“Because of unsure and indecisive leadership in the field of foreign policy, questions are being raised on all sides,” the writer declared, adding that the administration was “plagued by a Hamlet-like psychosis which seems to paralyze it every time decisive action is required.” Is this one of the many recent critics of Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Actually, it’s Richard Nixon, writing in 1961 about President John F. Kennedy. Criticizing presidents for weakness is a standard trope in Washington because the world is a messy place and, when bad things happen, Washington can be blamed for them. But to determine what America – and Obama – should be doing, we have to first understand the nature of the world and the dangers within it.
From 1947 until 1990, the United States faced a mortal threat, an enemy that was strategic, political, military and ideological. Washington had to keep together an alliance that faced up to the foe and persuaded countries in the middle not to give in. This meant that concerns about resolve and credibility were paramount. In this context, presidents had to continually act and do things to reassure allies. It is why Dean Acheson is said to have remarked in exasperation about Europe’s persistent doubts about America’s resolve, “NATO is an alliance, not a psychiatrist’s couch!”
But the world today looks very different, far more peaceful and stable than at any point in decades and, by some measures, in centuries. The U.S. faces no enemy anywhere on the scale of Soviet Russia. America’s military spending is about that of the next 14 countries combined, most of which are treaty allies of Washington. The number of democracies around the world has grown by over 50 percent in the last quarter-century.
The countries that recently have been aggressive or acted as Washington’s adversaries are getting significant pushback. Russia has alienated Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Western Europe with its recent aggression, for which the short-term costs have grown and the long-term costs – energy diversification in Europe – have only begun to build.
China has scared and angered almost all its maritime neighbors, with each clamoring for greater American involvement in Asia.
Even a regional foe such as Iran has found that the costs of its aggressive foreign policy have mounted. In 2006, Iran’s favorability rating in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia was 75 percent to 85 percent, according to Zogby Research. By 2012, it had fallen to near 30 percent.
In this context, what is needed from Washington is not a heroic exertion of American military power but rather a sustained effort to engage with allies, isolate enemies, support free markets and democratic values, and push these positive trends forward. The Obama administration is in fact deeply internationalist – building on alliances in Europe and Asia, working with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, isolating adversaries and strengthening the global order that has proved so beneficial to the United States and the world since 1945.
The administration has fought Al-Qaeda and its allies ferociously. But it has been disciplined about the use of force and understandably so. An America that exaggerates threats, overreacts to problems and intervenes unilaterally would produce the very damage to its credibility that people are worried about. After all, just six years ago, America’s closest allies were distancing themselves from Washington because it was seen as aggressive, expansionist and militaristic. Iran was so popular in the Middle East in 2006 because it was seen as standing up to an imperialist America that had invaded and occupied an Arab country. And nothing damaged American credibility in the Cold War more than Vietnam.
Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington that the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said in his speech on Wednesday at West Point.
A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Dwight Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. At the time, many critics blasted the president for his passivity and wished that he would be more interventionist.
A Democratic Advisory Council committee headed by Acheson called Eisenhower’s foreign policy “weak, vacillating, and tardy.” But Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. “I’ll tell you what leadership is, “he told his speechwriter. “It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know – or believe in – or will practice.” Maybe that’s the Obama Doctrine.
Fareed Zakaria is published twice monthly by THE DAILY STAR.