For the last eight years, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and Susan Rice have sought to rewrite the traditional approach to foreign policy. In various ways, they have warned us about the dangers that a reactionary Trump presidency would pose, on the assumption that their new world order now operates more along the lines of an Ivy League conference than according to the machinations and self-interests of the dog-eat-dog Manhattan real-estate cosmos.
It would be nice if the international order had safe spaces, prohibitions against micro-aggressions, and trigger warnings that warn of hurtful speech, but is the world really one big Harvard or Stanford that runs on loud assertions of sensitivity, guilt, apologies, or even the cynical progressive pieties found in WikiLeaks?
Obama’s lead-from-behind foreign policy has becoming something like the seduction of an old house. Its wiring, plumbing, and foundation are shot, but the majestic structure, when given a thin coat of new paint by the seller, proudly goes on the market as “restored” — at least until the new buyer discovers that the Potemkin façade is about to collapse from lax maintenance and deliberate indifference. In other words, Obama’s periodic declamations, Nobel Prize, and adulation from a toady press are all veneers of shiny paint; the Middle East, Russia, China, Iran, and ISIS terrorism are the insidious frayed wiring, corroded pipes, and termites that are about to take down the entire structure from the inside out. Note that the unrepentant seller is always loudly petulant that the new owner, as he makes endless vital repairs, did not appreciate the paint job he inherited.
It was not always so. Ancient American foreign policy that got us from the ruin of World War II to the most prosperous age in the history of civilization was once guided by an appreciation of human nature’s constancy across time and space. Diplomacy hinged on seeing foreign leaders as roughly predictable — guided as much by Thucydidean emotions such as honor, fear, and perceived self-interest as by cold reason. In other words, sometimes nations did things that seemed to be stupid; in retrospect their actions looked irrational, but at the time, they served the needs of national honor or assuaged fears.
Throughout history, it has not gone well for powerful leaders when they have been perceived as being both loudly sanctimonious and weak.
In that context, talking down to a Putin serves no purpose other than to humiliate a proud leader whose guiding principle is that he will never allow himself to be publicly shamed. But Obama did exactly that when he scolded Putin to “cut it out” with the cyber attacks (as if, presto, Putin would follow his orders), and when he suggested that Putin’s tough-guy antics were sort of a macho shtick intended only to please Russians, and when he mocked a sullen Putin as a veritable class cut-up at photo-ops (as if the magisterial Obama had to discipline an unruly adolescent).
Worse still, when such gratuitous humiliations are not backed by the presence of overwhelming power, deft statecraft, and national will, opportunists such as Putin are only emboldened to become irritants to the U.S. and its former so-called global order. We should not discount the idea that leaders become hostile as much out of spite as out of conflicting national interests.
Throughout history, it has not gone well for powerful leaders when they have been perceived as being both loudly sanctimonious and weak (read Demosthenes on Athenian reactions to Philip II), as if the nation’s strength enervates the leader rather than empowers his diplomacy. Worse still is when a leader aims to loudly project strength through rhetoric while quietly fearing to do so through ships and soldiers.
Think again of Neville Chamberlain at Munich, who gave Hitler everything — including lectures on proper international behavior. Anthony Eden remarked at the time that British statesmen thought Hitler and Mussolini were like typical British elites with whom they could do business; the British diplomats mistakenly believed they could appeal to the dictators’ reason and common interests, and thus they were bound to be sorely disappointed. A man does not reach the pinnacle of Russian power only to nod agreeably when ordered to “cut it out.” And a thug such as Bashar al-Assad does not give up his lucrative family crime syndicate for the gallows because Obama flippantly announces to the world that “Assad must go.” The worst thing about Obama’s red-line threat to Syria was not just that Obama ignored it when it was crossed, but that he then denied he’d ever issued the threat in the first place.
Putin ignored the gift of the plastic “reset” button, the cancellation of missile defense with the Czechs and the Poles, Obama’s trash-talking of George W. Bush, the open-mic promises to be flexible, and all the other assorted appeasing gestures. Instead he kept focused on Obama’s insults, and he grew enraged that a strong U.S. acted both weakly and insolently. Therefore, partly out of emotion, partly from rational calculation, Putin tried his luck from Ukraine to Syria — and perhaps beyond.
In the ancient era before Obama, there used to be constants between nations, such as deterrence or the Neanderthal idea that nations sought to become militarily and economically strong, to warn would-be aggressors that it would certainly be a stupid thing to attack such stronger powers. From Vegetius’s Si vis pacem, para bellum to Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength,” the common wisdom was to be ready for war and thereby, and only by that way, avoid war, not to talk bellicosely and to act pacifistically. Our rewrite, Si vis bellum, para pacem (“if you want a war, then prepare for peace”), is not leading to a calm world.
Deterrence (and with it peace) often was not defined only in material terms; it rested also on a psychological readiness to use overwhelming power to confront an aggressor. Hitler knew in May 1940 that the French and British armies and armor were superior to his own, but after nine months of loud inaction, he assumed that the French would rather not risk losing some to save many. Therefore, he gambled on plowing through the Ardennes and defeating numerically superior Anglo-French forces that had less desire to replay their winning role in the prior war than he had to replay Germany’s losing one.
Occasional unpredictability was unfortunately always a plus, since belligerents never quite knew whether their intended targets might go rogue if provoked — and therefore it was often wiser not to provoke them. Again, deterrence (“the act of frightening away”) rested not just on quantifiable power but also on a likelihood to use it. It is often said that occasional perceived craziness is a plus in both poker and high-stakes geostrategic diplomacy.
Loyalty and consistency are also now-forgotten diplomatic tools.
In contrast, when a national leader repeatedly lectures the world on peace, takes options off the table, uses the megaphone to blast his own country’s flaws and distance himself from its supposedly checkered past, heralds soft power, and in psychodramatic fashion issues rhetorical red lines, deadlines, and step-over lines, then he erodes deterrence (in becoming predictably passive). And the while, his empty sanctimoniousness grates rivals and invites gratuitous adventurism. The gunslingers of the world vie to gain a reputation by showing other outlaws how enervated the once-robust sheriff has become, despite his trash-talking — and sometimes they stage a shoot-out on Main Street for no apparent reason other than that they can.
Balance of power is another now-despised concept — as if lecturing China on human rights while it creates military bases on artificial islands in the South China Seas, or sermonizing to Russia as it absorbs Eastern Ukraine, is more effective than treating each nuclear power differently in order to remind China and Russia that neither may predict exactly with whom the U.S. will side. It was apparently beyond Obama to suggest to Putin that he had no interests in seeing China block international sea lanes, or to suggest to China that allowing Russia to sponsor another nuclear power in the region was not in China’s long-term interests.
Loyalty and consistency are also now-forgotten diplomatic tools. To paraphrase the Sophoclean code, it is wise to help your friends and hurt your enemies. Turning the other cheek is the proper New Testament aspiration for individuals to live by, but the Sermon on the Mount is deadly for nations, at least until the nature of man changes.For better or for worse, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States are mostly friendly; Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood are clearly not. Israel is a strong ally; Islamist Turkey (despite Obama’s “special relationship” with Erdogan) is not. Britain and France are age-old partners; Cuba and Nicaragua are belligerents. But when both friendship and enmity count for nothing, and there’s no reward for being a friend of the U.S., and no danger in posing as our enemy, then we shall have lots of enemies and very few friends. Diplomacy is like the tax code: Subsidize hostility and you get more hostile actors; tax friendship and you get fewer friends.
The criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is not only that it was utopian, self-righteous, and naïve, though it was all that and more.
Rather, it assumed that nations were not collections of people with predictable and all too human aspirations and behaviors. When the Obama administration discovered that tragic human nature still governed foreign policy, it objected petulantly, insisting that an American messiah had come into the world to save it. But the world, for some strange reason, was not impressed. Instead, it took advantage of the light-bringer’s childish narcissism.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.