AS HE begins his second term in office, President Barack Obama must reconsider his foreign-policy priorities. Though the president successfully convinced Americans that he could handle international affairs more effectively than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, this was not a particularly demanding standard since Romney identified himself all too closely with the legacy of former president George W. Bush to the extent that he focused on foreign policy at all. And it took little effort at a time when Americans were preoccupied with domestic concerns and thus largely satisfied with clichés and pandering on issues. Obama now has a real opportunity to lead if he is prepared to start a serious national debate on America’s role in the world.
At another time, Obama’s cautious, tactical and reactive approach to foreign policy might be sufficient. The problem today is that we are present at the creation of a new international system in which the United States and its allies remain predominant but are no longer unchallenged. The rise of “the rest”—emerging powers that don’t necessarily share Western interests or values—is changing international security, economics and politics. Though “the rest” are not unified, and emerging powers such as China face their own serious challenges, most share a degree of frustration with the Western-defined international order. Many likely are prepared to be responsible stakeholders but believe that being a stakeholder at all means having a role in writing the rules and connect this role to their own national interests and dignity. The United States needs a proactive strategic policy to preserve its international leadership and can ignore changing realities only at grave peril.
While Republicans criticized Obama for “leading from behind,” the real problem is that Obama and America’s other post–Cold War presidents have been leading blindly, without attempting to set a clear direction or even to look ahead on the path we are traveling. This has exacerbated many international problems and intensified some national threats. A vivid example is the Clinton administration’s obsessive involvement in the civil wars in the Balkans, which distracted attention from greater dangers, including Al Qaeda. Responsibility for the September 11 attacks lies with Osama bin Laden and his minions, but the responsibility for protecting Americans was squarely in the hands of the Clinton administration and an inertia-driven Bush administration. Each neglected to make Al Qaeda a major priority and thus contributed to tragedy.
Eleven years later, political and public discussion of the September 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, demonstrates little progress. In this case, Republican criticism has concentrated on apparently inaccurate statements about the source of the attack by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Few have asked more fundamental questions about Obama’s intervention in Libya, despite the fact that it was never approved or even adequately discussed by Congress.
In fairness, Obama is right in pointing out that Rice was speaking on the basis of talking points that others had prepared. Still, it is legitimate and important to ask how those talking points were developed and what Rice may have known when she delivered them. But a far more significant question is this: Why did she develop seemingly enthusiastic support for a poorly explained war to remove an aging tyrant who had renounced nuclear weapons after receiving American guarantees and no longer presented a threat to the United States or its allies?
Absent Libya’s predictable postintervention instability and America’s postintervention presence there, attacks like the one that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his colleagues probably wouldn’t have happened. Moreover, one of the war’s most globally visible outcomes—a U.S.-backed militia mob’s brutal killing of Muammar el-Qaddafi on video—runs counter to American values, whatever Qaddafi’s crimes.
Regionally, the U.S.-led attack after Libya gave up its WMD programs and sought to reenter the international system cannot but deter Iran from making a similar choice. And globally, Obama’s liberal interpretation of the UN resolution intended to protect Libyan civilians has made Chinese and Russian support for a resolution on Syria unattainable. Though we are certain that Rice and others in both parties who favored the war in Libya meant well, their good intentions are not an excuse for apparently minimal scrutiny of its likely consequences in Libya and beyond. Egypt’s unfolding political crisis is another reminder of the dangers in nearly automatic support for Arab revolutions, a lesson that appears to have had little impact on the Obama administration as it deepens American involvement in Syria step-by-step.
In fact, the United States has operated without a clear foreign-policy compass for the last two decades. The George H. W. Bush administration’s successful management of the end of the Cold War without widespread conflict and chaos in a region with thousands of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction was America’s last deliberately formulated and successful strategic project. Since then, U.S. priorities have been difficult to understand.
The Clinton administration attempted to consolidate Bush’s success in ending the Cold War by bringing Russia into the West. But it lacked its predecessor’s nuanced strategic thinking and prudence and, as a result, alienated Russia’s elites and most ordinary Russians with its support for the corrupt, inept and semiauthoritarian Yeltsin government’s domestic policies and its almost contemptuous dismissal of Moscow’s international perspectives. This was particularly evident in European security matters, including in the former Yugoslavia, where the administration often attempted to claim the high moral ground without reflecting on the real-life consequences of its actions and displayed considerable hubris in believing that it could solve all the region’s problems. Because U.S. policy was reckless and uninformed, its ultimate impact was the opposite of its intent.
Reacting to Clinton’s failures in both Russia and the Balkans, candidate George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy, and his future national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, warned against nation building. Once in power, however, the Bush administration responded to the tragic September 11 attacks on the United States with the foresight, planning and deliberation of a drunken sailor. Though there were no further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, this real accomplishment came at a staggering and largely avoidable cost in the administration’s unnecessary war in Iraq and its mishandled war in Afghanistan, the former of which in particular fed alienation from rivals and friends alike.
OBAMA LED Americans and others to believe that he would launch a major reevaluation and readjustment of U.S. foreign policy—even managing to win a Nobel Peace Prize based on these inflated promises—but eventually adopted a go-with-the-flow foreign policy on almost every major issue. In practice, Obama’s politically expedient embrace of conventional wisdom produced “Bush lite” policies on issues like China, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan but without the Bush team’s sharp elbows. Thus far, it has not been much more effective in serving U.S. interests or in avoiding damage to relationships with other key powers. Looking ahead, four issues require particular attention: China, Iran, Israel, and the tension between American interests and principles.
China is the most complex challenge, in that it is simultaneously a rising power with revisionist aims in Asia and possibly beyond as well as a major economic partner of the United States and its allies around the world. America and China have a shared interest in a stable global economy, continued bilateral trade and even a secure U.S. dollar, but they could find themselves on a collision course in East Asia. Because of China’s size and growing power, an à la carte relationship based on a U.S. expectation that China will accede to U.S. preferences on key issues while Washington pursues its own goals without regard to Chinese interests and preferences is unlikely to be sustainable. Yet, if it plays its cards right, Washington can have a considerable impact on China’s choices—particularly when U.S. policy is coordinated closely with allies in Europe and Asia.
Although the Obama administration has made Iran a central focus of its foreign policy—and the president has been more cautious than many of his critics—the administration has not adequately explained why it is intolerable for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran is highly undesirable, particularly given its leaders’ record of support for Hamas and Hezbollah radicals and their reckless rhetoric. But it was also highly undesirable for the Soviet Union and China to develop the bomb. The ussr attained nuclear parity, had decisive conventional superiority in Europe and actively supported terrorist organizations. China’s Mao Zedong said that he would sacrifice millions of his citizens for the cause of global revolution. More recently, it was highly undesirable for North Korea to build its small nuclear arsenal. Still, the United States has successfully deterred nuclear attack on itself and its allies for more than six decades through its own powerful nuclear arsenal as well as its network of alliances, security guarantees and sanctions.
Despite the extensive and justifiable criticism of Iran’s regime, no one has made a credible case that Tehran’s leaders are suicidal—which they would have to be to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or Israel, each of which has many more nuclear weapons than Iran could have any time soon. If Iran’s leaders are not suicidal, the main danger posed by a nuclear Iran lies in its possibly more aggressive foreign policy. The United States and its allies successfully have handled far worse in the past. This does not mean that America should be resigned to a nuclear Iran. However, taking history into account, it does suggest that Washington needs a contingency plan if Iran indeed tests a bomb. The best contingency plan—which could be pursued now and could deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon by limiting its benefits—would be a new regional-security system. Missile defense can also be important to both the United States and Israel. Finally, however, the administration should be aware of the danger of making Iran the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, something that exaggerates Tehran’s significance and diverts attention from other priorities.
America’s virtually unqualified support for Israel also merits discussion. During the Cold War, U.S. support for Israel rested on its status as America’s most reliable ally in the Middle East, the region’s only democracy and a symbol of U.S. power in an ongoing contest with Israel’s Soviet-sponsored enemies. But the Cold War is over, and Israel is considerably more powerful than its weak and divided foes—none of which has a superpower standing behind it. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which Israel could not defend itself. At the same time, with support from the Obama administration, the Arab Spring has brought new, albeit weak and fragile, democracies to the region.
Thus, it is not inappropriate to ask whether the United States should accept full responsibility for Israel’s decisions. Israel is an independent country with the right to make whatever foreign-policy choices its leaders and voters consider necessary to respond to terrorist attacks or other threats. Should the United States remain Israel’s sole international advocate even when it disagrees with policies that many see as contributing to threats toward Americans and when Israelis disagree among themselves? While the United States has no formal treaty arrangement with Israel, it has been designated an American ally and, as such, should enjoy visible and credible security guarantees as well as rapid and decisive support in the event of an unprovoked attack. But being an ally does not mean relying on support no matter what—something that Washington provides to no other nation, and something that could become increasingly difficult if democracy really takes root in the Middle East.
Recalibrating the U.S.-Israeli relationship would not mean abandoning Israel and could in fact provide Israel with greater flexibility. Once Washington was not expected automatically to defend Israeli actions, the United States would have less reason to pressure the Israeli government about settlements and a host of other matters. At the same time, Israel would have to think more carefully about the possible consequences of its decisions, like all other nations.
THE QUESTION of when and how to promote American values also deserves much more serious thought and discussion. Notwithstanding its imperfections, Americans are justifiably proud of their democracy, and U.S. practices and experiences can be valuable for others. However, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations consistently have offered mixed messages. On one hand, they have expressed the U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy, pressed others to adhere to American standards and even worked to overturn undemocratic governments. On the other hand, they have worked intimately with decidedly undemocratic leaders in China and Pakistan, and still do with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the Assad regime in Syria. And they pursued military intervention, rendition and drone attacks that even U.S. allies and many U.S. citizens have considered controversial on moral grounds.
Such tensions between American principles and American interests are inevitable, of course, and few foreign-policy decisions are strictly black-and-white. And, as the world’s predominant power, the United States often could have its cake and eat it too by insisting that partners accept not only our foreign-policy preferences but also our guidance on their domestic policies and practices.
But in today’s world this approach is unlikely to succeed in dealing with complex, modern security challenges that require not merely acquiescence to U.S. action but also active international cooperation and support. For example, counterterrorism and counterproliferation policies are substantially weaker without genuine intelligence sharing. Likewise, effective use of sanctions—even when mandated by the United Nations—is quite difficult without active assistance from key global powers such as China and Russia.
Such powers, which do not depend heavily on American goodwill, are unlikely to offer real cooperation if they believe the United States is simultaneously working to undermine, if not oust, their regimes. This is true even when addressing shared interests and goals. Few leaders will ever place nonexistential foreign-policy interests ahead of not only their own political futures but also the survival of their regimes. This problem has bedeviled U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran, which former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice erroneously maintained would proceed regardless of Russian resentment of U.S. pressure on Moscow over its governance because the Kremlin also wanted to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Informed people of goodwill can come to different conclusions about the most effective ways to advance American values internationally. Some cases are fairly easy—the United States could and should have acted to stop the genocide in Rwanda, where a limited effort may well have prevented massive atrocities without provoking opposition from other major powers. But most cases are difficult. And action without meaningful advance consideration and discussion can be quite costly, as some other U.S. interventions have demonstrated.
After the 2012 presidential campaign, it is not easy to visualize how to launch a genuine, national foreign-policy debate in the United States with goodwill and respect for differing views. The electorate appears largely disengaged from foreign-policy issues, if not frustrated with the rest of the world. Despite a degree of self-criticism as the war in Iraq turned sour, our foreign-policy elites have largely embraced a form of political correctness that discourages open and thoughtful debate on many key issues. And politicians show little evidence of retreating from partisan grandstanding. Nevertheless, notwithstanding political gridlock on many domestic matters, America’s system of government provides our presidents with great power over foreign policy—especially in second terms, when the constraints of electoral politics are less immediate and direct. Thus, President Obama has a real opportunity to launch and shape a major debate on America’s international priorities and strategies. So far, unfortunately, he appears preoccupied with his income-redistribution crusade and thus disinclined to seize the moment in foreign policy.
The danger for the United States is that the structure of the international system is increasingly out of alignment with the realities of twenty-first-century power and influence. Washington can lead efforts to modernize the international system, or it can wait for reality to prevail as it usually does in the end. The former course provides America with a new opportunity to shape the world order while the latter requires us to adapt—perhaps after a serious and costly crisis. When one is dancing on a minefield, it is always possible to say that the chances of stepping on a particular mine are low. But the probability of landing on one of many mines is prohibitively high. The United States should think quite carefully before continuing to lead blindly.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest. Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest.