In foreign policy, there is one quick way into the history books: Make a major mistake. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush can be sure that, no matter what else is said of them, their decisions leading to military intervention and war will be long discussed. The second path — a big success — is less certain. Richard Nixon’s opening to China was quickly seen as historic. But Harry Truman’s many bold decisions — containment, NATO, the Marshall Plan — were not lauded as such at the time.
President Obama has not made a major mistake. He has done a skillful job steering the United States out of the muddy waters he inherited — Iraq, Afghanistan — and resisted plunging the country into another major conflict. But Obama has been less skillful at the constructive aspects of foreign policy, of building up an edifice of achievements. He still has time to fix this.
The critics claim that the world is now in disarray and that geopolitics has returned with a vengeance — witness Ukraine. But the reality is, as Princeton’s John Ikenberry has often pointed out, that the American-led world order, built after World War II, continues to endure seven decades after its creation. It has outlasted challenges from Soviet Russia, Maoist China and, most recently, radical Islam. The Economist magazine this week tallies the 150 largest countries. Ninety-nine of them lean or lean strongly toward the United States; 21 lean against. Washington has about 60 treaty allies. China has one. Russia is not a rising global power seeking to overturn the liberal world order. It is a declining power, terrified that the few countries that still cluster around it are moving inexorably away.
Part of Obama’s problem is that he has made grand pronouncements on issues where he would not use American power forcefully, Syria and the Arab Spring being the clearest examples. Speech became the substitute for action — hence the charge of fecklessness. And on the issues where the United States has been engaged — Ukraine, Asia — his statements have been strangely muted. In his speech to European leaders on Ukraine, Obama struck most of the right notes but also offered caveats about not acting militarily. It is difficult to stir the world into action, and into following the United States, if the president is telling you what he would not do rather than what he would do.
But the broader problem is that critics want the moral and political satisfaction of a great global struggle. We all accuse Vladimir Putin of Cold War nostalgia, but Washington’s elites — politicians and intellectuals — miss the old days as well. They wish for the world in which the United States was utterly dominant over its friends, its foes were to be shunned entirely and the challenges were stark, moral and vital. Today’s world is messy and complicated. China is one of our biggest trading partners and our looming geopolitical rival. Russia is a surly spoiler, but it has a globalized middle class and has created ties in Europe. New regional players such as Turkey and Brazil have minds of their own and will not be easily bossed.
What we need is a set of sophisticated strategies to strengthen the existing global system but also keep the major powers in it. With Ukraine, it is vital that Obama rally the world against Russia’s violation of borders and norms. And yet, the only long-term solution to Ukraine has to involve Russia. Without Moscow’s buy-in, Ukraine cannot be stable and successful — as is now evident. (The country needs $17 billion to get through its immediate crisis. Would it not make sense to try to split that bill with Moscow?) Obama’s strategy of putting pressure on Moscow, using targeted sanctions and rallying support in Europe is the right one — and might even be showing some signs of paying off.
Similarly with China, the challenge is to provide the assurances that other Asian countries want but also to make sure that the “pivot” does not turn into a containment strategy against the world’s second-largest economic and military power. That would make for a Cold War in Asia that no Asian country wants and one that would not serve U.S. interests, either.
Obama’s restraint has served him well in avoiding errors. But it has also produced a strangely minimalist approach to his constructive foreign policy. From the Asia pivot to new trade deals to Russian sanctions, Obama has put forward an agenda that is ambitious and important, but he approaches it cautiously, as if his heart is not in it, seemingly pulled along by events rather than shaping them. Once more, with feeling, Mr. President!
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