I always enjoy reading Ben Smith’s musings on foreign policy, even if I don’t completely agree with him. His latest at BuzzFeed suggests that anti-Baby Boomer resentment is at the core of Obama’s foreign policy approach, and that the opening to Cuba is its apotheosis:
Barack Obama’s view of the world — previously defined solely by his opposition to the Iraq war — really started to take shape. This was a foreign policy fully in sync with the campaign’s deep generational promise: to “turn the page” on baby boomers like the Clintons and what the Obama campaign saw as their inane and toxic politics…..
[I]n Cuba, Obama has found a pure expression of the vision he promised. This is a relationship frozen in time, governed by a logic imposed when Cuba mattered to American strategy, when the stakes were high, and when the Soviets were trying to turn the island into a nuclear missile base.
The strongest argument against the opening is that it violated the laws of power. The United States gave a lot and got very little….
But the logic on which Obama was elected is: Who cares? The stakes in a tiny, poor, and autocratic island in a region of dysfunctional states are extremely low for the United States, if high for Cubans and for the people whose property Castro confiscated. The logic of the conflict is rooted entirely in the past. And so Obama didn’t play hardball; he simply turned the page, and delivered on the generational promise that got him elected in the first place.
Well… maybe? I can kinda sorta see what Smith is going for here, but one could argue with equal force that Obama’s opening to Cuba was consistent with his “don’t do stupid s***” foreign policy doctrine — because for the last generation, the Cuba embargo was pretty friggin’ stupid.
Still, I think Smith is trying to get at something, so let me offer the following tweak to his hypothesis:
We live in an era where the covers of major international affairs magazines look like this:
And if you think this is unique to FP, go check out the latest Foreign Affairs cover.
The new new thing in foreign policy isn’t a generational divide: it’s the adoption of Silicon Valley’s ethic of “disruption” as the means to do great things. Call it a bastardization of Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction. If the status quo leads to stasis, then change the status quo by any means necessary.
This is why Barack Obama was bound and determined to get U.S. forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan — because the decade-long status quo was unsatisfactory. This is why he’s endorsed negotiating with Iran — because the multi-decade-long status quo was unsatisfactory. The opening to Cuba has had an even longer and more unsatisfactory status quo.
This is why Gerald Seib can write that Obama and Rand Paul have some things in common, and why Marco Rubio looks like the world’s youngest fuddy-duddy on Cuba policy. Obama and Paul think of themselves as disruptors; Rubio does not.
Now being a disruptor is not an inherently good thing, particularly on foreign affairs. It’s just a thing. So the appeal of this kind of foreign policy approach depends in part on how comfortable one is with the status quo — which is why there very well might be a strong correlation with Smith’s generational hypothesis. Simply put, most older people are less keen on disruption.
I, for one, am uncomfortable with the idea of disruption for the sake of disruption, but it’s hard to deny that America’s Cuba policy had failed. So I guess I’d prefer to see a post-2016 president who appreciated the virtues of conserving what works, and recognizes the risks and benefits of disrupting what doesn’t work. Which means I’m likely to be very grumpy as the 2016 presidential campaign moves into full swing.