Commentary Magazine

The Reset Button

If anything can be said to encapsulate the Obama administration’s sense of mission in the realm of foreign policy, it would be the repeated use of the word “reset.” Vice President Biden used it first, telling a conference in Munich that his team was going to “press the reset button.” The president echoed him a few weeks later, suggesting there should either be a “reset” or a “reboot.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then embarrassed herself by presenting the Russian Foreign Minister with an actual reset button emblazoned with a word in Russian that was supposed to, but did not, mean “reset.”

The whole business became an occasion for scorn among foreign-policy thinkers, Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post foremost among them: The reset button, she wrote, “is a deeply misleading, even vapid, metaphor for diplomatic relations.” She was right, of course, because while the voters of the United States put the policies of their government to a quadrennial test, the relations between the United States and other nations cannot be measured in four-year increments.

It is sheer solipsism for an American politician to imagine that his election alone should or can instantly alter the relations between nations, which grow over time. Even odder is the presumption that a change in president necessitates changes in policy merely for the sake of change. I don’t recall Obama’s vow to “reset” the American approach to Russia during the campaign; indeed his campaign materials took a conventional hard line toward the Putin regime.

Now, it is certainly true that Russia could be helpful to the United States in a variety of areas, Iran and North Korea and their nuclear ambitions most prominently. Still, it hardly seems conceivable that Obama and his people can actually believe that a promise of a new approach will provide an opening to a better working relationship with Vladimir Putin’s burgeoning dictatorship. The carrot of American intimacy has been dangled in front of Putin so many times these past eight years it is a little hard to imagine a bigger carrot would really make much of a difference.

That is the reality with which George W. Bush had to reconcile himself following his notorious claim that he had looked in Putin’s heart and seen goodness there. It appears that Barack Obama and his team are going to be forced to acquaint themselves with the fact that Putin is not a friend but an adversary; evidently, though, that knowledge will not be achieved before they waste a great deal of time on a vain project that seems motivated in large measure by vanity.

In other respects, however, the new president is following through on a promise to his voters that he would recast American foreign policy in a more circumspect mold, one in which the United States would be more mindful of the good opinion of other nations. For many of us, this is a gravely wrongheaded undertaking, since we believe the United States need not apologize for its efforts not only to defend itself but the world against the monstrousness of Islamofascist agitation and terror, and especially not for pursuing a foreign policy that promoted the growth of democratic ideas even in the infertile soil of the Middle East.

Well, offensive to us it may be, but Obama made no bones about it last year, and he won a commanding victory, and now the electorate will have to stomach the fruits of its decision.

There is an opinion almost universally held among the chattering classes that great harm was done to this country due to the unpopularity of George Bush abroad, and that by smoothing the feathers of restive populaces, the new president has performed a great service. We shall see; history does not offer a guide in this instance. It is hard to think of a precedent for Obama’s conduct on his trip abroad, effectively apologizing for American behavior over the past eight years to nations that were in no way injured by it.

Indeed, Obama offered soothing words to the people of Turkey, who arguably did the United States a grievous wrong when their elected representatives refused to allow American forces to move into Iraq from Turkish territory in 2003—since the inability of the United States to send its Fourth Infantry Division into Iraq from the north helped make it possible for thousands of Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein to melt away and fight another day.

So the president will pursue a new approach with Turkey as with Iran, and even with Great Britain. His administration has already conducted itself in a new and very peculiar fashion toward our closest ally, banishing old gifts and bestowing inappropriately cheap new gifts while members of his administration run England down to the media, as when a State Department official told the Telegraph, “There’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world.”

This conduct is inexplicable unless one thinks it is some weird form of just desserts for the great crime of Tony Blair’s stalwart support for the Bush policy toward Iraq, which happens to be the only one so far that Obama has refused to push the reset button on.


And yet critics like Applebaum are missing something about the “reset button” trope. By using it, Obama and his people have done something inadvertently useful. They have cast new light on an age-old split in the American soul.

One key aspect of this country’s founding creed was an entirely radical notion—the notion that the new American people had their hands on the levers of history. Thomas Paine said it first and best: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” It was one of the great rhetorical flourishes in history, and with it Paine both flattered and exalted the people of the colonies by revealing to them the magnitude of the alteration they were about to effect in the history of mankind by declaring independence. Paine’s immortal phrase captured the grand possibilities for a free people whose freedom of action was untrammeled.

“A situation similar to the present,” Paine noted, “hath not happened from the days of Noah until now.” The revolution to come would both be an event without precedent and an event that would change the nature of mankind from that point forward. Nothing like the American revolution had happened since Noah, but who could say, going forward, that it couldn’t be duplicated? If people have it within their power “to begin the world over again,” they don’t have to begin it over again just that once, do they? Why should there be only one new world? There could be dozens, millions.

Paine’s conception of the creation of the United States as a decisive moment that severed the past from the present kept him somewhat apart from the Founding Fathers, for whom the American Revolution was not only something new but also something very much grounded in Western thought. It was not only the English tradition that inspired them; as the Constitutional historian Forrest McDonald has written, the French philosopher Montesquieu was a key influence. And Montesquieu was certainly not a revolutionary thinker: He developed ideas that had their origins in the work of the ancient Greek historian Polybius. It was precisely because the American Revolution was not destructive of tradition but rather a fulfillment of an intellectual tradition that as notable a traditionalist as Edmund Burke himself could support it.

Both philosophical aspects of the American founding—the discontinuity with the past on the one hand and the fulfillment of ancient ideals on the other—are present today in American politics. They are both present in Obama’s approach, as they were both present in his predecessor’s. Bush sought to change American foreign policy in revolutionary ways while at the same time holding fast to certain relations and alliances (China and Saudi Arabia come to mind).

As for Obama, while he wishes to smash the shackles of the immediate past, he seems to be attempting to alter American foreign policy in a surprisingly reactionary direction. In his decision to forswear the promotion of democracy in favor of pacific relations with any and all comers, we hear echoes not of Bill Clinton or even of Jimmy Carter, but rather of the idealism-free realpolitik of the first Bush administration and the Nixon administration before it.

And so the ironies build upon themselves, as Hillary Clinton, whose first act in public life was the pursuit of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, will now crown her career attempting to reanimate the corpse of Nixon’s dated foreign policy. It would seem Obama’s reset button has another purpose: It is, evidently, to serve as a defibrillator.

Does the president really think the promise of a “rebooted” relationship can transform an adversary into a colleague?

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.

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