Is Foreign Policy Leadership a Fool's Errand?

Is Foreign Policy Leadership a Fool's Errand?

The domestic politics of foreign policy have never been so challenging.

As our social spheres have contracted, the audience relevant to U.S. foreign policy has expanded. In recent decades, political organization and mobilization have increasingly taken place not just within nations, but between them. Diverse publics, including corporations, nongovernmental organizations and activists, occupy this transnational space. From “all politics is local” to “all (or at least much) politics is transnational.” Setting the agenda and a common ground for debate is hard enough at home. It is that much harder when attentive audiences are also located beyond national borders. Leaders are then tempted to make their case in different ways to different groups, which leaves them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Obama came to office in 2009 determined to reset U.S. relations with Muslims around the world, beginning with his speech in Cairo that June. But, over time, that promise came to seem hollow, and Muslims perceived Obama as either weak or insincere. Their alienation had roots partly in the administration’s deeds: its penchant for counterterrorism by drone strike, its ambivalent response to the Arab Spring, its reluctance to press Israel too hard (though it pressed hard enough to alienate Israelis). But it was rooted also in the Obama administration’s failure to find a common language in which to legitimate these policies to such extraordinarily diverse audiences at home and abroad.

Finally, building a durable coalition for foreign policy has never been harder. Presidents are by no means powerless: they can still coerce, bargain and manipulate information. But these techniques are less effective when politics is more polarized and transparent. Thanks to the revolution in information and communications technologies, alongside the decline of authority, it is harder for governments to keep secrets. Every e-mail or text message sent by officials could become public tomorrow. Presidents are consequently cautious about methods of coalition management that seem at odds with the principles of democracy. Coercion and information manipulation are especially unsavory. But the prospect of WikiLeaks-style revelations impedes even backroom negotiations, which grease the wheels of coalition politics and are sometimes the stuff of lasting partnerships. Trump is the self-declared master of the art of the deal, and he knows that sealing one always requires meeting the other at least part of the way. Today’s politicians, however, fear they will be punished if they are seen as compromising on matters of principle. Small wonder that the Obama administration waged an unprecedented war on leaks and on the journalists who publicize them.


THESE CHALLENGES to presidential leadership on foreign affairs have not dimmed the American public’s desire for such leadership: Americans continue to look to the president to explain a world marked by rapid change and diffuse power, seemingly resistant to coherent narration. But presidents also worry about raising the public’s expectations so high that they cannot possibly satisfy those expectations. This is not just an American phenomenon: as former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso has noted, “The gap between our real power and what people expect from us is the source of the most difficult pressure any head of state has to manage.” In aiming for the rhetorical sweet spot, presidents face a classic Goldilocks problem—not too high, not too low, just right.

U.S. presidents have not managed this balancing act well since the end of the Cold War, and the result has been continual frustration with presidential leadership. George H. W. Bush had an impressive record of foreign-policy successes, yet his ever-prudent ways seemed out of touch with America’s standing as the last remaining superpower. Bill Clinton and his team were continually dismissed as unstrategic, as merely lurching from crisis to crisis. In fact, they were obsessed with unveiling containment’s successor, and if they lurched, it was from slogan to slogan. In the end, not even that remained within their control, as the one label that finally stuck was one a former ally chose, halfway through their time in the White House, deriding their “foreign policy as social work.” George W. Bush was a notable exception: his Manichean post-9/11 narrative—though mocked by foreign-policy elites as simplistic—was clear and ambitious. But the real world proved less accommodating, which reminded Americans that leadership also requires good judgment. By his second term, Bush forty-three was sounding much more like his father than like the cowboy of European nightmares.

Chastened by Bush’s experience, Barack Obama erred on the side of rhetorical caution. As he shied away from the inspiring oratory for which he was justifiably famous, the contrast was striking, and he may be most remembered for “don’t do stupid stuff”—or at least its saltier version. Political allies and adversaries alike have fretted continually in the last eight years over Obama’s modesty in global politics—what the New York Times called his “sadly pinched view of the powers of his office” and his failure to articulate “a strong, overarching blueprint for the exercise of American power.” Frustrated with his critics in spring 2014, Obama defended his record during a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” From across the spectrum, including those normally in the president’s corner, the response was swift and harsh. Maureen Dowd ridiculed the president: “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody. It doesn’t feel like leadership. It doesn’t feel like you’re in command of your world. What happened to crushing it and swinging for the fences?”

Obama’s critics seem to think that his rhetorical restraint is entirely a reflection of his temperament or simply a matter of poor judgment. It is certainly consistent with the Niebuhrian cast of Obama’s mind, which inclines the president to humility about his own place in history, attunes him to the unexpectedly tragic consequences of even well-intended action and predisposes him to tone down expectations. It may derive from what David Remnick has called “the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity.” If Obama never found the right balance, the solution seems straightforward: find a president with a different makeup—who can show some passion, who will swing for the fences, who will embrace and wear proudly the mantle of leadership.

The diagnosis is intuitive, but it is wrong. It attributes Obama’s apparent failures of leadership to his personal failings. But the president’s style and strategy reflected a world of fragmented authority, diverse audiences, and transparent and polarized politics.



ONCE UPON a time, presidents embraced the rhetoric of storytelling. In times of crisis, when the world no longer seemed to make sense, that was their authoritative role in the U.S. political system. As authority has splintered, others have stepped in to meet the public demand for meaning making, and storytelling no longer confers unique advantages on the president. Presidents thus have reason today to shrink from sweeping narratives and turn to other rhetorical modes—from the instrumental argument that Barack Obama favored to the belligerent exhortation that is Donald Trump’s forte.


Presidents once sought to craft enduring foreign-policy coalitions. As politics has polarized, and publics frown on compromise, leaders have three options. They can try to advance a unifying narrative that can serve as a solid basis for coalition building, but that is a tall order in a world of fragmented authority. They can capitalize on division and play the game of wedge politics—as Trump did in getting elected—but that strategy complicates long-term governance of a complex system. Most realistically, presidents can create coalitions of convenience behind particular policies. This is a politics of shared interests rather than contested principles. It involves crafting minimum-winning coalitions, if necessary by providing highly targeted incentives and concessions to mobilize support. It calls for taking issues one by one, on their own terms, and not as part of a grand strategy.

The domestic politics of foreign policy today thus calls for pragmatism. Some say that the world is now too complex and fast changing for any single strategic concept to guide U.S. foreign policy. If that is true, then good politics also makes today for good policy. The Obama administration adopted such a pragmatic approach in mobilizing support for, among others, the pivot to Asia, the nuclear deal with Iran, aggressive counterterrorist drone strikes, military deployments to the Middle East and Central Asia, economic sanctions on Iran and Russia, arms control, and limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. No single coalition could provide stable support for so diverse a range of initiatives that seemed to partake of no orthodoxy. Obama’s foreign policy was often too reliant on force to satisfy the Left, and it was often too enthusiastic about international collaboration and not sufficiently militarist to satisfy the Right. It was well positioned, however, to cobble together fluctuating, temporary coalitions composed of “the center plus.” This is why Obama told the New Yorker, “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now.” His greatest problem in coping with the world’s challenges, he believed, was not a flawed or absent strategy. Rather, he needed “the right strategic partners”—at home and abroad.