Overcoming Obama's Foreign Policy Missteps

By Cotton, Tom | USA TODAY, January 2016 | Go to article overview

Overcoming Obama's Foreign Policy Missteps


Cotton, Tom, USA TODAY


"[Pres. Barack Obama's] disregard for the Treaty Clause is the height of hubris. It mistakes tunnel vision for principle, closed-mindedness for superior wisdom, and personal legacy for the vital national interest."

WHEN Pres. Barack Obama moved ahead with a nuclear-arms control agreement with a mortal and unrepentant enemy, having the support only of a rump, partisan minority in Congress, it represented a dangerous turn of events--yet offers an occasion to reflect on the state of U.S. foreign policy today and on the Constitution's place in our foreign policy.

Over the past 25 years, a major preoccupation of foreign-policy elites has been to forge a new grand strategy for the U.S. Scholars and practitioners tend to see a foreign policy adrift after the fall of the USSR, when containment of the Soviet Union's expansion became obsolete overnight. Seeing no major ideological or military rival, some believed the Owl of Minerva had taken flight, and that the end of history had reduced the need for strategic thinking. Alas, that fantasy came crashing down along with two big towers almost 15 years ago. Again, foreign-policy elites searched for a new strategy, this time for the age of Islamic terror.

Circumstances do change, and foreign policy, often a matter of prudence, must change with them to achieve the same ends. Too often, however, the search for a new strategy simply becomes the search for something new. This way of thinking carries a hint of disdain for the principles and foreign-policy traditions of our past--and disdaining those principles and traditions is a mistake. When the makers of breakfast cereals roll out a new product, after all, they say it is "new and improved," because the former does not necessarily imply the latter.

Likewise, every new and fashionable idea in foreign policy is not necessarily an improvement. To the contrary, we ought to pay some respect to older foreign policy ideas--the ideas that took us from a small and weak colonial outpost to the greatest superpower in history in just 170 years. With that track record, common sense would suggest there is something special we can learn from the Constitution--and the strategies that arose from it--to help us chart our way in the world.

Our Founders gave us a constitutional democracy, a system of government that informs our foreign policy just as it does our domestic policy. For many foreign-policy elites, especially those abroad, this is a serious problem. The Constitution empowers the people, these critics say, and the people, they believe, can be ignorant, emotional, and fickle, swinging wildly from war mongering to isolationism, from moralism to callousness. Far better, they say, is what American academic Walter Mead has called the "auteur theory of foreign policy"--a foreign policy guided by a brilliant strategist, insulated from the unruly masses.

One hears an echo of this viewpoint in the praise for what these critics see as the coherent and decisive strategic thinking of Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. Putin is praised as a brilliant strategist who is redefining 21st-century warfare. Jinping has been called a game-changer in China's rise, one whose ambitions and power rival those of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. I will admit that Putin and Jinping may have overmatched our president here and there, but that is an indictment of Pres. Obama's particular abilities and policies, not of our system. By the traditional measures of international influence--economic might, per capita measures of well-being, military and trade cooperation agreements, cultural weight--the U.S. far outpaces both Russia and China, as well as the rest of the world.

While a brooding auteur may in fact have strategic foresight, intellect, and prudence, no man is infallible, no matter how talented. France's Napoleon Bonaparte, brilliant general that he was, still marched the Grand Armee across the Nieman River into Russia. …

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