Since the US emerged from isolationism around the turn of the twentieth century, we have sought, in foreign affairs, to balance the defense of our interests with the promotion of our ideology – Jeffersonian liberal democracy. Thus we fought World War I to make the world safe for democracy, and World War II to preserve the Four Freedoms. We endured the cold war because we considered our country the leader of the Free World.
While engaged in these idealistic pursuits, we managed to knock off countries with violent global ambitions, and regimes which vowed to bury our way of life. We made the world safe for us.
Safety was very much uppermost following 9/11, and the desire to attain it led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, however, President Bush performed an astonishing pivot: he denied any tension between promoting democracy and America’s material interests, and inaugurated a fiercely ideological freedom policy.
His words reverberated in the Arab Spring and a number of “color” revolutions. But almost immediately President Bush’s actions parted ways with his language. When push came to shove, he settled for marriages of convenience with friendly autocrats like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, over more democratic but less reliable alternatives. Safety remained true north to the end of the last administration, even when paid for in the coin of our ideals.
In an inexplicable manner, President Bush has become the true north of President Obama’s foreign policy. Everything done by the former president must now be undone. More, it is clear that the new foreign policy team considers President Bush to have been an extreme, but not atypical, example of America’s lawlessness and arrogance toward the world. The reset button aims to delete not just the last eight years but the last century.
According to Robert Kagan in this fascinating piece, President Obama believes that the fundamental interests of all nations are not inevitably in conflict. Thus there is no need for an American president aggressively to defend America’s interests. He also believes that the way to global consensus is to make a show of our respect for every nation’s history, culture, and political arrangements. Thus the propagation of Jeffersonian democracy is utterly counterproductive.
Without much reflection, President Obama has toppled the two great pillars in the temple of American foreign policy. On the ruins of this stately edifice, he expects to see a “new international architecture” arise, built on a breath-taking leap of faith.
The president believes that the key aspect of our relations with the world is the world’s loathing of our self-interested, insensitive behavior. Hence the need for a global reset. He is betting – in Kagan’s words – that a “tilt toward former adversaries” will demonstrate to an angry world that “America is now different. It is better. It is no longer choosing sides. And, therefore, it is time for other nations to cooperate.”
Obama believes that his own story is a powerful foreign policy tool in this regard, that drawing attention to what makes him different, not only from Bush but from all past American presidents, will lead the world to take a fresh look at America and its policies and make new diplomatic settlements possible. He hopes that by displaying earnestness to change American practices, he can build an image of greater moral purity, and that this in turn will produce diplomatic triumphs that have hitherto eluded us.
Kagan notes that the last president to try this approach was Wilson, who ended badly. I’m more inclined to agree with President Obama’s self-image as a man with few precursors; if I were to find an exception, it would be in Jimmy Carter’s belief that his sincerity could trump history. He ended worse.
American foreign policy has always assumed that the interests of great nations often collide, and that the instruments of American power – including the allure of Jeffersonian democracy– are necessary to defend our national interest in such moments of conflict.
This appears self-evident. Once deleted, we are in for a bumpy ride.