David Ignatius
Opinion writer January 25, 2012

The foreign policy theme that should dominate this year’s presidential campaign is “American renewal.” Each candidate claims to have a strategy for halting the nation’s decline, but their versions often amount to “more of the same” — which ain’t gonna work.

For a bracing discussion of what a revival of U.S. power would actually require over the next few decades, I recommend a new book, “Strategic Vision” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Though he worked for a president who came to symbolize U.S. “malaise” in the late 1970s, Brzezinski has always been on the hawkish, “realist” side of his party, and in this book, he is especially critical of status-quo policies.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

A wake-up line in Brzezinski’s book is that there are “alarming similarities” between America today and the Soviet Union just before its fall, including a “gridlocked governmental system incapable of enacting serious policy revisions,” a back-breaking military budget and a failing “decade-long attempt to conquer Afghanistan.”

The gist of Brzezinski’s strategy is that America must become strong enough to act as “a responsible partner to the rising and increasingly assertive East.” He sees a future U.S. role as a “balancer” and “conciliator” among Asian nations that, left to themselves, will get into messy fights.

To achieve this revival, Brzezinski argues that the United States needs to work closely with a democratizing Russia and Turkey (assuming they continue on that path) to build what he calls a “larger West.” If the United States tries too boldly to go it alone or too meekly to accommodate the rising powers, it’s headed for trouble.

Here we come to the heart of the political debate in this presidential campaign: What does American “strength” mean in the 21st century? Is it a recovery of the kind of power and prerogative the United States had, say, in the Ronald Reagan years? Or is it something more aligned with changes in the global balance? Brzezinski would favor the latter, but let’s look at what the candidates are saying.

In every GOP debate, you hear insistent calls for a restoration of U.S. power from the front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. They evoke a lost Arcadia and suggest that the United States can reclaim its exceptional status as a “city on a hill,” towering above other nations.

The specific GOP prescriptions mostly involve muscle-flexing: more military pressure on Iran; more CIA covert action against Iran, Syria and other rivals; tougher trade policies toward China. The implicit theme is that President Obama’s efforts to mend fences with allies and work through the United Nations are signs of weakness — and that a strong America must lead from the front.

The problem with the GOP version is that America is already muscle-bound to a fault. To exercise power effectively, it needs good allies. If Brzezinski is right and a “larger West” requires cooperation with Russia and Turkey, then some of the GOP rhetoric about exceptionalism is counterproductive — little more than vain boasting. Obama has actually begun the job of cultivating these new partners, with his 2009 “Russia reset” and his patient diplomacy with Turkey.

The GOP candidates sometimes seem disdainful of global realpolitik, and they voice the romantic, go-it-alone ethos of the neoconservative wing of the party. Romney, for example, dismissed the idea of negotiating peace with the Taliban — a position even some of his own advisers reject. On the Middle East, Gingrich disdains the two-state solution that every other major nation (including Israel) favors — calling the Palestinians an “invented” people who, presumably, don’t deserve a state. That kind of rhetoric is so far outside the mainstream that it’s the strategic equivalent of walking off the plank.

As for Obama’s strategic vision, he talks a better game than he plays. He understands that the U.S. economy needs rebuilding, but despite the ringing agenda he laid out once more in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, he hasn’t enacted the strong policies that would deal with debt, decaying infrastructure and bad public education.

Blaming congressional deadlock isn’t a strategy, it’s an excuse. Obama was elected to make government work again. If he can’t do it, someone else should try.

A similar criticism applies to Obama’s foreign policy. He raised hopes at home and abroad because he proposed to resolve festering problems, such as the Palestinian issue. In reality, he flopped. His Afghanistan policy is a muddle, and that’s being charitable. In this campaign, Obama needs to explain how he will lead America past the old slogans and status-quo policies into an era of genuine national revival.

davidignatius@washpost.com