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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good News on Foreign Policy

On April 14, 2007, I posted a draft inaugural address such as I hoped to hear a new President deliver today, or perhaps in the first few months of his Administration, laying out a new foreign policy for the United States. My text (readily accessible in the archives at right) drew on American traditions since Wilson, with particular emphasis on FDR and JFK, to show how a new President might get back on track. Having grown up partly in an Embassy residence and spent my entire adult life studying the foreign policies of various great nations, I cannot help but think that I might have something to contribute, while at the same time I must recognize that I never sought the kind of life which actually might have led to a position of influence. I did, a month or two ago, post the entire text on the Obama transition website, with the disclaimer that while I certainly did not expect to see it appear in full, I hoped some of the ideas might be useful. The months of the transition, I must say, were not particularly hopeful from my point of view with respect to foreign policy. The Administration had managed to commit us to three more years in Iraq, and President Obama himself had talked repeatedly during the campaign of a major troop increase in Afghanistan. The Israeli government has also struck another blow against the peace process in the last few weeks. The retention of Robert Gates and the appointment of Hillary Clinton were equivocal signals that certainly did not herald any immediate change in policy,. I have held my tongue—perhaps uncharacteristically—to give our new President a chance, while pinning my hopes on the man himself. Secretary Clinton, in particular, I am sure, will do her damndest to implement any tasks that she is given—leaving her boss with the responsibility to give her the right ones. Today he sent a very strong signal that he will indeed do just that.
I am not so deluded as to think that my posting on the transition site had anything to do with the President’s text, but I am all the more delighted that the key paragraphs devoted to foreign policy did echo some of the points I made 21 months ago. Let’s take them point by point.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

Looking back, I see that I alluded relatively briefly to this point, but it was a wonderful place for the new President to begin, and echoes the quote from Jefferson on the worldwide impact of the Declaration of Independence with which I concluded my own peroration.

"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

That paragraph clearly echoes JFK’s great American University speech nearly 45 years ago, from which I quoted at length. Faced with the Soviet Union, Kennedy renounced the idea of winning the Cold War by force and called for a peaceful competition based upon American ideals. “The force of our example” also echoes both Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

"We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

The reference to the “nuclear threat” is also encouraging, but most welcome is the idea of “leaving Iraq to its people”—an echo of FDR’s and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter, claiming for all the peoples of the world to choose the form of government under which they would live, provided that they would give us the same opportunity.

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Here perhaps the contrast with the outgoing President was most striking. History, not the U.S. military, shall deal with tyranny, and mutual respect, not submission to American will, will define our relations with Muslim nations. And the United States itself, where all citizens are equal, shall again become the model for a multinational world. (The reference to the dissolution of “lines of tribe” will surely be read with great interest in the rest of the world.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Freedom from want was another of FDR’s four freedoms, but that last paragraph also echoes poor Lyndon Johnson, who thought he could meet the needs of Southeast Asians as he had those of hill country Texans, once they had been bombed into acquiescence. Meanwhile, the pledge to work for a cleaner environment sets us on a new path altogether.

"As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."

We shall continue to honor the troops while recognizing that we need other kinds of service as well, particularly here at home. That, and that alone, can make us the beacon of light the new President spoke of in the opening. I am very moved to think that we may have a President whose ideas about the U.S. and the world seem to have quite a bit in common with mine—and a Secretary of State who certainly has the energy and determination to start putting them into effect.

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