President Obama clearly sees himself as a consensus-builder, both politically and, as it turns out, in the world of ideas. This week found him in the midst of an unfortunate coincidence: he had to accept the Nobel Peace Prize after announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The result was both eloquent and oddly ambivalent, and left room for almost any kind of foreign policy over the next few years. Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, the year of his ambiguous "quarantine" speech, the President seems to be looking for new ways to cope with a violent world--but like FDR, he remains trapped, it seems, by the political legacy of his time, however different Obama's may be today.
The President began by referring to some of the great idealists who had won the prize, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but promptly said that he feels he must deal with the world as it is, including the war his predecessor bequeathed him in Afghanistan.
"But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
Only a thoroughgoing pacifist--and we do not elect such to high office--could disagree with the principle behind that statement, but the implication that evil must always be met with force is disturbing. Certainly the vision for which the United States fights its wars is nearly always inspiring, but unfortunately, war often does less than nothing to turn it into reality. The ability to identify cases in which force will actually improve the situation is the single most important test of statesmanship. The President proceeded to address that question, but from only one particular perspective.
"To begin with, I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't."
In fact, the United States during the last 60 years would have done much better had it confined itself to wars actively embraced by its major allies. They backed the initial intervention in Korea, but generally opposed the disastrous advance beyond the 38th parallel. Most of them had no interest in helping us in Vietnam. They backed Gulf War I, but (with the major exception of Britain), disdained Gulf War II. And they backed the initial intervention in Afghanistan--and, influenced by President Obama's enormous political capital, are now extending a bit more help to him there.
The President now bowed to another powerful tradition in American foreign policy, especially within his own party--that of humanitarian interventionism.
"And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
"I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."
The President is a very smart man and I must believe that he knows things are not that simple. Peacekeeping did not end the conflict in Bosnia until it had essentially burnt itself out and ethnic cleansing had taken place on a grand scale. The Kossovo war stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs, but has led to a gentler, more gradual cleansing of Serbs by Albanians. In Iraq, a war which the President had the sense to oppose, the presence of well over 100,000 American troops could not even prevent a civil war involving the ethnic cleansing of perhaps two million people from taking place. The model he is proposing--of a multilateral intervention by advanced nations to stop an ongoing civil war or overthrow a repressive regime--has never been successful in modern times.
The most Rooseveltian passage, so reminiscent of FDR's call for a "quarantine" of aggressors after the Sino-Japanese War had broken out in 1937, resumed the search for a magic bullet that began about a century ago.
"First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."
Sadly, President Obama has not decided to give frequent press conferences. If he did, he, like FDR, would probably face a question as to exactly what he has in mind. The record of economic sanctions as a means of changing the behavior of hostile states is almost uniformly discouraging. The example of Cuba, where 50 years of sanctions have done nothing but impose misery upon the Cuban people, is only the most striking of many.
Then President Obama addressed the issue of nuclear proliferation--in guarded terms that left open at least the possibility of reviving his predecessor's policy of preventive war.
"One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I'm working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia's nuclear stockpiles.
"But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."
I have of course been cheered by the President's advocacy of the elimination of nuclear weapons and his recognition of everyone's obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty. That treaty, however, was an agreement among sovereign states, which any of them can legally denounce. For 55 years deterrence was our strategy against unfriendly nations that insisted upon having them. It should in my opinion remain our strategy against nuclear North Korea and potentially nuclear Iran. But it is far from clear that the President shares that view, based on the passage above. And he also opened the door to armed intervention to deal with repressive regimes.
"The same principle applies to those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy -- but there must be consequences when those things fail. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.
It was at this point that the speech began to branch in several opposing directions. To begin with, the President discussed the conflict between realism and idealism, using language surprisingly reminiscent of George W. Bush.
"I reject these choices. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations."
But at the same time, he endorsed what used to be called detente.
"Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.
"In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, Nixon's meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable -- and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."
I was sorry that the President did not do more to put today's threats in historical perspective. Al Queda is reportedly down to a strength of several hundred men--a figure which certainly calls the dispatch of 30,000 more Americans, and about 100,000 overall, to Afghanistan, into question. I am doubtful, too, that large-scale interventions are going to bring peace to the most troubled areas of Africa and Asia. Lastly, as I remarked after the Afghanistan speech, I am troubled when Christians or Jews tell Muslims what the Islamic religion does and does not allow, rather than appeal to international norms of behavior. The President's speech is a setback for those who, like myself, wanted him to steer a fundamentally different course from his predecessors, but it has so many different strains within it that, like Roosevelt's quarantine speech, it tells us little or nothing about what we will actually do in the years ahead.