Has Obama measured up to these responsibilities? He has backed into a strategy of sorts rather than proactively crafted one. So he is a reluctant strategist at best. Arguably, he has shown some good tactical instincts—stay out of Syria (at least until recently), don’t get involved on the ground in Libya, and don’t get into an air or ground war in a place that matters more to Russia than it does to the United States or even to Western Europe. In all this he might be compared to the president he not so secretly admires, George H. W. Bush. The elder Bush backed into a strategy to end the Cold War after the Cold War had begun to end on its own in Europe. He also showed good tactical instincts in not breaking relations with China after Tiananmen, and in limiting the first Gulf War to the liberation of Kuwait only. But there the similarities end.
The elder Bush had elite New England schools, the Texas oil fields and the naval war in the Pacific as his rite-of-passage points of reference. The elder Bush was no intellectual, but he intuitively grasped what the bookish DeVoto knew by travel, study in the Harvard library and his own Utah upbringing: that America was a continent of such dimensions that to lead was not a choice but a fate. But Obama’s sensibility seems not to be continental. Continentalism, in Kennan’s estimation, is opposed to universalism. But I disagree. I believe without one there is not the other. If you haven’t internalized moments like the California gold rush and westward expansion, you can’t fully grasp why America deserves to lead. Only by conquering the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains first could America defeat Hitler and Tojo second. Whereas the elder Bush made incessant phone calls to many world leaders from the start of his presidency—long before such crises as the collapse of the Soviet empire and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—Obama waits until he is buried in a crisis, and even then he often delegates such responsibilities. Obama does not relish the projection of American power, without which you cannot challenge fate.
Obama has tried until recently to get America’s allies in different theaters to do the balancing for it. Get Japan to balance against China, get Saudi Arabia and Israel to balance against Iran, and get Germany to balance against Russia. This is laudable. Why not at least try to lessen the imperial burden? The problem has been that a resurgent and nationalistic Japan, which has not fully come to terms with its own World War II–era crimes, frightens others in Asia. Israel’s air force, as good as it is, is a small, tactical air force and not a big, strategic one, and thus of imperfect use against Iran. Saudi Arabia is a benighted despotism more fragile than it looks, increasingly undermined by a weaker and more decentralized monarchy, chaos in neighboring Yemen, and the deterministic forces of a rising population and a diminishing underground water table. Germany is fundamentally compromised by its addiction to Russian energy and its inherent pacifism stemming from the legacy of Nazi crimes. Delegating power to allies thus has limits, and they are severe.
Still, it is true that while Russia is bad and the Islamic State is evil and both are dangerous, the Soviet Union was also quite dangerous and “evil,” in Ronald Reagan’s memorable estimation. And we did not go to war with the Soviet Union, but, rather, patiently contained it for decades, until it collapsed from its own contradictions. Likewise, Russia’s exalted position in world energy markets as well as the size of its population will decline as the years go by, and the Islamic State may be weakened by tribalism and competing groups and caliphates. Containment is, therefore, in both cases a defensible strategy, if not an appealing one. Obama’s deliberative instinct is therefore apt for the circumstances.
Cries of appeasement will continue to be heard, though.
The problem with the charge of appeasement is that the situation only became clear-cut after the fact. When Neville Chamberlain went to Munich, the deaths of sixteen million troops and civilians during World War I had happened only twenty years before. Anyone in middle age or older knows that twenty years is merely the blink of an eye. And Chamberlain was sixty-nine years old at Munich. Such mass suffering, all for a war born of miscalculation, that yielded no constructive result! By this logic, one world war was quite enough. And who—perhaps not even Winston Churchill—could have imagined the Holocaust in 1938? The industrialized extermination of an entire people as the central, organizing principle of a modern state was simply unimaginable until it was actually happening. So even getting Hitler right was not quite as simple as it now seems. And no adversary we face now or in the future will reach the Hitler standard, in terms of possessing both an ideology of death and the ability to implement it on a mass scale. Thus, appeasement will be a mundane part of any president’s future. Using it as a gotcha phrase will not work. Fate is not that knowable in advance.
Still, it must be said: a student of Shakespeare would have grasped Vladimir Putin’s character long before an international-relations wonk, just as a philosopher would most profoundly grasp the danger of people who behead innocent journalists in order to make slick videos to spread a barbaric message. The dangers that lurk now are numerous, even as overreach on our part also lies in wait. Thus, in this age of comparative anarchy to follow the age of imperialism and that of the Cold War, getting it right will be harder than ever. For many decisions are by their very nature close calls. We require leaders who will stretch the limits of what is achievable, while at the same time respecting such limits. Fate is like the gods of ancient Greece: fickle and morally imperfect, but pliable for those who are brave.
Robert D. Kaplan is the author of fifteen books on foreign affairs and travel, including The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012), The Coming Anarchy (Random House, 2000) and Asia’s Cauldron (Random House, 2014). He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.