Power without diplomacy is blind, diplomacy without power is impotent,” said Robert Lieber, professor of government at Georgetown University, at a recent event hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society. This poetic, Bismarckian admonition capped a brief, but impassioned, lecture devoted to the careful enumeration of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy errors – namely, his predilection for nonintervention and inaction. Lieber, who is in the process of writing a book entitled Retreat and its Consequences, was principally frustrated by Obama’s adoption of a global “binary,” whereby the only two international options for America were doing nothing or total war. And, for Lieber, American indecision was not costless: “The more critical the problem, the important the U.S. is to its resolution,” he declared.
Lieber, of course, is not wrong. The United States, endowed with tremendous material security and uncontested military strength — a combination deemed “hyperpower” by some international relations experts — is uniquely capable of engendering innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. But protracted conflict and horrific violence are, more often than not, the true results of American adventurism, not constructive problem-solving. As Professor Stephen Kinzer, who also lectured at the event, observed: “We have the ability to change the fate of nations… [but] the temptation of intervention is the great downfall of American power.” Thankfully, American primacy and peace are not irredeemably irreconcilable aspirations; with a little change, the United States can have its cake and eat it, too.
The debate between Lieber and Kinzer comes at the denouement of President Obama’s term in office. The President’s foreign policy, often criticized as excessively cautious and impractically detached, can be appropriately summed up with a single mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.” This simple strategy, a cosmic departure from the tendencies of President George W. Bush, has come under fire from members of his own cabinet. The Obama administration’s last three Secretaries of Defense – Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, and Chuck Hagel, none of whom completed a full term with Obama – have publicly criticized his policies. (Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told Foreign Policy magazine last December that, “I don’t think many times [the White House] ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions.”) Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, was flustered with Obama’s reluctance to train more moderate Syrian rebels, a move she believes opened the door for “jihadists,” like those championing the Islamic State. And John Kerry, who inherited Clinton’s State Department mantle in 2014 and grew particularly enraged by Basher al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, had hoped Obama would enforce his “red line” for intervention. Obama, once again, decided against getting U.S. involvement.
Despite her imperial, and oftentimes carnivorous, global joyrides, America still stands for meaningful ideals: incorruptible freedom; inexhaustible opportunity; and, above all, the central notion that anyone foolhardy enough to dream vivid dreams and hope without hesitation can make it.
It’s understandable why Obama’s patience — or uncompromising lethargy, depending on who you ask – is so unfamiliar and unnerving, even to his closest confidantes. War, for the United States, is a historical constant; in his lecture, Kinzer quipped, “We never end wars. We only start them.” More importantly, many Americans are imbued with the notion that they’re entrusted with a “providential mission” to help non-Americans along with the congruent processes of democratization and economic liberalization. On the surface, such a belief appears self-involved and narcissistic. (It is.) But, upon further examination, American exceptionalism isn’t so unreasonable a worldview. The United States is, after all, the richest, strongest, and most experienced democratic society on the face of this planet. Despite her imperial, and oftentimes carnivorous, global joyrides, America still stands for meaningful ideals: incorruptible freedom; inexhaustible opportunity; and, above all, the central notion that anyone foolhardy enough to dream vivid dreams and hope without hesitation can make it.
This rhetoric may appear to be in direct contradiction with recent discussions about the phenomenon of American dissolution. “Fulminating about America in decline is fashionable today across the political spectrum,” John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in The American Spectator in 2011, long before a certain Donald Trump began promulgating his obstreperous conception of America as a nation of “losers.” The notion that the United States is falling apart or lagging behind, in some kind of cosmic competition for glory and prestige, is entirely unfounded. Just look at the United States’ recent contributions to the fields of science and technological development. Philip Greenspun, the famed Internet entrepreneur whose blog is hosted by Harvard Law School, notes:
“Some of the most valuable assistance that we provide to other nations is not accounted for either in military or foreign aid spending. For example, we have spent a high percentage of GDP on funding scientific research that is published and available to anyone worldwide who can afford the price of a journal subscription. We have spent our tax dollars on standards such as TCP/IP that can be used at no charge by people worldwide. A lot of free Web services, such as Wikipedia, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and Gmail, were built and are run by Americans. A foreigner who learns from Wikipedia and uses Gmail has received very useful aid.”
Yet, while the United States has practically defined the architecture and culture of today’s electronically connected world, it is also true that American preeminence need not be delivered through napalm canisters, screeching attack jets, and flamboyant ordinance tests. Warfare is, however counterintuitively, the worst way to manifest and demonstrate American power. After all, tanks can’t educate Afghan schoolchildren; air strikes don’t reform ruthless dictators; and columns of armored troops can’t export legitimate democracy. And, when push comes to shove, the great game of interventionism goes full circle: Paradoxically, societies born out of violent upheaval, like a spouse incensed with Stockholm’s syndrome, remain committed to the perpetuation of that upheaval. The United States of America is no exception. Since the Revolutionary War, the conflict that brought the thirteen colonies liberation from repressive British rule, the country has been on countless militaristic crusades, all over the world, in the mystical hopes that American-style independence and government will work seamlessly for everyone else. Unfortunately, as Kinzer commented, not everyone in the world is “an American in the making.”
But if the United States doesn’t go to war, or proselytize its ideology, then what should it do? The answer comes right out of Obama’s strategic playbook: Anything but stupid stuff. If that means doing nothing, so be it. Action isn’t always worthwhile — especially if the price is the senseless loss of human life and the evaporation of an entire people’s collective future. The United States might even try reigning in its bloated defense budget and investing in its people, not military contractors, for a change. Mature leadership on the international stage isn’t just about showing off large muscles or flashy toys; it’s about understanding geopolitical limitations, managing visceral impulses, and recognizing the simple fact that those who callously play the world like a game of chess, more often than not, suffer the worst checkmates.