I know one thing for sure about foreign policy: I think I know more than I do, but I know less than I think. I’m betting that’s true for many, if not most, of us.
Let’s admit it: foreign policy is decidedly foreign, the chaos theory of political science. While we’ve certainly taken a few leaps forward from the days of the facile quotation (“Speak softly and carry a big stick! “Peace through strength!”), both the overt and covert complexities of today’s foreign policy are incredibly systemic (at best) and almost incoherent (at worst). Still, that doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion.
Our simple view of foreign policy most often seems wrapped up in the idea of national defense, something for which we actually have a formal definition. I found it in the Strategic Objectives section of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. The document lists several objectives, including securing the United States from direct attack (which you'll be glad to know gets top priority), followed by securing strategic access and global freedom, strengthening alliances, and establishing favorable security conditions.
I’m betting that if you asked most people for their definition they would come up with something similar, though I imagine it would be simplified a bit, perhaps to something like “Don’t let them attack us, but if they do, kick the crap out of ‘em so they know not to do it again.” It’s the U.S. version of Mr. Miyagi at the end of The Karate Kid.
Foreign policy has to be more than just defense, though. What about those national interests we hear so much about. They must be pretty important since they seem to be about preserving our way of life. And then there’s national pride, the need (or desire) to protect our image and standing around the world.
This last one was in pretty bad shape when Obama took over. Bush and Cheney mucked it up pretty badly, even managing to make a good man like Colin Powell wish he’d retired quietly to some rural farm before having to (however inadvertently) lie to the United Nations. Bush-era foreign policy basically came down to the old with-us-or-against-us trope, and we came off looking like nothing more than an international bully. (And by the way, as someone who did a fair bit of international travel during that time—including to the Middle East—trust me on this one. We were not well liked during those years….)
Fixing our damaged image, though, ended up being a good news/bad news thing for Obama. On the one hand, he had nowhere to go but up. On the other hand, though, it meant that even a lackadaisical foreign policy was “up.” It would take an enormous effort to top such incompetence, meaning that all Obama had to do smile and declare the end of the Bush years in order to score points. Which is pretty much what he did.
I’ve had a hard time defining Obama’s foreign policy, even in that I’m-not-that-smart-about-foreign-policy way. While Bush was in the democracy-exporting business (however incompetently), and Clinton before him was in the free-trade business, Obama seems to be in the please-don’t-be-too-mad-at-us business. He hasn’t been making the apology circuit (despite right-wing rhetoric), but he hasn’t exactly carved his own niche, either. It’s like he’s doing okay on the national defense stuff, and he’s got the national pride thing down, but he hasn’t quite decided what our national interests are.
The American public and their poll-worthy opinions don’t really provide any real guidance, either, given that they, too, are overly simplistic. We tend to focus on visible issues like foreign aid, Israel, and Iran. Should it really matter to the Commander-in-Chief what percentage of the public believes foreign aid is a good idea (37.5%) or a bad idea (53.6%)? Or how many people think that Israel is our best ally in the world (15.9%, way behind the U.K.)? Or, scarily, that a majority (62%) of Americans think that force would be just okey-dokey as a way to prevent Iran from getting nukes?
So I’ve decided to look at things a bit differently. No poll numbers, no coalitions, no debate rhetoric. In my simple-minded view (remember: I admitted up front how little I know about this topic), our national interests can be boiled down to this: peace and safety.
Safety, ironically, is the easier of the two. We know that there will always be those who wish to hurt us, and even the best successes in creating environments for peace will never totally eliminate that truth. The safety of our citizens both here and abroad is paramount. Unfortunately for many, that truth defines itself as continue sustenance to an already bloated military, one that is ill-prepared for asynchronous combat against amorphous, stateless enemies using both old and new forms of weaponry. What we need is a new approach (one that would likely be far less expensive, by the way) that focuses on these new realities: generational conflicts that burn slowly, both in the physical and virtual world, punctuated by the occasional firestorm.
Peace is infinitely more complex. Peace isn’t just the absence of war, of attack. Peace is the absence of the environment for war, for attack. Peace requires a raising up. The way to peace is to encourage opportunity and reduce envy. That doesn’t necessarily mean encouraging democracy in every corner of the world (which only seems to have gotten us election results we don’t much like) as much as it means encouraging the promotion of basic housing, health services, nutrition, education and business investment. The first four create environments for growth, while the last—business investment—provides opportunity. If we believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we should be doing more to raise the tide around the world. What we do know is that poverty, lack of education, and envy is a virulent combination; the more we do to eradicate them, the more we help others—and, therefore, ourselves.
It would be naïve of us to believe that neither of these elements is anything less than all-important. There will never be peace for most of the world while so many suffer, and it will be a very long time (if ever) before we see a world in which America doesn’t have to look over its shoulder. Balancing those two seems like a reasonable foreign policy to me.
But then, that’s just me.
[Note: This essay was penned before the recent debate on foreign policy. Also, please join us tonight at 8PM EST on The Middle Ground for a discussion of foreign policy with Ret. Col. Larry Wilkerson.]