Obama's Trench Warfare

What the forty-fourth president needs to learn from Van Buren, Hoover and Nixon.

When former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what might blow his government’s policy off course, he replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” Obama took office seeking to lighten America’s geopolitical footprint. But many foreign-policy experts now argue that the Arab uprisings are forcing the United States to adopt a neoconservative agenda of democratic regime change in the region—and some have certainly seen the Libyan mission as proof positive of that claim.

Yet if history is any guide, a policy of retrenchment will win out: when the United States does not face a serious geopolitical threat and the president’s party prefers to invest in domestic programs, presidents look for ways to scale back, not expand. Martin Van Buren was the first president to adopt a strategy of retrenchment. Shortly after he took office in 1837, the economy collapsed, forcing Van Buren to play catch up on the domestic front. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, he pursued a foreign policy of restraint. Van Buren opposed territorial expansion and downsized the military, slashing the army’s budget by half and refusing to give the Navy new warships. When opportunities arose for the U.S. to extend its political control beyond its borders, as they did over Texas annexation and insurrection in British Canada, Van Buren rejectedthe pleas of special interests to expand the nation’s footprint. Instead of looking for ways to move foreign policy to the “front burner,” Van Buren did all he could to keep foreign policy on the “back burner.”

Van Buren’s situation was comparable to Herbert Hoover’s in the 1920s. Although an ardent internationalist, Hoover also pursued a strategy of retrenchment, scaling back commitments in Europe and Asia. Hoover reigned in military spending at a time when military spending accounted for more than half of the federal budget. In Latin America, he favored a lower political-military profile than Woodrow Wilson had, opting not to manipulate the many foreign crises that arose in the region during his presidency. Hoover relied less on the stick of military coercion and more on the carrot of economic investment, even if those efforts were tempered by his unflinching support for higher tariffs (Smoot-Hawley) on foreign goods.

Richard Nixon is also remembered for pursuing a strategy of retrenchment. For a hard core Cold Warrior like Nixon, it was a surprising choice. During the Cold War, most presidents saw military power as the best means to contain the spread of Soviet influence, and they invested heavily in it. Playing against type, Nixon engaged Moscow diplomatically, cut the Pentagon’s budget, and lightened the burden of Cold War competition through his “tacit alliance” with Communist China and his American-centered system of “regional policemen” in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Nixon sought to balance against Soviet power on the cheap.

Nixon’s desire to scale back commitments and costs was understandable. As it is today, the United States in the 1970s was bogged down in an unpopular war and the American public was anxious about the economy. Yet because Nixon’s policies of East-West detente and Sino-American rapproachment involved making concessions to Moscow and Beijing, they were a tough sell inside the party.

Nixon’s retrenchment is rightly remembered as a Cold War anomaly. During the Cold War, presidents had little “geopolitical slack,” or room for strategic error. As day-to-day reelection seekers, America’s leaders thought more about how foreign policy could ruin them politically than about how it might help them. The risk of strategic failure (e.g., the possibility of a technological breakthrough that would tip the nuclear balance to the Soviets, the fall of a country to communism) led presidents of both parties to look for ways to hedge and limit their political exposure by investing in military power, forward defense, and military alliances. Worries about the domestic costs of failure weighed heavily on America’s leaders, sometimes inordinately so.

Leaders do not respond to international events in a domestic vacuum. Their foreign-policy choices depend as much on party politics as they do on geopolitics. Presidents think about whether foreign policy can hurt them domestically and about whether it can help them politically.

This is the situation Obama finds himself in today. China does not pose a geopolitical threat. While Beijing bears watching, it lags far behind the U.S. militarily. Meanwhile, Obama is under pressure from Democrats who see greater advantage in investing in butter rather than in guns. Indeed, three out of four Americans in a recent Gallup poll are worried about the domestic economy.[1]Public support for reducing America’s geopolitical load is strong, and not just among liberal Democrats. According to a recent Pew poll, many independents and even Tea Party supporters favor a leaner, less interventionist foreign policy.

None of this predicts that Obama will slavishly follow a linear path toward retrenchment. But it is unlikely that Obama will put real U.S. muscle into promoting democracy in the Mideast. This is not only because the United States has conflicting interests in the region. It is also because retrenchment assumes that power is limited, and limited power encourages presidents to carefully distinguish between what is essential to U.S. security and what is not.