So here’s a thought experiment: If the same treaty had been negotiated by President John McCain, what would the final vote in the Senate have been? My sense is that it would’ve been very different indeed. And that means that even on something like a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, partisan incentives trump policy considerations. There’s something deeply scary about that. ~Ezra Klein

I’m not sure that it is scary so much as it is aggravating. What it shows is that Republicans in Congress and the conservative movement are capable of dissenting from bipartisan foreign policy consensus, but only when it would be the most foolish and harmful to do so. Bipartisan consensus on foreign policy is very often destructive and dedicated to shoring up U.S. hegemony through countless commitments that we can’t afford and shouldn’t be trying to maintain. This consensus has endorsed dangerous policies from invading Iraq to expanding NATO to isolating and antagonizing Iran, and on all of these Republicans in Congress and movement conservatives have largely been reliable supporters. We can expect that they will continue to rally behind such policies in the future, because they are exercises in American power projection, because they are confrontational, and because they are incredibly short-sighted and reckless. In this case, their usual support of the foreign policy consensus would be constructive and welcome, and it is only now that they have gone into a position of total, irreconcilable rejectionism when it is least merited.

Partisan incentives explain some of it. There will always be a negative Republican reaction against any foreign policy initiative by a Democratic President on the assumption that it must somehow “weaken” America, regardless of the substance of the issue or the truth of the claim. Even when Democratic Presidents have fairly “centrist” and even hawkish foreign policies, as Carter, Clinton and now Obama have had, the default reaction among Republicans always seems to be to try to out-hawk the other side. This is what most Republicans seem to fall back on when they are unsure how to respond.

Partisanship doesn’t explain all of it. We shouldn’t underestimate the need to vindicate the confrontational and aggressive foreign policy of the past decade, especially as it relates to U.S.-Russian relations. If New START failed, that would undermine the “reset,” and the “reset” represents everything about Obama’s foreign policy that most Republicans hate. The “reset” approach recognizes that Russia has legitimate interests, it avoids needlessly provoking Russia, and it assumes that the U.S. and Russia have some common interests that can best be served through cooperation. Many critics of the “reset” regard Russia as an antagonist and even as an ideological competitor (because they mistakenly believe that Moscow wants to promote its brand of authoritarian populism beyond its borders), and naturally find the idea of treating Russia as anything else to be repugnant. Republican hawks tend to view Russia policy through a simple binary: appeasement or going on the offensive. If the U.S. isn’t on the offensive, it must be in retreat.

That brings me to John McCain. It is possible that McCain would have negotiated an arms control treaty with Russia, but my guess is that a McCain administration would have adopted the antagonistic attitude towards Russia that McCain has had for over a decade. He did not assume that U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated because of U.S. policies and actions, and it seems unlikely that he would have attempted to improve those relations. Instead, he would have concluded that the Bush administration erred during its second term by failing to be forceful and combative enough. Instead of backing away from NATO expansion and the missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, he would have pursued both. Famously, he identified completely with Georgia during the August 2008 war. More recently, he has been agitating for a more confrontational and provocative approach towards Russia:

We need to stop overstating the successes of our cooperation. And we need to begin dealing with Russia more as the modest power it is, not the great power it once was. What that means, in part, is being more assertive in the defense of our interests and values.

For starters, we need to resume the sale of defensive arms to Georgia. Our allies in central and eastern Europe view Georgia as a test case of whether the United States will stand by them or not. Russia views Georgia as a test case, too – of how much it can get away with in Georgia, and if there then elsewhere. It is the policy of our government to support Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO. And yet for two years, mostly out of deference to Russia, defensive arms sales have not been authorized for Georgia. This has to change. At a minimum we should provide Georgia with early warning radars and other basic capabilities to strengthen its defenses.

Had McCain become President instead, it is quite possible that this treaty would never have been signed and would never have come to a vote.