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How Not to Lead the U.S. in World Affairs

On foreign policy, Washington should use the moral and political compass given to them by our Founding Fathers.

President Barack Obama made the case for a war of sorts against ISIS in his prime time address last week, asking Congress and the American people to support his announced plans to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group.”

If nothing else, the speech demonstrated the first principle of the president’s foreign policy: make the facts abroad fit your political narrative at home.

The president led with the most important claim in that narrative: that the US is safer today than when he took office. Now, there would have been no need to give the speech if that were as clear to everyone else as it is to Mr. Obama. If ISIS were just a “small group of killers” with the “capacity to do great harm,” it would be indistinguishable from other terrorist groups against which the president has used lethal force in the last six years–without announcing it in a national address. If ISIS were only a threat to people in the Middle East, with the ability, “if unchecked,” to harm Americans at home, it would, likewise, be relatively unremarkable.

So it seems that either the threat is bigger than the president’s words suggest, or it isn’t, but the American people have imagined it to be so. If the president believes the latter, he might have made an extended case that ISIS, despite the high profile beheadings of two American journalists, poses no critical threat to Americans at home or American interests abroad. The first part of the speech seemed headed in that direction.

But then President Obama introduced a “broad coalition” of partners and a four-point plan to destroy ISIS–in keeping, he said, with his “core commitment” to deny those who “threaten America” a “safe haven” and demonstrating “American leadership at its best: we stand with people who fight for their own freedom; and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity.”

Not even a master magician could keep all these balls in the air: the plan is simultaneously disproportionate to his (slighting) description of the threat and, in the opposite way, his (grandiose) description of his ends. You don’t need a “broad coalition” to fight “small groups of killers”; a modest military campaign will do little for anyone’s freedom or our “common” security and humanity.

It is quite possible that this all focus-groups well. Some Americans have been conditioned to speak loudly and carry no stick. But is there anything like a policy here?

We argued last fall that while the Administration’s inconsistent words and actions suggest the answer is “no,” there actually is an “Obama Doctrine” of sorts:

The Obama Doctrine, it turns out, isn’t so much a policy as a posture: that the United States will applaud good things, scorn bad things, and instruct others to do the same . . . [Hence] an idea or policy is not measured by how it actually works, but by whether he says it has worked, is working, or will work: that the imagining of a thing is the same thing as its factual existence (in other words, hope is the same as change).

The President’s speech last Wednesday amounted to yet another attempt to apply the Obama pose to a political reality that he cannot talk out of being. ISIS, like Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian conflict, can posture as well, using barbaric violence to send its message. The difference between ISIS’s and Putin’s words and deeds, on the one hand, and the President’s words and deeds, on the other hand, is that the former’s leave their intended audience satisfied and/or stupefied, while the latter’s leave the American people that much more uncertain of his ability to lead–witness the record 23-point edge (55%-32%) Republicans now have over Democrats as the party best able to protect the nation from terrorism and military threats, almost four times what it was a year ago.

The lesson in all this is that for a pragmatic statecraft to work–measuring political success on “what concrete difference . . . an idea, policy, or activity [will] make”—the idea, policy, or activity must make a real difference: it has to actually work. American presidents with megaphones can carry illusions only so far, especially when dealing with enemies who understand the difference between reality and appearance.

Conducting foreign policy to one’s advantage requires nations to be clear-sighted about means and ends. President Obama, the intellectual and political great-grandchild of many an early 20th century Progressive, probably intended his statement above on “American leadership” to be understand as an, if not the, Obama Doctrine. It certainly fits the Progressive’s liberal internationalism, grounded in the audacious hope that the United States might lead the world to perpetual peace, by helping all peoples cast aside ideational and moral differences and work together to achieve a fair material and economic distribution for man and nature alike.

The first American statesmen had a different end in mind. They instituted a particular regime that sought to secure equal liberty for a particular nation of men. They realized that this would be a difficult task, given human nature. They approached the subject of foreign affairs with great care because they realized that the United States as a sovereign nation must possess the requisite means to defend itself against foreign conquest and domestic faction.

Their resulting policy of national (republican) self-defense was not isolationist, as many have characterized it, but rather unilateralist–and not the caricatured version pinned on the George W. Bush presidency and roundly criticized by Progressive foreign policy scholars. It was, rather, the unilateralism described by Pulitzer Prize-winning Penn historian Walter McDougall in his book Promised Land, Crusader State;

If the essence of Exceptionalism was Liberty at home, the essence of Unilateralism was to be at Liberty to make foreign policy independent of the “toils of European ambition.”

The Declaration’s call for American Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution’s list of governmental objectives, and every major political address of the Founding generation proclaim the maxim that foreign policy is a means to the primary end–securing the liberty of American citizens–and not an end in itself. The Founders understood that it always would be tempting to redefine the promise of the American regime in different terms, given the “authority and splendor . . . of all the kingdoms of the world.” Hence Washington’s parting warning in his “Farewell Address”:

The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest . . . The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

For Washington, the best check against this tendency was clear: “Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian.”

Such a foreign policy requires a steady hand and a long-term perspective. Madison showed in Federalist 62 that the United States Senate was designed to possess just those qualities, joining a “fidelity to the object of government” hopefully to be found in all branches of the government with a more rare “knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained”–and that in an institution with long terms in office and rotating elections.

The Senate might fulfill its purpose even today in acting as the trusted protector of a unilateralist, liberty-securing American foreign policy–a natural role for the legislative branch given an intentionally deliberative role in the treaty-making process. Unfortunately, for now at least the Senate is dominated by liberal internationalists of several varieties–all of which:

  • dramatically understate the differences among the world’s peoples and cultures, assuming all principally long for western-style democracy;
  • test international statecraft by the consensus of the transnational elites that populate international institutions;
  • consider a foreign policy aimed principally at protecting the American regime to be amoral, if not immoral–forgetting or disbelieving the moral goodness of American republicanism itself.

Recapturing the unapologetic unilateralism of earlier American statecraft does not require believing that Americans are inherently better than other people. But it does require believing that the American regime, pursuing “good government from reflection and choice” and animated by “that honorable determination . . . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind [not the desire of mankind] for self-government,” is worth defending for its own sake. It is, contra the liberal internationalists, rare, precious, and fragile.

Now that Senate Republicans have helped repel the Senate Democrats’ war on free political speech, they should move on to another important task–helping to guide the American ship of state abroad, using the moral and political compass given to them by our Founding Fathers.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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