A Truly Strong Foreign Policy

The weekend media featured an uncommon amount of navel gazing about foreign policy. Except the navel being gazed at belonged to Barack Obama. To the degree that pundits ever agree, they seemed to agree that the Obama foreign policy was "weak." Predictably, there was little if any agreement as to what "strong" would look like.

Much of this desire for "strength" reflects a longing for the relative clarity of the Cold War: Democracy versus Communism; West versus East; NATO versus Warsaw Pact; our military versus their military. An all-out arms race was supportable because our economy was growing throughout most of this period (1947-1991).

But even so, it was a lot messier than simplistic memory suggests. There was our disaster in Vietnam and the Soviet's disaster in Afghanistan (note how much we learned from that). There was a major nuclear nightmare over Cuba. There was undermining of foreign governments on both sides in South American, Africa, and Asia. Ours, it must be noted, was directly contradictory to our stated democratic ideals and principles. And then there was a morass of spying all over the place and the explosive growth of an intelligence "community" that continues even today.

So much for that nostalgia. No pundit has yet explained how a president replaces a simple foreign policy idea -- "containment of communism" -- with a single "strong" foreign policy that encompasses a rising China, a xenophobic Russia, a Europe economically divided between North and South, Mexican drug cartels on our border (and a rising drug culture in the US), murderous tribal wars in Africa, a perpetual stand-off in the Middle East, civil war in Syria, an Arab Spring that has not evolved democratically, and, very much on the horizon, competition in the Arctic Circle.

This is not to say the Obama administration shouldn't be clearer on principles and purposes. But it is to say that all the calls for undefined "strength" will not yield a single, simple foreign policy slogan. We tried that a few years ago with "war on terrorism" and ended up with a mess in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of those now calling for a strong foreign policy were all on board with that slogan.

There is no one-size-fits-all foreign policy during this period of disintegration, rise of tribalism and ethnic nationalism, and erosion of national sovereignty. Much of what we do, in the circumstances where our involvement is wise and productive, will be ad hoc and circumstantial. But our actions should be based on our democratic ideals, our constitutional principles, and our highest and best traditional beliefs. These are our touchstones; they define who we are and the principles for which we stand. They will provide the continuity to our actions in a complex world that will constitute a consistent foreign policy.

As with individuals, nations will adapt their behavior to the circumstances at hand. But that behavior must be guided by principles and ideals that define the individual and the nation. This is what the nations of the world expect from us. Expediency is the enemy of principle. During the Cold War and the war on terrorism, expediency too often trumped principle. That is what makes our foreign policy weak, not the failure to use military force. The best way to strengthen our foreign policy is to rebuild our nation and revitalize our economy at home and make that our beacon to the world.