There has been a festival of commentary of late bemoaning the pusillanimous foreign policy of President Obama. If only we had a president who rode horses shirtless, wrestled a tiger or took a bite out of a neighbouring country, we’d all feel much safer. Your Honour, I rise in — partial — defense of Mr. Obama.
Let me start by asking a question I’ve asked about other countries: Is American foreign policy today the way it is because Obama is the way he is (cerebral, cautious, dispassionate) or is Obama the way Obama is on foreign policy because America is the way America is today (burned by two failed wars and weakened by a great recession) and because the world is the way the world is (increasingly full of failed states and enfeebled US allies)?
The answer is some of both, but I’d put a lot more emphasis on the latter. Foreign policy, our ability and willingness to act in the world, is about three things: interests, values and leverage. Do we have an interest in getting involved in Syria or Crimea, are our values engaged, and — if either is true — do we have the leverage to sustainably tilt things our way at a price we can afford?
I’d argue that a lot of what makes America less active in the world today is a product first of all of our own diminished leverage because of actions taken by previous administrations. The decisions by the Bush I and Clinton teams to expand Nato laid the seeds of resentment that helped to create Putin and Putinism.
Most presidents make their name in foreign policy by taking on strong enemies; but most of what threatens global stability today are crumbling states. Exactly how many can we rescue at one time? I’d love to help Ukrainian reformers build a functioning democracy, but the reason that is so daunting a task is because their own politicians wasted two decades looting their own country, so the leverage required to foster change — $30 billion in bailout funds — is now massive.
I am all for resisting Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, but it is hard to weaken this petro-dictator without a national energy policy of our own that will bring down the price of oil and create alternatives. It is true that Obama could do more to “lead” the Europeans on Ukraine, but it is also true that Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany, today sits on the board of a giant Russian oil company. Europeans don’t want to take on Putin.
Our biggest problem, though, is not Europe or Obama. Our biggest problem is us and our own political paralysis. The world takes America seriously when they see us doing big hard things together — when we lead by example. That’s how we build our muscle and weaken Putin’s.
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