President Barack Obama’s recent speech at West Point was eagerly awaited. His foreign policy has been confusing at best, and disastrous at worst. From North Korea to Syria, U.S. foreign policy appears to have little or no logic behind it.
Unfortunately, the president’s speech was disappointing and only added to the confusion. Obama spoke of providing aid to the opposition forces in Syria. This is a great idea — but three years late. Any aid at this point is likely to end up in the hands of al-Qaida fighters.
Lack of direction has cost us with regard to other countries. In Egypt, we have lost our once close relationship with the army. China has now turned to Russia, concluding one of the world’s biggest natural gas deals. Libya is in chaos, and the “reset” with Russia is in shambles. In Ukraine, the jury is still out. Kiev appears to have held a more or less democratic election, for which Obama questionably claims credit.
It is hard to think of any country where our influence has not diminished under Obama’s “leadership” the past six years.
At West Point, Obama set out to counter critics of his foreign policy and particularly of his failure to show leadership on the international stage. One of his problems is his tendency to issue empty threats. He draws his red line at a certain site, but when an opponent threatens to go cross it, the line is quickly pulled back. This not only invites disgust but undermines trust and respect as well. It also results in harsh criticism from Americans who don’t enjoy having their country look foolish.
To understand the defining message of Obama’s speech, it helps to understand the nature of U.S. foreign policy over the past 14-odd years. On the one hand are so-called idealists, who argue that the most important aspect of foreign policy is diplomacy — especially multilateralism. They believe that force should be used only when absolutely necessary and that in every case, a nation should act only when supported by allies. That means no “going it alone.” The one exception is when a nation’s vital interests are at stake.
On the other side are realists, who see a Hobbesian world. Power is what shapes foreign relations. Forget great ideas and multilateralism. Rely on others when possible, but be prepared to operate alone and to use military force.
The George W. Bush administration was accused of following the latter course. We worked with allies in Iraq and Afghan-istan, but U.S. military power was dominant in both wars. Similarly, Libya was a NATO operation, but without the support of the U.S. military, it would have never succeeded.
Another factor is generally present on both the right and the left. That is the belief that American exceptionalism de-mands that we bring the blessings of democracy to the rest of the world. It will improve their lives, and we have an obligation to do so.
This conflicts with traditional values in many cultures. We talk about democracy in Russia, and we believe it should be like ours. However, Russians understand demokratzia very differently. To them it means keep order, avoid repression and run the government.
This brings me back to Obama’s speech. He accused those who disagree with him of holding views like those of realists. Points that Obama made throughout his speech included the belief that foreign policy should be conducted in accordance with multilateralism. He called several times for the United States to avoid the use of military force and instead to rely on diplomacy. Yes, at times, the George W. Bush administration used force when more focus on diplomacy and multilateralism would have been more appropriate.
But there also are times when the use or the threat of unilateral military force is necessary. If we are engaged in a difficult relationship with another country and we cannot act unless we can convince other countries — whose national interests may not be involved — to join us, our ability to act goes to zero. Obama’s message is that the United States will probably never use force.
This will give great comfort to the leaders of Iran, Russia, China and other nations that do not have our interests in mind.
This is not a wise prescription for our foreign policy. Obama is sounding more and more like Jimmy Carter, which is not a positive legacy.