Beyond Obama: Advice To The Next President

The foreign policy of the last 15 years has been a disastrous oscillation between missionising and monkishness.

Bret Stephens

How shall we rate the state of the world? Take a look around — from Islamic State atrocities in Sinai and Paris, to the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, to China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, to Russia’s intervention in Syria, to the stabbing intifada in Israel.

You might be reminded of the classic exchange in Woody Allen’s movie Play It Again, Sam. The scene takes place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Allen spots an exotic-looking brunette staring intently at an abstract painting. Plucking up his courage, he sidles up to her and asks: “That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it. What does it say to you?”

In an accented, bored-sounding voice, she answers: “It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.”
“What are you doing Saturday night?” Allen asks.

“Committing suicide.”

“How about Friday night?”

So there we are. How do we move forward? Let me begin by offering a few thoughts on how we got here. And then allow me to play National Security Adviser to the next president and offer some ideas for how best to conduct US future foreign policy.

A year ago, I was about to come out with a book with the title: America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel, £10.55). The short version of the argument: a foreign policy that seeks to downsize America’s global footprint for the sake of “nation-building at home” does not make for a safer or more prosperous world. Instead, it creates power vacuums that are filled by wilful, violent men. A world in which a dictator can flout an American president’s red line with impunity is a world in which our friends don’t trust us, and our enemies don’t fear us. That’s the essence of our foreign policy problem today.

My book also has a chapter which imagines the world in the year 2019, based on current trends. I wrote the chapter in March 2014, when the price of a barrel of oil was north of $100. The chapter begins by predicting a sharp and sudden decline in oil prices, starting in early 2015. (I was off by a few months.) It goes on to predict sharp contractions in the Russian and Chinese economies, leading increasingly to aggressive foreign policies as both countries seek to offset domestic turmoil with foreign adventures. Next it foresees an Iranian nuclear deal settled largely on Iran’s terms. Then we get a third intifada in Israel, beginning with protests by Arab residents in East Jerusalem, though I imagined it starting as a mostly peaceful intifada. I also predicted Saudi Arabia getting into a proxy war with Iran over Shia unrest in neighbouring Bahrain; as it turns out, the proxy war is taking place over Shia unrest in neighbouring Yemen.

So, so far, so good — or rather, so far, so bad. And while I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball, I do think we make our best predictions when we seek to uncover the mundane in the seemingly exotic, and not, as is so often the case, the exotic in the seemingly mundane.

I wrote the book with the subtitle The Coming Global Disorder. We are now living in a world characterised by the current global disorder. Now we get to the question of what to do about this disorder. Here are eight points for our next president to consider.

First piece of advice: do not be a missionary — and do not be a monk. In other words, don’t be George W. Bush and don’t be Barack Obama. The missionary impulse in American foreign policy goes back at least to the days of James Polk, the Mexican-American War and the concept of “Manifest Destiny”. The most famous missionary president was probably Woodrow Wilson, who took America into the First World War to make the world “safe for democracy”, just as George W. Bush would later attempt to promote his “freedom agenda” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The monkish impulse, by contrast, is the belief that America is a country that must always stand apart, serving as a role model to others but tending chiefly to its own material needs and social convictions. This  impulse has even deeper roots in US foreign policy — Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, the isolationists of the 1920s and ’30s, the left-wing isolationism of FDR’s Vice President Henry Wallace and right-wing isolationism of Ohio senator Robert Taft. Obama is, fundamentally, a president in the monkish tradition.

Monks and missionaries are usually on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they are related in a fundamental way. They are moralisers. They believe that US foreign policy is ultimately a morality play about the state of the American soul. Shall we be a shining city on a hill, in the words of the 17th century Pilgrim John Winthrop, setting an example for others? Or should we, as Dwight Eisenhower famously put it, lead great crusades for freedom? Notice I said a moralising foreign policy, not a moral foreign policy. A moralising foreign policy takes place in terms of our moral conceits and aspirations; a moral foreign policy is conducted in light of the way the world really is. A moralising foreign policy accepts no shady compromises; it aspires to a kind of purity. A moral foreign policy understands that foreign policy inevitably involves a choice of evils; it wants the best achievable outcome. 

Because both the monkish and missionary traditions of US foreign policy are so prone to being disappointed by events, Americans have a habit of bouncing between the two. And that produces what Henry Kissinger once called the “disastrous oscillations in US foreign policy between overcommitment and isolationism”. I would submit that the foreign policy of the last 15 years has been typified by exactly that kind of disastrous oscillation, between missionising and monkishness.

Second piece of advice: understand that the world is not, and much of it does not want to be, a facsimile of America. This may seem fairly obvious, but we live in a time when a kind of superficial process of homogenisation — people across the globe wearing blue jeans and eating fast food and using smartphones and so on thanks to our quasi-globalised economy — has a way of obscuring our profound and abiding differences. I am speaking here not just about typical cultural differences of taste or history or custom, or the normal differences of material political interests, but of a deeper kind of difference: concepts of divinity and sanctity, attitudes about the value of human life, calculations of acceptable risk and cost, notions of national destiny.

During the Bush years, we had a president who — despite his supposed aversion to all things French, including French fries — was an unwitting disciple of the most radical French philosophe of all: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. You may remember Rousseau’s famous dictum, from The Social Contract, that “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Well, that was Bush’s idea of an Iraq policy. What was Iraq’s problem, in this analysis? That Saddam had enchained the Iraqi people. What was the solution? Break those chains, and an unshackled Iraqi people would naturally gravitate toward a functioning and increasingly liberal form of democracy. It was the same prescription he offered elsewhere in the Middle East: hold an election, and freedom will follow.

It didn’t work out as planned. From Erdogan’s Turkey to Morsi’s Egypt to Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, the people of the Middle East show a consistent preference for Islamist governments promoting repressive agendas on everything from freedom of speech to women’s rights to religious liberties. Democracy, it turns out, isn’t always liberal democracy — not all people see “freedom” as the ultimate goal of politics, especially when the Western idea of freedom is profoundly at odds with their conceptions of justice.

This also goes for Barack Obama and his constant invocations of “the right side of history”. History can be shaped, manipulated, and studied, but history does not take sides. The president seems to think history is going America’s way because all people seek the kinds of things America has, starting with openness and prosperity. But that’s not necessarily true. When he assumes that Iran’s government is going to spend its sanctions-relief windfall on improving the Iranian economy — as opposed to, say, arming groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon — he’s duplicating Bush’s mistake of assuming that Iranians want what Americans wan. Good luck with that. And good luck, too, Mr President, supposing that Iranians calculate risks and rewards the same way we do, or that a “pragmatic” Iranian thinks in essentially the same way that, say, a “pragmatic” Englishman thinks.

As we should have learned from the sour experience of the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919 in the Hall of Mirrors, when you assume your enemy is a mirror image of you, you are bound to be misled.

Third point: the Las Vegas rule. All of you surely know the saying that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Well, it has zero applicability in foreign policy. What happens in Yemen, what happens in Syria, what happens in Ukraine, what happens in submerged reefs in the South China Sea claimed as sovereign Chinese soil — all of that has consequences well beyond the immediate vicinity. The notions that we can “pivot” from one region to another, or declare al-Qaeda “on a path to defeat”, or walk away from Iraq or Afghanistan and imagine that they won’t start walking toward us — all of this is utter delusion.

This is a lesson that has become especially plain in the last year or two. In Syria, we supposed that if we just didn’t involve ourselves it wouldn’t involve us. We hoped, in time, it would resolve itself. Yet a policy of studied neglect hasn’t yielded the expected results. What began as a peaceful uprising became a bloody civil war, which became a regional refugee crisis, which became an incubator for Islamic State, which became a security crisis in Iraq forcing us to return troops there, which became a humanitarian disaster sending hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe and tens of thousands to the US, which became a target of opportunity for Iran and for Russia. And it’s going to just keep rolling in that direction unless we do become involved, just not in at a time or in a manner of our choosing.

And so disorder spreads. What’s the connection, for example, between Assad crossing Obama’s chemical red line in Syria in August 2013 and Putin seizing Crimea and then eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014? It is not precisely causal, but you can say that it is, in a sense, environmental. The President of the United States repeatedly drew a red line and then allowed Bashar Assad to cross it with impunity. Putin noticed, so he crossed another red line — the 1994 US-UK-Russian guarantee of Ukrainian territorial integrity — also largely with impunity. And the Iranians noticed this too when it came to the nuclear negotiations, as did the Chinese when it came to building artificial islands in the South China Sea. So by following the Vegas rule, by pretending that we can safely look away, we are sending a signal that the disorder will spread.

Fourth point: pay heed to Machiavelli. There’s a reason people still read him 500 years on. “A Prince,” he wrote, “is likewise esteemed who is a staunch friend and a thorough foe, that is to say, who without reserve openly declares for one against another, this being always a more advantageous course than to stand neutral.”

In recent years, we’ve neglected that principle. Think of Egypt. For 30 years a succession of US presidents, from Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush, kept Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak close, knowing that he ran a repressive but not intolerable regime. And Obama started out the same way, with Hillary Clinton calling him, as secretary of state, a “family friend”. Yet within days of the mass protests in Tahrir Square we called on Mubarak to step down, sending a signal to every other pro-American autocrat that American friendship was strictly of the fair-weather variety.

That is how we wound up with Mohammed Morsi, an elected Islamist who was moving swiftly toward becoming an autocratic Islamist before he was deposed in 2013. When President Obama was asked where we stood toward Morsi’s Egypt, he said, “I don’t think we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” It was much the same with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after he overthrew Morsi in a military coup: the Administration was essentially non-committal in its attitude, even though Sisi was an instinctively pro-American dictator.

When we speak of the Machiavelli principle, we also have to go back to my first principle, which is that in foreign policy you can be neither a monk nor a missionary. You have to make choices between unpalatable alternatives. And you have to do so in a way that, whatever its nuances, is fundamentally unambiguous. It would be nice if American presidents could play the part of Santa Claus, keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice and distributing our gifts accordingly. But we live in a 50-Shades-of-Grey world in which we nonetheless have to take sides or else run the risk of being seen as an unreliable ally or an unserious foe. So my advice to the next president is: choose your friends. If you don’t like what they are doing tell them so only behind closed doors. And likewise, know who your enemies are, and treat them as such.

I don’t pretend to suggest this is a perfect approach. What is? It doesn’t answer every vexing question, particularly when it comes to subjects such as human rights, and it has its vexations, especially when it comes to difficult partners like Pakistan. But I repeat what I said at the beginning: the worst of all foreign-policy worlds is the one in which our friends don’t trust us, and our enemies don’t fear us.

Fifth point: the paradox of weakness. We in the West tend to associate economic strength with national strength, a growing economy with a confident foreign policy. Similarly, we tend to retreat in periods of economic weakness. Recessions make democracies risk-averse.

The opposite holds for autocratic regimes. “In Russia,” wrote the great scholar of Russian imperialism Dietrich Geyer many years ago, “expansion was an expression of economic weakness, not exuberant strength.” From Tsar Nicholas I in the 19th century to Leonid Brezhnev in the 20th century to Vladimir Putin today, Russia’s rulers have consistently sought to ease their domestic travails and manipulate public opinion by undertaking reckless foreign military adventures. Notice that today plunging oil prices and economic sanctions aren’t exactly curbing the Kremlin’s appetite for mischief. On the contrary, economic travails merely whet the appetite. One policy lesson here is that broadly-targeted sanctions that hurt the Russian people will have no great effect and may even have a perverse one, since it will give the Kremlin the propaganda it needs to whip up Russian public opinion against the West. If the US and Europe want to stop Russian military adventures, we are going to have to challenge them directly. Military aid packages to Kiev would be a good place to start.

Much the same goes for China. For the past 40 years, ever since Mao’s death, the Communist party has based its legitimacy on two claims: first, that it would increase China’s prosperity, and second, that it was the guardian of China’s national interests. So long as the good times rolled, the party could soft-pedal the nationalism. But with an economy suffering fundamental and potentially incurable structural problems, you can expect that Beijing will find new and creative pretexts to assert itself regionally and militarily, and to whip its people into periodic fits of anti-Japanese, anti-Vietnamese, and anti-American outbursts. In short, economic difficulty might make democracies risk-averse, but it makes dictatorships risk-prone.

Sixth point: be the strong horse. In 2001, Osama bin Laden memorably observed that “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse”. It’s a psychologically astute observation, easily forgotten in a West that makes a fetish of victimisation, but essential when it comes to the struggle for power in the Middle East. The perception of power — not just the having of it but the willingness to use it — is the coin of the realm when it comes to reassuring friends, deterring enemies, and defending oneself.

That is a lesson French leaders especially should bear in mind in the wake of November’s terrorist assault in Paris. This is not the place to discuss the meaning and implications of those attacks. But unquestionably one aim of IS was to cow a France they perceive (not without reason) as weak into breaking off its attacks in Iraq and Syria, just as al-Qaeda’s attacks in Madrid in 2004 succeeded in removing Spain from the so-called Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. If France fails to follow up its bombardment of IS positions in Syria with more decisive military blows, it will all-but invite future terror spectaculars on French soil.

For the US, the lesson should be equally clear. “Weakness is provocative” is one of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s more useful adages. After seven years of Barack Obama’s weakness, the U.S. has become a dangerously provocative country.

Seventh point: pay greater attention to your nightmares than your dreams. Since the end of the Cold War (an era where American leaders were keenly attuned to the potential nightmare of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union) our presidents have indulged more than a few flights of geopolitical fancy. We were going to bring Russia over to our side by including it in the G8 and treating it as a full partner. We were going to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We were going to bring democracy to the Arabs. We were going to move toward an ever-more globalised world and reach the proverbial End of History.

It didn’t work out that way. In pursuing dreams such as Arab-Israeli peace we failed to pay sufficient attention to the nightmare side of things: the decay of Arab society and the rise of Islamism. In reaching for a Europe that was supposed to be whole, free, borderless, and ultimately nationless, we wound up with the nightmare of a Europe that is bankrupt, defenceless, and, in a moral sense, rudderless.

So my advice to the next president? Forget the dreams for now. Draw up a list of your five biggest nightmares, and devise the best possible plans to ensure they won’t happen. What would be on my list?

A terrorist attack using WMD.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran and a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

A Russian military move against a Nato member state.

An unstoppable escalatory cycle with China.

Another global financial panic.

My list is neither definitive nor exhaustive; others can add or amend. But the point here is that, by identifying our nightmares, by treating foreign policy as an inherently negative task, we have a more realistic shot at addressing them. Given the trends of our world today, the president will need to move fast.

Finally, my eighth point: believe in America. I know this sounds like some kind of corny Republican campaign theme. If so, it’s a lot better than Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, because as far as I’m concerned this country never ceased being great, even under the current administration.

What I mean is: believe in American resilience and its capacity for renewal. Don’t believe America is in decline. Believe that we still are the most (and perhaps the only) vital force capable of shaping the world’s destiny. Don’t believe we are too indebted, or too war-weary, or too self-intoxicated to conduct a serious foreign policy. Remember that, when it comes to “decline”, the experts have been diagnosing “terminal decline” for the US every 10 years or so. We were in decline when the Soviets put Sputnik in orbit in the 1950s. We were in decline when Americans started buying reliable Japanese cars instead of American clunkers in the 1970s. We were in decline when the Chinese economy was notching up 10 per cent growth and we were at 1 per cent, in the first decade of this century.

But the declinists are always wrong. You measure decline against your past, your peers, and your prospects. The past? We continue to constitute about 25 per cent of global GDP. Our peers? How is Europe doing? How is Japan faring? Does China’s economic future still seem bright?

And finally, our prospects. Fifty years from now, a Booth School professor will be quizzing her students on the subject of the great technological innovations of the early 21st century, the innovations that set the economic pace for our times in the way that the Model T or the Wright Flyer set the pace for the 20th century. What would she point out to her students? Fracking, surely—a new era of energy superabundance — that began in America not because we have better geology, but because we have property rights to the minerals under our lawns, because we have a federal system that allows people in Pennsylvania to frack for gas even as their neighbours in New York refuse to do likewise, because we have a culture of risk and going against the grain that explains how fracking billionaire Harold Hamm bet big on this new technology when Exxon barely had fracking or horizontal drilling in its 2004 prospectus.

What else? How about an apps revolution that gives us something like Uber, with its ability to destroy hundred-year-old taxi cartels and monopolies and bring marginalised workers into the labour force? Or what about cancer immunotherapy, with the possibility of radically extending human lifespans? Most of this is happening here, in supposedly declining America, just as Microsoft and Apple and Oracle were happening in America in the 1970s and ’80s, another era of supposedly terminal US decline. So, as I said, believe in America.

And as you believe in America’s ability to reinvent itself, to discover unsuspected strengths in unexpected quarters, believe in America’s ability to shape a world that is a little more peaceful, a little more prosperous, a little more interconnected, a little more interesting for our children than the world we’ve inherited from our parents. If you can do that, we might just end up surviving the current wave of disorder, and thriving in yet another American century.

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