The Obama administration’s decision on missile defense, as with virtually every move the Obama team has made in foreign policy, is both deeply naive and deeply cynical. It is naive in conceiving that our adversaries simply must respond to our apologies, retreats, reversals, and unilateral-disarmament efforts with some comparable gesture, as if they fear being thought ungracious or rude if they don’t reciprocate in a timely manner. It conceives that Vladimir Putin will now find something meaningful to do for us, once relieved—thank goodness!—of the horrifying prospect that the U.S. might stand resolutely with our allies in Eastern Europe. It conceives that if we dare not speak up about the Iranian regime’s atrocities against its people, the regime will be more favorably disposed to discuss its nuclear program. It is a deeply flawed vision of the motives and interests of our adversaries. Whether it’s based on a misconception of the influence of Obama’s own persona or on other factors, is unclear. But the supposition that we can induce adversaries to react favorably by shunning our friends, disarming, and retreating from previously held positions is not supported by any precedent.
And he’s more than just naive; Obama is practicing a foreign policy of cynicism. It is based on the premise that America’s word—whether pledges to Israel on settlements or to Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defense—does not bind us when it becomes inconvenient or an irritant to our adversaries. It imagines that we have no interest and no stake in defending human-rights activists and democracy advocates—in China, Cuba, or Iran—who in the past have looked to the U.S. for guidance and support. American exceptionalism is ostensibly nothing more than American chauvinism. As Obama said, American exceptionalism is only relative—just as the British believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism. It is not based on a view of America’s unique leadership role in the world and does not require that we act in defense of ideals larger than narrow national interests.
The test for Obama will be twofold. First, will it work? To date we have seen no evidence that prostrating ourselves before the world’s rogue states redounds to our benefit. Second, is this an American foreign policy that Americans can stomach and that will be sustainable over the long haul? Obama must suppose that so long as they get health care, Americans don’t really give a darn about Chinese dissidents and Iranian demonstrators. But Americans are a decent people, and they expect that their nation will behave decently and in defense of American values. After all, Americans bought his message of hope and change, the notion that America could be and do good things, and that America should be revered and respected. They did not vote, I would suggest, for this.