The Age

By Tom Switzer

"This hero of war," declared President Obama, ''became a champion of peace.'' According to Bill and Hillary Clinton: ''We must continue to draw inspiration from his example and build the world he would fight for.''

Richard Nixon once told Henry Kissinger: ''This fellow to the last was a prick,'' but veteran Republican senator Bob Dole called him ''a true gentleman who was one of the finest public servants I had the privilege to know''. Liberal Democratic hawks detested him, yet he was personal friends with his ideological foe, Barry Goldwater.

As these strong and conflicting reactions on the part of the mighty indicate, George McGovern was a very significant and controversial figure in American politics.

A national legislator for nearly a quarter century and a decorated bomber pilot who flew 35 combat missions against Hitler and the Nazis, he was a leading critic of America's policy of anti-communist containment. He also gave opposition to the Vietnam War respectability within the American system as early as 1963.

Yet McGovern's death last week did not receive any press attention in Australia. Nor did the Foreign Minister's office issue a media release, even though Bob Carr himself gave a gushing 20-minute tribute to novelist Gore Vidal on Lateline after his passing a few months ago.

This lack of local interest is odd. For one thing, McGovern was the Gough Whitlam of American politics. Both were standard-bearers of social democrats and left-wing radicals at a time of widespread cultural and social unrest. Both championed far-reaching progressive reforms at home while opposing the Vietnam War and the isolation of Communist China years before the case for withdrawal and rapprochement became popular. Both also suffered humiliating landslide election defeats (McGovern to Nixon in 1972, Whitlam to Malcolm Fraser in 1975 and 1977).

Moreover, although McGovern's foreign policy failed to appeal to Nixon's ''Silent Majority,'' his message is resonating with Middle America four decades later.

His candidacy set the scene for the triumph of Democratic doves over the Cold Warriors in the mould of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. That enabled Republicans to portray Democrats as being soft on national security for generations.

Today, in the wake of the financial crisis and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are rediscovering the costs and limits of the use of force. As the conservative columnist George Will has noted, McGovern's slogan ''Come home, America'' probably summarises the thinking of a slight majority of the American people.

And both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know it. Take last week's presidential debate on foreign policy. During the 90-minute encounter, they sounded positively McGovern-esque, keen to pivot to domestic affairs while warning about getting bogged down in another Middle East quagmire.

The President said ''nation building'' begins at home on three occasions while Romney mentioned ''peace'' 12 times. The Republican's insistence that ''we can't kill our way out of this mess'' sounded like one of those anti-war catchphrases at Woodstock.

Today, as Will observes, the US ''is near a semi-McGovern moment''. Polling evidence shows that Americans are less interested in foreign policy than at any time since the 1930s.

Yet although Australians have been closely following this presidential race, we have failed to catch the emerging bipartisan consensus about America's place in the world. While the US will remain the most formidable presence on the global stage for the foreseeable future, the days of a Pax Americana are fading fast.

Whereas in 2004 one presidential adviser declared ''We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality,'' these days a presidential aide talks about America ''leading from behind''. According to this new doctrine, the phrase reflects the reality that the US lacks the power to impose its will and leadership across a more plural world.

The response from left to right has been hostile: the New York Times' Maureen Dowd lamented ''it sounds rather pathetic'' while Fox News' Charles Krauthammer complained it's ''not leading; it's abdicating''.

But the argument is less foolish than the reaction it provoked. The message is not that passivity is a foreign policy virtue. It is that, depending on the circumstances and the nature of US interests, it is sometimes appropriate for Washington to pursue a more cautious and multilateral foreign policy.

That is a defensible, even sensible world view, especially at a time when the necessary economic resources for a policy of US global leadership are not available.

Next week's close election race reflects a highly polarised and deeply divided nation. But there's one issue on which a broad consensus is developing: the call to reorder US priorities in favour of domestic affairs and pursue a more prudent and discriminating world role.

As Romney said last week: ''We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan.'' To the extent that such attitudes prevail, they reflect the spirit of George McGovern.

This article was originally published at The Age