Well, we suppose any action we take (or don’t take) pursuant to an international matter technically constitutes a manifestation of our policy at the time. But technicalities aside, the answer seems to be — not really – not today.
If we define foreign policy as the position(s) of our government on a range of issues communicated to, and clearly understood by, the world community (friend and foe alike) then America is, today, bereft of any recognizable foreign policy. This is no small matter. The effectiveness of our foreign policy (or the lack thereof) is very much a function of how other nations calculate what our response will be to actions they may (or may not) take with respect to other nations. It is to us remarkable how well so many of our Presidents from the time of our founding have understood this reality, and how little that reality seems to be understood today.
Let’s look back through our history in a very brief (but by no means complete) retrospective.
While America’s focus for most of the 19th century was geared to domestic issues (with occasional and unwelcome incursions into Canada and Mexico), our presidents have been remarkably unambiguous when it came to foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson, following the neutrality policies of Washington and Adams, was adamant that American vessels would be free to sail the seven seas, and built and sent a fledgling navy all the way to the Barbary Coast of North Africa to secure our right to sail unencumbered whenever and wherever we chose. Later, Jefferson sensing that the opportunity was right purchased from France for $15 million, or about .04 an acre, the Louisiana Territory thereby doubling the size of the United States (arguably the greatest real estate deal in the history of real estate deals—even greater than the Dutch purchase of Manhattan for 60 Guilders worth of junk, and our subsequent purchase of Alaska half a century later from the cash-strapped Czar of Russia).
Jefferson’s successor, the diminutive James Madison, declared war on Great Britain (an audacious act if ever there was one) in order to assert America’s rights on the high seas and to begin to nudge Britain off of the North American continent.
The world knew what our young nation’s foreign policy was when our fifth president declared to the European monarchs who had had free reign to roam over our hemisphere, that their roaming days were over. The Monroe Doctrine told the world that America was a power to be reckoned with. European colonialism in our part of the world ended.
A century later, Teddy Roosevelt, in effect, reasserted the Monroe Doctrine when he sent the Germans, British and Italians packing after they tried to use their naval power to force Venezuela (and, later, the Dominican Republic) to pay the debts those countries owed to them. TR, with his soft voice and big stick, had a huge presence on the world stage, successfully mediating the end of the Russian-Japanese War, and earning a Nobel Peace Prize in the process. He cut a wide swath internationally, especially across he Isthmus of Panama.
Woodrow Wilson, who had virtually no prior experience in foreign affairs, was, nonetheless, remarkably assertive, if not entirely successful. He was the first President in our history to enter into an alliance with foreign countries to join them in the war in which they were engaged in Europe. His foreign policy, simply stated (perhaps too simply) was to make the world safe for democracy. It consisted of his famous 14 points and the establishment of the League of Nations. While he was widely popular in Europe and a key player at Versailles, Europe was once again in a state of war and chaos barely two decades later.
FDR was at the helm when, during the Second World War, the United States led the allies to victory (from the jaws of defeat). He was also at the helm when, in victory, he gave all Central and Eastern Europe to the Soviets.
Harry Truman was Commander-in-Chief overseeing the end of the war, and the rebuilding of Europe and Japan. Believing that both Greece and Turkey were in the crosshairs of Russian expansionism shortly after the war, he instituted the Truman Doctrine and drew a line. He was unambiguous in telling the world that Russian expansion would not be tolerated. The Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan and the recognition of Israel were all testament to his foreign affairs presence. His policy of containment endured until the fall of the Soviet Union. He also moved swiftly to stop North Korea from obliterating its neighbor to the south. Remember, all that was left of South Korea following a lightning invasion by the North was a small enclave around the southernmost city of Pusan. Truman sent the US army into the Pusan perimeter and pushed the North Koreans back over he 38th parallel, where they remain to this day. The Korean War began not quite five years after the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ended the Second World War. America, having lost about 420,000 of its finest in the war, was even more war weary than we are now. But Truman acted, and the free, prosperous and allied 50 million people of South Korea are testimony to the decisiveness and importance of his action.
Dwight Eisenhower consolidated Truman’s policy of containment. At Eisenhower’s urging the United States crafted various bilateral and multilateral treaties designed to wall off the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He entered into security treaties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. All remain free today. Planning for the Bay of Pigs debacle, unfortunately, also commenced during the Eisenhower years.
John F. Kennedy was assertive and active, but largely unsuccessful in foreign affairs with the exception of his decisions to face down the Soviet Union over Berlin and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He ignored Eisenhower’s advice to draw the line against communism in Laos, which left South Viet Nam as the place to take a stand against communist expansion in Asia. Kennedy built on Eisenhower’s negotiations with the Soviet Union, and signed the first Limited Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy also approved the sending of “advisors” to South Viet Nam and the overthrow (assassination) of South Viet Nam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and, of course, the rest is history.
Lyndon Johnson was largely a hostage to his predecessor’s foreign policy and pursued it to his ultimate undoing.
Richard Nixon, too, was a foreign affairs activist. He was determined to get out of Viet Nam, but found getting out a lot harder than Kennedy found getting in. In the process, his determination to deny the Viet Gong refuge in Cambodia added a harsh dimension to a war gone terribly badly. A determined Viet Cong in Viet Nam and a recalcitrant Congress in Washington denied Nixon (and Kissinger) the means to pursue the honorable exit he wanted from that war. Sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between Russia and China, he traveled to Beijing in 1972, setting in motion normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China. He then traveled to the Soviet Union to implement the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) talks and undertook new negotiations to extend further arms control and disarmament measures. These developments commenced what came to be known as “detente.” The improvements he fostered in relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, while dramatic by any standard resulted in remarkably little improvement in the international climate.
President Gerald Ford, in our judgment, acquitted himself quite competently in foreign affairs, given his lack of any prior foreign affairs experience. He largely inherited Nixon’s foreign policy of improved relations with China, continued support of South Viet Nam and detente with the Soviet Union. Ford and Leonid Brezhnev met with European heads of state and signed the Helsinki Accords, recognizing the boundaries of European countries established at the end of World War II. The Vladivostok Accords were later signed in November 1974, which provided for a successor treaty to SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), which Nixon and Kissinger had crafted in 1972. Differences over limits on Soviet bombers and American cruise missiles eventually stalled progress on SALT II. Meanwhile, with renewed Viet Cong assaults and additional military aid stymied in Congress, the Viet Nam war came to an end in April 1975.
The Carter Administration, completing what Nixon had started, finalized the process of normalizing relations with Mainland China. Carter seized the initiative begun by Anwar Sadat and facilitated the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt. He stumbled badly during the long Iran Hostage ordeal, which finally concluded on the day Ronald Reagan succeeded him. Carter also presided over the return of the Panama Canal to Panamanian control and in 1979. Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed a follow-on nuclear arms control agreement, known as SALT II.
President Ronald Reagan was a foreign affairs activist, and while Iran- Contra dominated much of his presidency and certainly sullied his image among Democratic critics, count us among those (including Mikhail Gorbachev) who credit him as the American leader who ended the cold war. Reagan came to the White House believing Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of détente to have been a morally wrong position. Instead, he treated the Soviet Union as inherently evil and as a pariah state. Reagan, to oversimplify, used the superior economic strength of the United States to spend for defense at a level that the Soviet Union could not come close to matching. Years later Gorbachev would say, “Reagan ended the Cold War at Reykjavik.”
George H.W. Bush, arguably, came to the presidency with much more international experience than any of his successors. He, of course, was Vice President under Reagan during the historic cold war thaw that began during Reagan’s presidency. He had served, for two years, as our Ambassador to the United Nations as well as our de facto Ambassador to China and as Director of the CIA. As president he oversaw the overthrow and arrest of Noriega in Panama. He quickly moved to establish a strong relationship with Gorbachev, and the two leaders soon negotiated and signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Bush’s personal relationship with Gorbachev (and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze) greatly smoothed the reunification of Germany following the demolishing of the Berlin Wall and, remarkably, Bush ushered the reunified Germany into NATO. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2nd 1990, Bush was unequivocal in his response. He did not draw a red line in the sand. He did not say, “There will be consequences.” He said, “This will not stand!” Bush deftly formed a broad coalition consisting of Europeans, Arabs and, of all strange bedfellows, Russia, and in short order, drove Hussein out of Kuwait.
Clinton really had no prior experience in foreign affairs. As a successor to the Cold War doctrine of containing the Soviet threat, the so-called Clinton Doctrine was one of enlargement. Clinton was determined to strengthen and expand the world of market democracies. Somalia turned out to be his foreign affairs trial by fire. Continuing a humanitarian effort began by his predecessor (Bush 41) he, subsequenty, turned down requests to strengthen our presence there. Following the violent loss of 18 of our soldiers (whose remains were desecrated) and the injury of 84 others, Clinton withdrew all remaining U.S. troops. Perhaps stung by the Somalia mess, Clinton (and the U.N.) later decided not to intervene in Rwanda, to stop the massacre of an estimated 800,000 civilians. Clinton later referred to his decision not to intervene there as among the worst of his presidency. Clinton did, however, act in a decisive leadership role in the Bosnia-Serbian conflict, and led the NATO campaign, which brought an end to the Serbian war of ethnic cleansing. Clinton presided over the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to that very old and bloody conflict. Al Qaeda and international terrorism as we know it today were introduced during the Clinton presidency. Clinton was a champion of international trade agreements. In addition to NAFTA, Clinton engineered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO), designed to monitor and assure fair trade among nations. Clinton supported China’s admission into the WTO, and finally ended trade embargos against Viet Nam.
History is apt to treat George Bush (43) harshly with respect to foreign affairs. While he moved swiftly to rout the Taliban from power in Afghanistan following Al Qaeda’s 911 attacks that cost over 3000 American lives, he quickly squandered that well-earned capital, by invading Iraq (at the expense of our commitment to Afghanistan), and badly bungled the occupation thereafter. While Bush’s so-called purge substantially improved our position militarily by vastly suppressing the insurgency that followed our occupation, Bush’s justification for the invasion of Iraq will not stand the scrutiny of history and seems likely to be viewed as an immense foreign affairs blunder. Conversely, Bush will, ultimately, receive well-deserved recognition for doing more for Africa than any other American President. Bush was extraordinarily sensitive to the savaging of much of Africa by the spread of AIDS. “Bush did more to stop AIDS and more to help Africa than any president before or since,” said New York Times correspondent Peter Baker.” He (Bush) took on one of the world’s biggest problems in a big, bold way and it changed the course of a continent. If it weren’t for Iraq, it would be one of the main things history would remember about Bush, and it still should be part of any accounting of his presidency.”
President Barrack Obama certainly did not inherit a cakewalk from his predecessor. He was handed a mess on several fronts. They are still a mess. The Arab Spring, which is rapidly turning into a deadly and violent Arab Winter, will greatly color history’s assessment of the Obama years and his policy of leading from behind (whatever that means). In virtually every area of the world where public opinion can be measured, America is held in lower esteem than when George Bush handed off the mess to President Obama. Our European allies assume they are pretty much on their own, and in the Middle East, our ally Israel probably has come to the same conclusion. In Syria we drew lines in the sand that simply demonstrated that sand is no place to draw lines. No President wants to pursue policy that runs contrary to public opinion, but sooner or later the imperatives of the circumstances at hand determine what we must do. Effective Presidents understand that. Woodrow Wilson understood that. FDR understood that, Harry Truman understood that, Dwight Eisenhower understood that. Barrack Obama does not. We have, to our knowledge, never been engaged in combat anywhere in the world while simultaneously announcing to our enemies the date we would withdraw from the fight. What we are seeing in Iraq today looks very much like the Coming Attractions for what we are apt to see in Afghanistan in another year or so.
Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution summed up Obama’s foreign affairs dilemma in a recent Washington Post column.
Whether one likes President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy or not, the common assumption is that the administration is at least giving the American people the foreign policy they want. The majority of Americans have opposed any meaningful U.S. role in Syria, have wanted to lessen U.S. involvement in the Middle East generally, are eager to see the “tide of war” recede and would like to focus on “nation-building at home.” Until now, the president generally has catered to and encouraged this public mood, so one presumes that he has succeeded, if nothing else, in gaining the public’s approval.
Yet, surprisingly, he hasn’t. The president’s approval ratings on foreign policy are dismal. According to the most recent CBS news poll only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on foreign policy… A November poll by the Pew Research Center showed 34 percent approval on foreign policy… Foreign policy is the most unpopular thing Obama is doing right now… President Obama is supposedly conducting a foreign policy in tune with popular opinion, yet his foreign policy is not popular…A majority of Americans may not want to intervene in Syria, do anything serious about Iran or care what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt or Ukraine. They may prefer a minimalist foreign policy in which the United States no longer plays a leading role in the world and leaves others to deal with their own miserable problems. They may want a more narrowly self-interested American policy. In short, they may want what Obama so far has been giving them. But they’re not proud of it, and they’re not grateful to him for giving them what they want.
For many decades Americans thought of their nation as special. They were the self-proclaimed “leader of the free world,” “the indispensable nation,” the No. 1 superpower. It was a source of pride. Now, pundits and prognosticators are telling them that those days are over, that it is time for the United States to seek more modest goals commensurate with its declining power. And they have a president committed to this task. He has shown little nostalgia for the days of U.S. leadership and at times seems to conceive it as his job to deal with the “reality” of decline…Perhaps this is what they want from him. But it is not something they will thank him for. To follow a leader to triumph inspires loyalty, gratitude and affection. Following a leader in retreat inspires no such emotions.
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