Commentary Magazine


America Needs a Proactive, Not Reactive Foreign Policy

There has been much discussion at “Contentions” and elsewhere about the Obama administration’s foreign policy, as well as the positions put forward by the Republican contenders. Alas, if there is one common characteristic, it is that almost all the debate centers around reacting to events rather than enunciating a proactive American strategy.

The Obama administration has been reacting on the fly to the Arab Spring, and the embarrassing flip-flops by some of the Republican candidates have done the quality of the debate a disservice. While I am certainly critical of some of Obama’s naïveté regarding American adversaries and believe that his abandonment of Iraq represents a devastating own-goal, it would behoove any successor to recognize that first and foremost the problems we face come from adversaries abroad rather than their predecessors.

Being secretary of state shouldn’t simply be about the travel and the perks, but about the strategy. Ask any diplomat or Pentagon official, and they will tell you their time is spent dealing with the next contingency, crisis, or deadline. Perhaps the reason for the weakness of American policy is because too few officials have their eyes on the big picture. There is no coherent policy or comprehensive strategy, one that interweaves the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic components which are essential to success.

Perhaps it is time for the Republicans not only to play backseat driver, but to outline a much more comprehensive vision. For example, they might want to define where they want the Arab states to be in two years, and then work backwards to construct a U.S. strategy which might produce the desired results. Likewise, they might ask the same question about Iran’s nuclear defiance. Set the goal and the timeline, and then work in reverse to craft a proactive strategy.

Pundits like Tom Friedman constantly praise China. While I would never, like Friedman, so glibly discount China’s gross violations of human rights and its dictatorship, there is no question that China has defined a strategy which it works toward. Vladimir Putin also has in Russia, and both countries have advanced their strategic positions because of it. Perhaps it’s time the United States again lead, rather than lazily react and follow.

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