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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.



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