U.S. foreign policy lacks leadership

If America doesn’t act, other nations will step in

By Dale R. Herspring

A lot of Americans tend to confuse foreign policy with domestic policy.  Concepts like “People are the same all over,” and “It doesn’t matter where one comes from, people are people” come to mind.

What is the major difference between domestic and foreign policy? A country generally has internal rules that the population accepts and lives by. If someone gets out of line, there is family and community pressure and, if necessary, a police force to enforce laws.  Despite the United Nations and other international organizations, such enforcement can be lacking — or even impossible — as is evident in Syria.

A second difference is that countries differ,  largely as a result of their political culture. Every country is impacted by its language, religion and culture. For example, during his speech to to the U.N. General Assembly, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi spoke of the importance of freedom of speech. But then he said that while he believes in freedom of speech, he also thinks it should exclude anything that could be considered blasphemy I doubt if one would find an American or Brit who would agree. The essence of free speech to Americans is that we can criticize religions, even when it offends others. Thus, when we interact with a country like Egypt, we know that we have a serious problem (as most of Europe also does).  There is no sense of live and let live.  If a confrontation is not inevitable, it is likely.

A key aspect of foreign policy is that it is a Hobbesian world. While we would like to think of the world as a place where people treat one another with respect, I have seldom seen it. In this sense, leadership and power are important. “Peace through strength” is a motto I have often heard in government circles, and it has important meaning for diplomacy.

Diplomacy involves everything from relations between peoples to military exchanges, to threats and sanctions to the use of military force. Henry Kissinger had it right he said, “A foreign policy that is not backed up by a strong, deployable military is a weak foreign policy.” Keep in mind that Kissinger was not calling for the use of the military.

What Kissinger had in mind was the refrain, “It is nice to be liked, but it is far more important to be feared.”

This is the source of much of the recent criticism of President Barack Obama.  To begin with, he is “a man of a million threats.” All presidents have occasionally made threats that they did not follow up on. Unfortunately, Obama has become a master of making threats and not following up on them.

For instance, Obama has repeatedly said that the idea of Iran getting nuclear weapons is “unacceptable.” We have reached the point where no one, including the Iranians, takes him seriously. 

Then there “leading from the rear.”  Nation s expect the strongest to lead.  If a country such as the United States doesn’t lead, then others, perhaps China, will assume the role.

Another problem with leading from behind is that middling and small powers will attempt to fill the leadership vacuum. This is a situation in which we now find ourselves.

So where does that leave us? In my opinion, if Obama wins re-election and goes through sequestration against our military as he has threatened to do, our position abroad will get even worse.  Even if we wanted to, we could not bring military force to bear. 

I am not advocating the use of force. Rather, I am arguing that unless the threat of force is credible and the president is prepared to use it when our vital interests are threatened — as they are in Iran — we will not have an effective foreign policy.

Being nice to people is a great idea.  But there are times when a show of force is the most valuable tool in our diplomatic tool kit. One cannot treat foreign policy like a community organizer would confront problems, even in a large city like Chicago. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think Obama understands that.


Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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