Monday, February 9, 2015

A Foreign Policy for the 21st Century

As we have seen so often, it is when President Obama sits down one-on-one with a reporter that we really see the depth of his thinking. That's why I was so interested in his interview with Ezra Klein on domestic affairs/politics and with Matt Yglesias on foreign policy.

In talking to Yglesias, President Obama rejected the binary choice of labeling himself either a realist or an idealist when it comes to foreign policy.


The first thing we must do is to accurately define the challenge we face today.
So the biggest challenge we have right now is disorder. Failed states. Asymmetric threats from terrorist organizations. And what I've been trying to do is to make sure that over the course of the last six years and hopefully the next two, we just have more tools in our toolkit to deal with the actual problems that we have now and that we can project into the future, rather than just constantly relying on the same tools that we used when we were dealing with Germany and Japan in World War II.
Those challenges look very different from what the world faced during World War II, and therefore require a different set of tools.
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them...
And so, I think the real challenge for the country not just during my presidency but in future presidencies is recognizing that leading does not always mean occupying. That the temptation to think that there's a quick fix to these problems is usually a temptation to be resisted. And that American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we're the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don't have. But that way there's some burden-sharing and there's some ownership for outcomes. And many of these problems don't get solved in a year or two years or three years.
The old tools of military domination and occupation haven't worked - and in many ways have probably made the problem of disorder worse. The new tools that are required include empowering people in these failed states to find their own way, engaging countries around the globe in order to create broad ownership for outcomes and having the patience to allow solutions to emerge organically rather than be externally imposed.

When it comes to the goal of these efforts, the President echoes Reinhold Niebuhr's suggestion that we have to be able to embrace both the world as it is while we hold on to the ideal of what we want it to be.
...the goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn't mean perfect. It just means it's better.
These ideas are embedded in principles that we've consistently seen from President Obama:
But make no mistake about it - when it comes to foreign policy - those principles take direct aim at how most Americans have viewed our role in the world. We have grown comfortable with the idea of splitting the world up into good guys/bad guys (U.S. vs USSR, patriots vs terrorists, "you're either with us or against us") and then using the power of our military dominance in an attempt to defeat the bad guys. The authoritarianism of "might makes right" has become part of the fabric of our culture. That is why so many people literally can't "see" the alternative this President is articulating - or find it somehow threatening.

An honest appraisal of the current situation tells us that our old ways of interacting with the world aren't working. If we didn't learn that lesson in Vietnam, we certainly should have in Iraq. Once we can accept that, these principles President Obama espoused have the potential to transform the destructive path we've been following. In other words, they comprise a foreign policy for the 21st century.

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