It's getting late—have you made up your mind? Here's one last thing for you undecided voters to consider.

As soon as the next president is sworn in, he's going to have a waiting room full of folks with global problems to deal with. Iraqis have yet to reach a foundational economic and political power-sharing arrangement, Iranians have yet to allow full inspections of their nuclear facilities by the IAEA, Pakistan's secular, parliamentary, nuclear-armed government is susceptible to overthrow by Islamic fundamentalists, and two U.S. allies, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, are at each other's throats. In the lame duck phase of the Bush administration, Europe has taken the lead in steering the course on global financial management. Cuba and Darfur probably won't be able to get past the White House lobby.

Now ask yourself if a President McCain could advance his diplomatic agenda with Barack Obama as his secretary of state, and then ask whether President Obama could move his diplomatic agenda with McCain as his secretary of state.

American prestige and influence are on the line like never before, in large part because in the past eight years, we have acted as though the greatest country in the world (us) can do whatever we want (we can't) without consequences. If we want to avoid becoming Southern Canada or Northern Australia—large, prosperous, democracies that usually follow and rarely lead in world affairs—then we have to get someone in the job who knows how to negotiate with, and not just antagonize our allies and foes. After all, the last word in "foreign relations" is "relations."

Over the course of this election season, it's become apparent that a hypothetical President McCain could confidently send a hypothetical Secretary of State Obama out to press his case with other world leaders. We can always talk before we start dropping bombs, so if McCain's goals are to eventually expand the Iraq war into Iran and fast track Georgia's NATO membership (and acquire the obligation to defend it militarily against a future Russian attack) he might as well send Secretary Obama out to take a few meetings first.

But don't take my word for it. Just play a mental video for yourself of Obama's campaign over the past year. Way back in July, McCain dared Obama to travel the world, and Obama went out and conquered it, with the most influential heads of state—Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Browneagerly lining up to meet with him while he shuttled effortlessly between helicopter sorties with General David Petraeus, meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah II, and tours with Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, who easily looks like she could be one of Obama's law school chums.

Meanwhile, candidate McCain has persisted in deriding Obama as a "smooth talker," despite the obvious requirement in diplomacy for precise language, an ability to build consensus and a correct pronunciation of the word "nuclear." A diplomat negotiates for hours in a conference room at Sharm el-Sheikh in the hope that his efforts at persuasion might stave off tragedy. Everything about Obama's now famous "cool, steady" temperament says, "Hey, let's talk."

But now consider whether President Obama would want to send Secretary of State McCain out as his emissary.