If Barack Obama continues to speak about foreign policy in the way he did with Farid Zakaria this weekend on CNN, he will earn more of my confidence. Take this for instance:
And one of the things that I want to do, if I have the honor of being president, is to try to bring back the kind of foreign policy that characterized the Truman administration with Marshall and Acheson and Kennan.
But also characterized to a large degree — the first President Bush — with people like Scowcroft and Powell and Baker, who I think had a fairly clear-eyed view of how the world works, and recognized that it is always in our interests to engage, to listen, to build alliances — to understand what our interests are, and to be fierce in protecting those interests, but to make sure that we understand it’s very difficult for us to, as powerful as we are, to deal all these issues by ourselves.
I remain skeptical of Obama’s supposed “realist” credentials, though. We are indeed living at a crucial time for American foreign policy, caught in a bind created by poorly conceived ideology and popular geopolitics and even more depraved and implementation. I’m inclined to agree with Derek Chollet who wrote this weekend that the next president should perhaps resist popular pressures to provide a new “doctrine” and to leave tactical and strategic options relatively open ended. (See a great critique of the reasoning in Chollet’s piece here.) There is less of a place for the kind of American exceptionalism that George Bush, John McCain, etc. have attempted to drape their policy visions in. This exceptionalism, in which allows (indeed, encourages) the United States to abstain, not just from the promotion of contraceptives but also, from the institutions of international order that have been the bedrock of international security for so long, and permits a kind of old money Yankee flippancy pace finding space within the existing legitimate international order for emerging powers.
Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain would get elected if he ran a campaign with a realist foreign policy platform. Neither of them are so assuredly realist to enumerate priorities, based not on abstract values and the obsessions of ethnic lobbies but instead on long term, secular interests, or to quietly admit to America’s limitations. They are both firmly conventional in their approach to foreign policy in more ways than one. For Obama’s part, he is attempting to break with the Bush Doctrine, which was a break with traditional American policy on so many levels. For McCain’s part, he is continuing the neo-conservative legacy he adopted many years ago. Obama is hoping to press “reset” and go back to the pre-Bush era*; John McCain would like to continue a trend that has been rising since at least the late 1970’s or 1980’s. They are both well within the popular American dialectics of the last several decades. Americans need a president that can confidently and stoically prepare them for the multi-polar world order.
An ideal candidate for me would recognize that the United States must work with other powers to create a new international architecture that respects state sovereignty, more artfully and reasonably than the contemporary one, and produces a coherent mechanism (as opposed to, for example, the nebulous criterion for G-8 (+/- whomever) membership) by means of which rising states could “arrive” at the table of the Great Powers. The over confidence that leads Americans to continuously say, in defiance of their history pace nation-building, guerrilla combat, and war weariness, “this time, we can do it better/will do it right,” must go. An ideal American president would find a new articulation of American identity and mission that is less messianic, more stoic, and humble.
Beyond the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which will command a significant amount of the next administration’s attention, the next president must seriously address the modification of the international system so that it is able to maintain its legitimacy, by pushing for the addition of India, South Africa, and Brazil to the UNSC as permanent members (and the dilution of veto power, so that it requires more than one member of the P-grouping to veto a resolution, which would lead to a diminution of Russia, China, and the US’s furious use of the veto), and a total revamp of the G-8 so that it reflects a consistent and relevant agenda (And not kicking out Russia for the sake of sticking it to Putin and not retaining it simply as a way of stroking the Bear’s ego.).
I feel that the necessity of a group (or “League,” as John McCain would have it) of democracies is unclear. The Concert of Democracies proposed by the Princeton Project on National Security seems to be iffy (it seems to be aimed more a implementing the Right to Protect than anything else, which could be done by non-democracies), and McCain‘s League of Democracies idea seems to be an attempt at at once perpetuating American hegemony and stoking tensions with Russia and China. Such an organization, unlike the current Community of Democracies, would likely end up arrogating US supported/championed interventions a la Iraq. What I think is of more pressing necessity is an institution that exercises R2P, on the basis of consensus, either within or parallel to the UN. How that would fit into the framework is unclear, but I think such a body would be more useful and better suited to the 21st century than a group of trigger happy voters.
Other characteristics of my ideal candidate may be posted in coming posts . . .
* [ Not the pre-9/11, as the use of that event to demarcate any substantive mutation in international relations, I think is not reasonable or rational, as it was a terrorist attack like any other that, simply because of its magnitude and geography, changed especially American perceptions of the world, which are increasingly being understood to have been overstated. ]