The foreign policy component of the presidential campaign will be vital–to the vote itself, and to the interests of America and the world. Future US strategy will decide the lives, or deaths, of untold numbers of Americans and of others around the globe; and it will largely determine the extent of the terrorist threat to the United States. In the short term, it will decisively influence the state of the world economy; in the longer term, it will be crucial to the question of whether the major states of the world will come together to deal with challenges like global warming, or will yet again fritter away their resources on arms races and competitions for resources and influence. Within the United States, the extent of military spending and strategic commitment will largely decide whether funds and attention can be mobilized to meet pressing social, economic and ecological challenges. And US voters know this, as their unprecedented interest in foreign and military policy demonstrates.

Tragically, the foreign policy “debate” they are being offered by the political elites and mainstream media is to a considerable degree fraudulent. None of the packages the American people are being offered by the leading candidates envisage the kind of reduction in ambitions and commitments that would allow the United States to avoid the risk of future disastrous wars and to redeploy its resources for the well-being of ordinary Americans. None of the proposals from either party envisage the kinds of compromises with other leading states that would make such a change in America’s global posture possible. Only rarely do the candidates appear to understand the concept of diplomacy, as this was understood and practiced by previous generations of American statesmen.

And it is diplomacy that American elites above all need to relearn if they are to deal effectively with the new global situation. Diplomacy not only in the narrow sense of the attempt to achieve reasonable–and therefore limited–ends by agreement with other states but in the broader ethical sense given by Sir Harold Nicolson in his classic work on the subject: “common sense and charity applied to international relations.” In other words, reasonable compromises through an understanding of the points of view of other nations, based first on a respectful study of their interests, experiences and cultures and second on a realistic calculation of US strength relative to theirs and of US ability to influence their actions. This is something that all too many leading politicians and intellectuals of both parties find difficult to understand.

That does not mean that no differences exist. For example, on the evidence of their views on foreign policy as presented in articles in the September/October Foreign Affairs, you would have to be several different kinds of damned fool not to prefer John Edwards over Rudolph Giuliani. Even if you dismiss the differences between the Republicans and Democrats as largely a matter of style, in international affairs style does matter–as any Western diplomat who has had to deal with John “I Don’t Do Carrots” Bolton can testify.

The pieces by Giuliani and Edwards (it cannot be called a debate, since they essentially argue past each other) are worth examining in some detail, for their significant differences and worrying similarities. This is especially true when it comes to “diplomacy,” a word that both candidates use frequently but neither appears to understand.

Of the two, Giuliani’s abuse of the concept of diplomacy is by far the more glaring. Throughout his essay, he qualifies the word “diplomacy” with muscular adjectives like “determined,” “effective” and “strong,” which largely cancel out its meaning. In a key passage, he (or his team) writes:

Another step in rebuilding a strong diplomacy will be to make changes in the State Department and the Foreign Service. The time has come to refine the diplomats’ mission down to their core purpose: presenting US policy to the rest of the world…. Our ambassadors must clearly understand and clearly advocate for US policies and be judged on the results. Too many people denounce our country or our policies simply because they are confident that they will not hear any serious refutation from our representatives. The American ideals of freedom and democracy deserve stronger advocacy. And the era of cost-free anti-Americanism must end.

Someone who truly cared about strengthening US diplomacy would probably do well not to display such ostentatious populist contempt for US diplomats. Much more important, however, is the misunderstanding by Giuliani and the Republican tradition he represents of the very nature of diplomacy. In his book, it evidently comes down to approaching people in order to shout at them loudly and at close range.

The role of US diplomats is reduced to that of messenger boys with megaphones. As to the traditional core functions of diplomats–to seek agreements with other states and accurately reflect the views of their governments–Giuliani does not appear even to know they exist. At no point in his essay is there anything about seeking compromises with any other country. In the case of Iran, he writes that talks with that country could work, “but only if we came to the table in a position of strength, knowing what we wanted.” What the Iranians might want is obviously irrelevant. This is a recipe not for diplomacy but for demands for capitulation. In a milder form, the same approach is taken to even less malleable states like Russia and China. In Giuliani’s fatuous image, the world is compared to New York under his mayoralty: the United States rallies good guys to overcome crime and chaos by “determined action.”

It is an immense relief to turn from these blusterings to Edwards’s essay, which is encouragingly titled “Reengaging With the World: A Return to Moral Leadership.” In fact it is too much of a relief; for the great difference in style has a tendency to mask the lack of real content in much of Edwards’s essay, indeed the similarities between the two positions. This unfortunately is true throughout much of the Democratic camp when it comes to foreign policy. The fact that they are not Cheney, Bolton, Giuliani or McCain has given them something of a free pass not to say too clearly what they would actually do that would be different, or even to advocate the same policies in a more civilized tone of voice. This is especially true of the vexed question of a new diplomatic strategy toward rivals and potential enemies.

The key opening passage in Edwards’s essay reads as follows:

We must reengage with our history of courage, liberty and generosity. We must reengage with our tradition of moral leadership on issues ranging from the killings in Darfur to global poverty and climate change. We must reengage with our allies on critical security issues, including terrorism, the Middle East, and nuclear proliferation. With confidence and resolve, we must reengage with those who pose a security threat to us, from Iran to North Korea. And our government must reengage with the American people to restore our nation’s reputation as a moral beacon to the world, tapping into our fundamental hope and optimism and calling on our citizens’ commitment and courage to make this possible. We must lead the world by demonstrating the power of our ideals, not by stoking fear about those who do not share them.

With relatively minor variations, similar statements have come from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and their leading advisers. Some elements in them are of course very positive: the mention of climate change, which finds no place at all in Giuliani’s remarks, and the emphasis on not “stoking fear,” something to which Giuliani’s entire essay is dedicated.

It is only at a second reading–by someone outside the mainstream US discourse–that the intense narcissism of Edwards’s intellectual approach becomes apparent. The talk is all of re-engaging with our history, our hope and optimism and our courage. Once the United States has done so, it is taken for granted that first US allies, and then the rest of the world, will once again admire America as a “moral beacon” and accept America’s leadership of the world.

The same attitude has been expressed by Edwards’s foreign policy adviser Michael Signer and “liberal hawk” colleagues of Signer’s from the Progressive Policy Institute who advise Hillary Clinton. Few seem truly to understand the lasting and severe damage done to US prestige and power by the Bush Administration and the extent to which the United States is suffering from strategic overstretch.

Even fewer recognize, or are prepared to admit, that from now on, other major powers will help the United States only if it respects their views and interests, and will refrain from challenging the United States only if it refrains from challenging them. During the cold war, when the West was held together by the threat of Communism, even the closest allies did not simply follow where the United States led: Britain was careful to stay out of Vietnam, for example. Things are much more complicated in the “war on terror,” in which the United States often pursues policies in the Muslim world–especially regarding Israel–with which most Europeans and the overwhelming majority of Muslims disagree. Is a future Democratic administration prepared to change those policies to gain the support of more allies? If not, what can it realistically hope to achieve?

In dealing with most of the world outside Europe, the first task of US strategy today is as ancient as strategy itself: to prioritize. To identify which US goals are most important and actually attainable with the resources America has at its disposal. The second is to identify the priorities–or “vital interests”–of other leading states, the points that they will under no circumstances abandon short of defeat in war. Only if US policy-makers can succeed in these two tasks will they have any chance of designing a strategy based on reality rather than imperial and ideological fantasy.

When they speak of the need for diplomacy, too many Democratic policy intellectuals really mean only dealing with Europe and a few other democratic states like India and Japan. Together with the ideological formula of the “Democratic Peace,” this leads to the idea–advanced by both parties–of some form of global concert of democracies. In its soft form, this has been put forward (in effect, though not in name, as a proposed Democratic administration strategy) by the Princeton Project on National Security. In a hard (and completely unrealizable) form, it appears in Giuliani’s essay as a call for a globalized NATO, open to all states that share US values and goals.

This is a nice-sounding idea, but it ignores the inconvenient facts that many democracies today may easily cease to be democracies tomorrow–Thailand and Bangladesh being recent cases in point–while their interests and their importance (or lack of it) to the United States will remain unchanged. Even many relatively stable democracies like India are driven in their external policies almost exclusively by considerations of national interest–as in the current Indian rejection of US policies toward Iran and Burma. For that matter, during the cold war, the fact that India was a democracy altered not one jot the embittered hostility to India that Delhi’s foreign policy produced in Washington.

When it comes to Europe, the latest pro-American statements of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration should not be allowed to disguise the fact that when it comes to helping the United States on key security issues, there is not much that Western Europe either will or can do. And as Angela Merkel’s administration in Germany has demonstrated, while German governments may tilt this way or that with regard to Russia, no German government will sacrifice vital German interests for the sake of US strategies it regards as unnecessary and dangerous. The areas where Europe is a truly vital US partner are trade and the environment–but these are areas where most of the candidates are being very carefully vague.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that along with the laudable goal of strengthening the prestige and influence of the democratic ideal in the world, two less laudable aims lie behind the current popularity of the “concert of democracies” idea. The first is to help line the United States up behind particular states and against others in various parts of the world: with the Eastern Europeans against Russia; with Japan and Taiwan against China; and above all, of course, with Israel and India against the Muslim world. Far from bringing strength to the United States, this would lead to even greater commitments, greater overstretch and greater danger of being drawn into local conflicts.

The second task, closely connected, is to avoid diplomacy, in its broadest sense: the hard choices and painful compromises involved in dealing successfully with states like Russia, China, Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Such choices are painful for US national interests and values but also painful in terms of domestic politics, and therefore in terms of the careers of those taking part in the establishment debate on these issues. This is true above all when it comes to engaging in genuine negotiations in the Middle East; but to a lesser extent, it also affects relations with Russia, China and Western Europe.

When it comes to the crucial issue of how to deal with real or perceived rivals and enemies of the United States, from Havana to Beijing, the Democrats either refuse to say what they would do differently or stress that they would continue to do the same things. For example, the extremely damaging bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations report of 2006 on Russia (Russia’s Wrong Direction) was co-chaired by John Edwards and largely drafted by two former Clinton Administration officials, Strobe Talbott and Stephen Sestanovich. It was notable not only for its extreme arrogance and self-satisfaction but also for its complete misreading of Russian political realities. Founded on a belief that attacking the Putin administration helps strengthen Russian democracy and the Russian opposition, it missed the point that this kind of criticism infuriates most ordinary Russians and actually strengthens the Russian regime. Whatever happens, this regime will be in power for the foreseeable future, so the United States has no choice but to deal with it on a range of vital issues.

America’s Russia policy is a good example of the failings of US diplomacy in recent years, and how they can be addressed. The US approach to Russia has been to push a whole set of agendas and demands simultaneously, defining all of them as a priority–which contradicts the very meaning of that word. Little effort has been devoted to identifying which ones are really important to the United States, which are really important to the other side, which are practically attainable–and indeed, which are actually in the interests of Russia’s neighbors like Ukraine, which the United States claims to want to help. Both the Bush Administration and leading Democrats like Edwards have described their approach as one of “selective cooperation”: seeking Russian support on certain issues while pushing strongly against Russian policy on others.

This approach ignores the fact that if the United States pushes against Russia on issues that Russia regards as vital–like NATO enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine–then Russia will certainly not help US vital interests in other areas, and on the contrary will push strongly against them. The same is true of China, Iran and any country with the ability to push back against what it regards as hostile US policies. This common failure to recognize something that should be so blindingly obvious highlights that incapacity to understand the perspective of other nations that so afflicts the Washington establishment of both parties and so hinders its ability to formulate sensible US strategies for dealing with the outside world.

In the case of Russia, three recognitions are essential. First, given their dreadful experiences in the 1990s, it is reasonable for a majority of Russians to prefer a more authoritarian government that guarantees basic stability and economic growth. We may disapprove of that, but it is not up to us to change it. Second, America’s vital interest in the former Soviet Union is not the expansion of US power–for example, through NATO enlargement–but the preservation of peace and stability as the essential basis for economic and political progress. The need therefore is to work out with Russia a set of mutual constraints on intervention against Russia’s neighbors, while understanding that in this region Russia’s vital interests will always have to come first. Finally, if we want and need Russia’s help on vital international issues, from nuclear nonproliferation to global warming, we must not deliberately treat Russia as an enemy on other issues of great moral and practical complexity, little real interest to us and great interest to Russia–like the issue of Georgia’s separatist republics, for example. I have called this diplomacy, but as Nicolson pointed out, it is also just plain common sense.

To some progressive readers, a return to true diplomacy in dealing with other major states may smack too much of cynical realpolitik. In truth, however, no goal that progressives hold dear can be achieved without a reasonable degree of harmony between the world’s leading powers. By the same token, a continuation of America’s present drive for global domination–whether or not this is cloaked in the language of liberalism–can only provoke fierce and effective reactions from much of the rest of the world. As so often in history, we will then see hopes betrayed, resources squandered and progressive ideals prostituted in the service of vicious national hatreds and hopelessly megalomaniacal national ambitions.