Here’s how muddled the foreign policy thinking of the American political and chattering classes has become: Nearly all in their ranks have missed the real importance of the recent Obama-Hillary Clinton exchange about the President’s avowed determination to avoid doing “stupid stuff” in conducting diplomacy.
Politicos and pundits alike have treated the skirmish as the latest in a long series of debates about whether the United States should engage more or less actively in the world – a debate that keeps leading the nation nowhere because it is never anchored to a set of specific goals (i.e., interests) that such activism or passivity is intended to achieve. Elements of this strategically pointless dispute are certainly present in the remarks made by the President, his former Secretary of State, and their aides. But their far greater significance lies in their revelations about how Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton understand – or more precisely, misunderstand – something more fundamental but thoroughly neglected: America’s great power (or superpower) status and its policy implications.
In fairness, the mainstream media anyway have focused on the by now stale and sterile use of force debate in part because the President’s own staff and political advisors have encouraged them to do so. In particular, the West Wing seems to have starting promoting the “avoid stupid stuff” concept as nothing less than an Obama foreign policy doctrine in early June. The president was coming under fire for too cautiously responding to Russian expansionism in Ukraine and to a Syrian civil war that was sparking jihadist advances in neighboring Iraq, for militarily withdrawing too soon from Iraq, and for a May West Point speech that critics charged overemphasized what America could not realistically do to solve world problems and particularly quash foreign conflicts.
So White House aides launched a PR campaign suggesting that this alleged presidential shortcoming was not only a virtue, but a genuinely strategic response to the intractability of much international strife. In particular, “don’t do stupid stuff’ would help the nation avoid future conflicts like the second Iraq war, which Mr. Obama and so many other Americans believe created worse Middle East threats to the nation than they eliminated.
Given media familiarity with these purely tactical issues, Secretary Clinton’s remarks in an Atlantic interview inevitably added fuel to the fire. A close reading of the transcript reveals that Mrs. Clinton expressly denied that the president had replaced the previous administration’s alleged “overreach” in foreign policy with excessive “underreach.” She even just as expressly insisted that Mr. Obama’s statement about avoiding big mistakes was “a political message” intended to reassure a war-weary public, “not his worldview.” But as I noted in my August 11 post, her remarks focused much more on the means by which foreign policy should be carried out than on the concrete objectives it should seek.
Nonetheless, the president’s clear (even if not single-minded) attraction to risk-aversion as such, and Secretary Clinton’s claim that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle” both deserve much deeper scrutiny. For both strongly point to equally cohesive, if diametrically opposed, national strategies for America. Logically, the choice depends on how the nation’s position in the international system is interpreted, and since both the president and his former chief diplomat describe the United States as a superpower (presumably the strongest form of great power), deciding between their approaches requires figuring out what they mean by the term.
In a 1999 article, I identified two different definitions toward which American leaders and strategist seem to gravitate – though not always knowingly. The first, I wrote, holds that that “a great power is defined by its activism, by what it does on the world stage–by how many armies it can raise and send all over the world, how many alliances it forms or leads, how many international organizations it joins, how many treaties it signs.” This definition unavoidably assumes that, for all its strength and wealth, adequate levels of U.S. security, prosperity, and freedom depend heavily on trends and events overseas and require ongoing, vigorous efforts to ensure they develop favorably – and that such efforts have a decent chance of succeeding.
The second definition holds that a great power “is defined by what it is–by the assets it can bring to bear on the opportunities and dangers it faces.” This definition unavoidably assumes that although the United States is not strong or wealthy (or even wise) enough to control its international environment, it is fully able to achieve adequate security, prosperity, and freedom even if the international environment remains dangerous or otherwise unpromising.
Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on organizing principles unmistakably puts her in the first school of thought. She said little about what these principles were other than references to achieving “peace, progress, and prosperity,” making sure the world doesn’t go to “hell in a handbasket,” and “preventing a resurgence of aggression by anybody.” But surely her dismissal of avoiding major mistakes as America’s diplomatic lodestar springs from the concern that the world is so perilous that the United States must not simply be active, but proactive rather than reactive.
The Obama administration’s contrary emphasis logically puts it in the first school of thought – at least these days. Prioritizing the avoidance of excessive danger and cost surely presupposes a confidence that threats are easily overestimated because however troubling they look, many of global crises have little or no direct bearing on America’s own fortunes. Therefore, overreacting to perceived danger – as in the case of Iraq, according to Obama, and no doubt Vietnam – can create at least as many serious problems for the United States as under-reacting.
Unfortunately, neither Secretary Clinton nor the president has laid a foundation for these strategies that’s anywhere close to satisfactory. In fact, both have voiced beliefs and observations that can only undermine the approaches they seem to favor – perhaps fatally. In other words, to use their phraseology, they both keep saying stupid foreign policy stuff.
Secretary Clinton strongly indicated in her Atlantic interview that her preferred foreign policy model is Cold War-era containment – and that’s just for handling Islamic extremism and seemingly the challenge of Russian revanchism. Her comments on preserving – or restoring – a greater degree of international order and on preventing “aggression by anybody” suggest that her full agenda is even more grandiose.
Yet Mrs. Clinton never mentioned where she’d find the resources to carry out her plans or how she’d create them – despite the U.S. economy’s continuing weakness and the public’s opposition to U.S. military involvement in conflicts it doesn’t consider directly threatening. Even worse for her apparent ambitions, she recognized that most Americans “want us to focus on…problems here at home” and even suggested that “taking care of our people” reflects a sensible “first things first” set of priorities. It sounds worrisomely like a recipe for diplomacy that talks loudly but carries a thoroughly inadequate stick.
President Obama’s overarching mistake is a strange mirror image of Mrs. Clinton’s. His international reticence better reflects the public mood. Just as important, the non-apocalyptic view of much international turmoil that this reticence could suggest better reflects America’s real strategic position – a superpower defined by its abilities and thus its capacity for withstanding many of the world’s woes.
Yet the president has also repeatedly spoken of America’s need for global peace, order, and prosperity with an urgency strongly resembling that of Secretary Clinton’s Atlantic interview – and of foreign policy activists since the Pearl Harbor attack seven decades ago. Mr. Obama’s West Point speech illustrated this inconsistency strikingly.
On the one hand, the President declared, “by most measures America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world….Think about it. Our military has no peer. The odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low, and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War. Meanwhile, our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth, our businesses the most innovative. Each year, we grow more energy independent.”
Yet this almost swaggering assessment was followed by a contention that “We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked, whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea or anywhere else in the world, will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military. We can’t ignore what happens beyond our boundaries….And beyond these narrow rationales….I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.”
Given these totally mixed signals, small wonder that so much of the chattering class has settled on the comfortable conclusion that even the only periodic standoffishness Mr. Obama has displayed toward overseas crises is a sign of weakness. And unless the president shows the intellectual courage of his avowed convictions, voters may soon conclude the same.
Developing a realistic set of specific national interests would help both the president and Secretary Clinton offer foreign policy blueprints and doctrines both more effective and more reassuring to the public. Their latest remarks show how unlikely that prospect remains.