The crisis in Ukraine and the failure of the Obama Administration, the foreign policy establishment, and the administration’s media defenders to accurately judge the character and priorities of Vladimir Putin should prompt a moment of reflection on the part of Americans on the right and left who feel the approach of the past two presidential administrations to global affairs has been sorely lacking on a number of fronts. In the unlikely event that the correct lessons are taken from it, this remarkably public failure – the latest in a series of mistaken assumptions from Washington – could prompt a gradual return to a more clear-eyed assessment of the challenges ahead in the next administration.
Clearly President Obama’s naivete about the consequences of American weakness is a problem. It is provocative, it is incoherent, and it leads inexorably to events like these. This weakness is not confined to the sphere of defense policy, as is often cited by the hawkish right – but also a willful decision to shift away from the United States’ decades of leadership on the international stage in matters of trade. This retreat is not merely measured in the administration’s inactivity on free trade agreements or at the World Trade Organization, but also in policies designed to please domestic constituencies like energy exports and protectionism.
Consider just one aspect of this latter policy failure: liquified natural gas (LNG) exports, where the Obama administration has dragged its heels repeatedly on export license and facility construction approvals. The first LNG export terminal – for an export license application filed in 2010 – won’t be online until 2015. No other export facilities have been approved, and there is a backlog of pending export license applications. What’s the consequence of these delays? Right now, when it would be enormously advantageous for U.S. allies and non-free trade agreement partners to be able to secure alternative U.S. energy supplies instead of Vladimir Putin’s resources, that resource is completely absent. Why? Not because of a lack of industry buy-in or resources here, but because of matters directly under Obama’s own control. These are the ramifications of a policy approach which prioritizes domestic political positioning over U.S. leadership in the global economic sphere. America’s absence has allowed for other nations to fill the gap, diminishing U.S. influence and leaving our allies with nowhere else to turn.
Foreign policy elites on right and left are locked in a rhetorical debate over where Obama falls on the spectrum – how realist he has been, how successful he has been, and what legacy he will leave on the world stage. Thus, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Fred Kaplan argues – in a piece written pre-Ukraine kerfuffle – that Obama’s presidency has been a smashing vindication of “hard-nosed realism”, Responding from the right, former George W. Bush adviser Kori Schake argues he’s behaved like nothing of the sort, and that Ukraine is the perfect example of it.
In year six of his presidency, the realist moniker seems very inaccurate to me. The problem of Obama’s foreign policy is the same naïvete that animates the academic left in general. It is a prejudice which suggests that talk can alter fundamental priorities and redirect the long-term priorities of nation-states. As Schake notes: “The Obama administration’s bedrock belief is that this president is so special, so compelling an orator and a personality, that other countries will forego their own interests—an affront to the thinking of any realist.”
But it’s not as if Obama and his allies have a monopoly on naïvete. The problem with modern liberal internationalist politicians is that they truly believe we’ve evolved past violence, hence talk from even smart leaders such as Angela Merkel about Putin living in a different world. Doesn’t he know that this sort of activity is the old way of getting things done? The problem with the neoconservatives is an implicit agreement with the end but not the means.
Under President Bush’s second term, we saw neoconservatives at their most naïve. Today they are still coming to grips with the world in the wake of the Arab Spring and the fact that John McCain no longer speaks for the center of the post-Tea Party GOP. And as John Agresto wrote in Commentary in 2012, they are still considering what lessons to take from the failures of the democracy movement:
We political scientists have something of a professional fiction. We think that the type of government people live under shapes their culture. Indeed, we believe that political life shapes human character. So, we think that aristocracies produce people with aristocratic desires, that tyrannies produce a culture of fear and dependency with slavish or vicious subjects, and that democracies produce people who are peaceful, and understanding of difference. But this might simply be backwards. I was always struck by Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment that Americans were on the way to being a democratic people long before establishing a democratic government. We served on colonial juries where we listened to both sides before we rendered judgment on our fellow citizens. We had professional, civic, and social institutions that taught us how to work together. We fought the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, a war in which perhaps a third of our citizens were on the British side and yet after the war there were no show trials, no recriminations, no mass graves. To do it the other way around—to begin with a democratic government and hope for a people with a democratic outlook and habits to grow as a result—is more often than not a fool’s errand… “Don’t all people yearn for freedom?” we have asked. And we assume the answer is yes. But the answer is no. Some people, perhaps most people, prefer other goods. Indeed, some people would rather be holy than free, or safe than free, or be instructed in how they should lead their lives rather than be free. Many prefer the comfort of strong answers already given rather than the openness and hazards of freedom. There are those who would never dream of substituting their will for the imam’s or pushing their desires over the customs and traditions of their families. Some men kiss their chains.
The neoconservatives are not the only faction of the right struggling to adapt their worldview to reality. Their allies, traditional pro-Defense hawks, are working to balance their prioritization of American power projection and the nature of today’s defense demands with an increasingly fiscally conservative base (consider the Romney 2012 campaign as indicative of this tension, with his accurate assessment of Russia alongside his call for dramatic expansions of Keynesian military spending). While neoconservatives speak to foreign policy issues frequently, it’s worth noting that they are a relatively small faction, and it is only the most recent period of post-9/11 policy when they have held sway in the White House – and then, support for their aims was achieved only through an alliance with the Jacksonian strong defense standard (hence the WMD rationale) which has long driven policy on the modern-day right.
Looking back at Bush’s second term and Obama’s tenure, you’ll see a policy conversation bouncing between naïve views of the world from the neoconservative right and the academic left. We have gone from a bias toward the assumption that we would be greeted as liberators and attempt nationbuilding in Iraq to, a decade later, a bias toward the assumption that John Kerry complaining to deaf ears about all matter of treaties Putin has violated will make Russia reconsider its course of action.
Of course, Kerry was a champion of the nuclear freeze in the Eighties, the subject of this 1983 piece from Columbia senior Barack Obama. Reading it today, it is difficult to tell how much it differs from the premises of President Barack Obama 31 years later. As Jonah Goldberg notes, Obama’s approach then seems reflected in his attitude now.
The false equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States at root in Kerry’s and Obama’s positioning on eliminating nuclear weapons in the 1980s reflects the difference between the nature of the false assumptions on the left and the right. The mistake of the administration of Barack Obama, like most of the foreign policy establishment today, is to assume other actors in the world have no moral agency. The George W. Bush Administration, even in the depths of its self-delusion, never made this mistake – instead, they misunderstood the balance and effect of incentives upon that moral agency.
Can the events of the past few weeks in Crimea and Ukraine prompt a moment of reflection on the part of these established views? Walter Russell Mead touches on this in an extremely insightful piece, noting that “the [enlightened] ideas and beliefs help people rise through the machinery of the American power system… can get in the way when it comes to understanding the motives and calculations of people like President Putin.” He concludes:
The big question of course, is what President Obama will take away from this experience. Has he lost confidence in the self-described (and self-deceived) ‘realists’ who led him down the primrose path with their empty happy talk and their beguiling but treacherous illusions? Has he rethought his conviction that geopolitics and strategy are relics of a barbarous past with no further relevance in our own happy day? Is he tired of being humiliated on the international stage? Is it dawning on him that he has actual enemies rather than difficult partners out there, and that they wish him ill and seek to harm him? (Again, we are not talking about the GOP in Congress.) Let’s hope so. There are almost three years left in this presidential term, and they could be very long ones if President Obama chooses to stick with the ideas and approaches he’s been using so far.
Mead’s parenthetical stings: imagine for a moment how much more effective Obama would be if he treated Putin the way he treats Republicans in Washington, where he seems to be far more “hard-nosed”. He approaches negotiation with the GOP as a direct threat to his power to do whatever he wants – but on the world stage, he sees a collection of nation-states standing at the ready to ditch their long-held priorities in favor of a new reality of ongoing dialogue.
The Obama Administration is extremely unlikely to wake up to the downfalls of its approach to global affairs. But the right should avoid the temptation to fall prey to their old biases in this moment. It’s time for a forceful call for a return to living in a reality-based world, and for rejecting the naïvete of both the neoconservative right and the academic left. Someone running in 2016 should make this case, and do the necessary groundwork for it. Otherwise, we’re just going to be swinging between the naïvete which marked Bush’s second term and Obama’s tenure for the forseeable future.