Postmodern Conservative

Codevilla for Clarity in Foreign Policy

“While the Storm Clouds Gather” is another long foreign policy essay by Angelo Codevilla, probably the best of his I’ve read.  It’s in the latest Claremont Review of Books, and is provided here at Powerline’s request.  There’s a lot to it, but I particularly like its advocacy of public clarity as opposed to the “creative ambiguity” which Codevilla ties to Henry Kissinger.  Here’s how he applies this to our relations with China:

Not least of the perversions of statecraft that compose Henry Kissinger’s legacy is the concept of “creative ambiguity.” The current generation of officials has accustomed themselves to imprecision in policymaking and diplomacy, believing that they thereby “preserve their options.” No, they create options for others. A new generation of statesmen, reversing Kissinger’s baleful legacy, should strive for the utmost clarity in our relations with China. Serious, clear, unambiguous policy that communicates clearly to all what the United States is ready, willing, and able to do is the key to such peace as may be possible.

Let us follow the example of John Quincy Adams’s relations with Russia, the despotism par excellence of his day, which had proclaimed the supremacy of monarchical over republican ways and had signaled its intention to expand its settlements in North America. Adams, wanting peace and friendship with the tsar while keeping more of his settlements out of America and asserting our own identity, left no doubt in Russia’s mind about where America stood on these matters. Today’s America has far more sticks and carrots than Adams did. But these are valid only insofar as they answer, precisely and satisfactorily, the questions in the minds of the governments with which we deal. What plans and means do we have to defeat what possible Chinese military moves? Does China understand what our limits are? Does everyone else? Does China, and do others, understand what our objectives in the Pacific are and that our means match our ends? Do we have in mind and can we sustain a relationship with Japan that satisfies its concerns? Just as Adams left no doubt about where America stood, neither should any statesmen today leave any doubt in Chinese minds. 

I agree with that entirely.  I hate the way most American administrations in my lifetime, but especially Obama’s, constantly talk in vague terms that hint at further process. We need more “you do this, we will do that” talk these days.  It would help in the global situation of general uncertainty about U.S. commitment, and in the national one of partisan divide on foreign policy.

Here’s my own example of the kind of clarity I’d like to see.  Unlike many conservatives, I oppose our issuing any defense pledges to the Ukraine.  In fact, unlike Codevilla himself, I’m pretty sure we ought to refrain from even sending them arms.  So I’m with Obama on both those points.  I think.  And that’s the problem–I don’t really know where he stands.  Obama and many of our allies talk as if there will be all these impossible-to-live-with consequences for Russia further seizing Ukrainian territory, but then the policy is de facto revealed to be one of no military help. There’s no clear statement that, “With Ukraine, we will be forced to sit by and watch Russia do very unjust things if it chooses to, given the realities of our capabilities, interests, and alliances; Russia will pay substantial economic and diplomatic costs, and we do think it will regret the way it chose to pursue its objectives, but those costs might well not deter it; however, we warn Russia that if sends so much as a single soldier against one of our NATO allies, including the Baltic republics, we will retaliate militarily, and we will go to whatever level of warfare is necessary to expel all Russian forces.”  Instead, we’re just assured that invading Ukraine any more than it already has would so bad for Russia’s own interests that it surely won’t do it, and we and the EU have people “working on” the issue, which is in “process,” which blah, blah, blah, let it fade from the news cycle already…and so who really knows what the policy is, and whether or not the same mush would be applied by Obama to the Baltics?  

If anyone wants to pipe in to defend Kissinger and “creative ambiguity,” I’d appreciate learning more, but here’s one more good Codevilla statement regarding China:

Our post-1945 commitments in the region remain, even as our power to fulfill them declines in absolute terms and especially in relation to China’s. Without exception, the region’s governments fear China. Many have territorial contentions with it and racial animosities toward it. The decline of American power is leading Japan ever closer to building military forces to rival China’s. The Philippines scramble to hold onto what remains of U.S. power there. Taiwan and Singapore worry. South Korea, for its part, is listening to China’s increasingly unsubtle offer to broker the Korean peninsula’s unification if South Korea will exchange its security alliance with the U.S. for one with China, oriented against Japan.

If Codevilla is right about what present or future South Koreans will be willing to consider, that’s a grave danger to keep an eye on.  Korean-Japanese relations have been rather strained for the last half-decade, and if China were to get either South Korea, or a unified Korea, to step onto its side foreign-policy wise, or even just to pledge neutrality in any military conflict it has with Japan and/or the U.S., it might become much bolder and more aggressive.  A real pivot to Asia means doing all we can to encourage and facilitate friendship between Japan and South Korea .  It also means doing some work to prepare American opinion, Democrat and Republican, for the slim-but-real possibility of our having to fight alongside Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and perhaps in defense of disputed island territories.  This also means some public spelling out of what we are not willing to do, lest anti-China leaders in those nations become tempted to force our hand. 

Codevilla’s piece begins with a history of American foreign-policy failure throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, usually involving the sins of overextension, or of not seeking victory aggressively enough when we do get engaged.  Some of his calls there are pretty wild–here’s the three I find most questionable: a) he implies that had TR won the election in 1912, he would have taken us into WWI a couple years sooner, on basically preemptive strategic grounds, which would have been for the better, b) he sides in some way, not precisely clear, with General McArthur’s take-it-to-China-if-necessary way of fighting the Korean War, and c) seems to think JFK bargained away too much in the Cuban Missile Crisis deal.  That last call is particularly scary, but Codevilla mentions only in a couple sentences, so it’s hard to know precisely what he had in mind.  In general, I wouldn’t want a GOP president who chose Codevilla as his or her top foreign policy or defense adviser, but I still think this is a fine and important essay, and think Codevilla’s view is one that must be heeded, i.e., in some way represented in future White House councils.  

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