Elections are about priorities. What kind of world do we want to live in? What kinds of things are important for our government to spend money, time, and energy on to realize what we value; what do we think are priorities in the short and long run? These are things I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of us don’t ponder as we listen to candidates ask us for our vote. This weekend I had a chance to sit down and go over the foreign policy priorities of John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It wasn’t hard to find because last year all three candidates contributed pieces to Foreign Affairs about their foreign policy priorities, should they become the next president.

All three candidates agree on one thing: that freedom/liberty are paramount when it comes to foreign policy ideals. What those terms mean to each candidate, however, is somewhat different. For John McCain, liberty is attained through the dominion over others. This means never being in a position of weakness as it relates to the world at large. His view also means taking a very hawkish stance in current and future conflicts. Regarding the War on Terrorism, McCain believes that the U.S. must increase troop levels in order to thwart a civil war in Iraq, decrease the presence of Islamic extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and provide a strong-arm counterpoint to the influence of Iran in the region. Moreover, McCain seeks to decrease Iran’s influence in the area by increasing economic sanctions on their gasoline exports, divestment of capital, and using a military option (i.e. war) if the economic sticks are ineffective.

But wait, there’s more!

McCain wants to exclude Russia from the G8, take a tough diplomatic stance with China (while maintaining trade relations), develop a “League of Democracies” with Latin American countries having a voice at the table, and wants to spend money on educating Americans to learn the language of our adversaries (or potential adversaries) so we can develop better interrogation techniques to “extract information.” McCain is far more multilateral than Bush, but his “big stick” approach to foreign policy will most likely do very little to repair the strained relations we have with some of our strongest and most stalwart allies.

Barack Obama may look confident and charismatic when it comes to political campaigning, but based on his Foreign Affairs piece, he’s a political lightweight. There was very little in terms of substance to his policy prescriptions, but damn if he didn’t write with passion. He wrote very eloquently about freedom, and took a swipe at Bush’s foreign policy that was lackluster (i.e. after 9/11, Bush’s response to terrorism was “conventional.” That is to say, it was a state-based military solution to a much more complicated problem). Obama wants to end the Iraq war in a “responsible” manner by signaling that the U.S. will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq, will increase a diplomatic presence as the military presence wanes, and will broker agreements between the warring factions in Iraq. He seeks to negotiate with Iran when it comes to nuclear proliferation, revitalize the U.S. military by increasing funding and defining military missions clearly, and focus U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat terrorism in a multilateral way. Obama also wants to increase funding for intelligence efforts, increase NATO’s contribution to fighting terrorism, and build better relations with China. For Obama, it’s about creating “common security out of our common humanity.” That means a great deal of multilateralism with our allies and ending programs that degrade human individuals (i.e., rendition, torture, and lack of legal recourse for those who are imprisoned).

Hillary Clinton made no bones about how she was going to distinguish herself from the pack. From the outset she castigated Bush for squandering the post 9/11 opportunity for multilateral cooperation when he denigrated the role of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, shifted the military focus away from Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, increased a unilateral military and diplomatic approach to global issues, abandoned the U.S. commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, and ditched efforts to reduce carbon emissions. She is under no illusions that the threats to the U.S. are real (from both state and non-state actors), she knows the next president is going to be dealing with two wars, that Russia and China are now exerting more power in the international arena, that Iran is a primary source of state-sponsored terrorism in the middle east and elsewhere, and that environmental dangers are real. However, in order to effectively address these foreign policy challenges, she proposes that ending the U.S. occupation in Iraq is predicated on an increased UN presence in a diplomatic manner. In that sense, she and Obama are in agreement. However, the U.S. military presence in Iraq will not completely disappear. Instead, Clinton wants to rebuild the military by making it much more effective in fighting non-state actors. Also, she want to invest heavily in the health, education and financial assistance for those who have served in the military. Clinton was the only candidate that looked at Africa as a place where political ties and the rights of women could be strengthened, rather than a place where we must place efforts in curing disease (although she did mention that).

The accusations from the right about who is soft or weak on terrorism are bound to fly once this race becomes a two person contest. However, one thing should be clear: there are no doves in this current crop of candidates. Rather, it’s about the degrees of bellicosity when it comes foreign policy. All three candidates state that they would take the country in to military action unilaterally, and unsurprisingly, McCain is the one who is openly antagonistic when it comes to international relations.

But …

The political terrain changes — and sometimes very quickly. What these candidates say in 2007 and how one will act when elected president this year (and takes office in 2009) will be quite different in many ways. However, the overarching tone of each candidate will mostly likely stay the same. For McCain, we live in a world of dangers where a big stick foreign policy is most effective. For Clinton, the world is full of opportunities where U.S. security is paramount, but that security is best realized through strong relations with our allies who will collectively work to resolving conflicts in places like Iraq. For Obama, the world of foreign policy is a place to emphasize common interests through multilateral relationships.

As I stated at the outset, elections are about priorities. If it’s a priority to remain in a protracted state of conflict where a more militaristic culture pervades domestically and abroad, then you know which candidate best represents that point of view. If, however, your priorities are to lessen conflicts in the world through non-militaristic processes, you can count yourself lucky because you have two candidates who have the opportunity to clarify how their views not only differ from each other, but also how they differ from McCain.