Jonathan Power: Next Step—Obama’s Foreign Policy

By Jonathan Power

“Come home, America,” said U.S. presidential candidate George McGovern during the Vietnam War, before suffering a bad defeat against Richard Nixon. But these are the words President-elect Barack Obama should be uttering today, if he wants to live up to the credo he enunciates in his books.

The Republicans—and some Democrats—will try to tear him apart for this, tarring him with the brush of isolationism. But it is not isolationism. If handled with perception and commitment for the long haul, this new policy can be a better form of engagement with the world and its problems. It is merely a different way of creating greater political order and more individual freedom.

It can be characterized as a policy of substituting the carrot for the stick, but this simplifies it unnecessarily. The carrot should be offered, but with it a reciprocal sense of self discipline and a commitment by the opponent to measure progress against the Charter of the United Nations and the resolutions of the Security Council—for when the Security Council agrees, it represents a formidable consensus of world opinion.

This kind of engagement has a long American tradition going back to 1916, with President Wilson´s aim to create a League of Nations. He failed, not because of his idealism or his commitment to solving disputes without major war, but because his tactics with regard to Senate ratification of the treaty were unnecessarily stubborn. Wilson also decried the European balance of power system (a favorite geopolitical cause of Henry Kissinger): “Now, revive that after the [First World] war is over and, sooner or later, you will have just such another war.”

We can go even further back, although not many commentators do, to the time of Theodore Roosevelt. He successfully mediated the Russo-Japanese war, for which he received the Nobel peace prize. It was he in fact, not Wilson, who was the first president to propose a League of Nations. He called it the “World League for the Peace of Righteousness,” a title which would have him laughed out of court in today’s cynical world.

“Coming Home to America” means getting out of Iraq, probably Afghanistan too, and not getting mixed up in Iran. But it also means stressing to antagonists the good that America can do with private investment, foreign aid, and the development of a common security whereby both sides´ right to individual political postures is recognized as long as they are non-threatening to others. In return for peace, America can offer recognition and security.

It also means being more serious about the role of the United Nations and trying to recreate the benign veto-free period of former President George H. W. Bush and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It means re-adopting a policy, never followed up on, of President Bill Clinton to offer up U.S. soldiers for peacekeeping missions that would operate under the command of UN generals.

If this is isolationism the problem is not with the articulator of such a purpose but those who cling to the status quo, stirring up a false patriotism at the cost of young lives.

Obama’s temptation will be to compromise to assure that victory is not undermined, as were the pacific policies of former president Jimmy Carter by a more macho Congress and press. But he mustn´t, even though his opponents will throw at him all sorts of problems that they believe might at some point require the use of America´s mighty force. The whirlpool of American military spending (that dwarfs all the rest of the countries of the world added together) will also be tricky to avoid.

Opponents will throw at him Iran, Taiwan, China, North Korea, a resurgent Russia, unrest in Saudi Arabia and the oil producing nations of Nigeria and the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics, not to mention Israel and Palestine. It seems a long time since Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I´m running out of enemies.”

In Harvard´s quarterly International Security, Professor Harvey Sapolsky published an article on the theme, “Come Home, America: the Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation.” It was published in 1997 but it needs to be read again. Much damage to the world could have been avoided if its prescient observations and prescriptions had been followed.

“The U.S.,” he writes, “can spend much less than it does today and still be much more secure than it was during the Cold War. It is not at all clear what, if anything, Americans are getting for their extra defense dollars.”

Beginning with Europe, NATO should be dismantled. The threat that NATO was created to deter disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. U.S. soldiers and nuclear missiles should be withdrawn from European soil. Expanding NATO not only broke a solemn American promise to the Soviet Union, it unnecessarily created an uncooperative Russia. Let the European Union take the strain, by trade, investment, and political intimacy—Brussels’ hallmarks.

Likewise, most American troops in Asia should come home. No Asian ally faces an overwhelming threat, and what dangers they face they can handle themselves—as, say, Taiwan is doing with its mixture of a superior air force and clever diplomacy. Japan faces no serious threat, and China wants Japanese investment more than anything else. North Korea´s nuclear bomb is now being confronted, late in George W. Bush´s day, with sophisticated diplomacy which—if applied earlier—could have avoided the bomb and probably halted North Korea´s urge to produce plutonium and enrich uranium.

American oil interests are at the center of America´s Middle East policy. But for any other nation to conquer the majority of territory containing Gulf oil would require an enormous army to cover a vast area. Who can do that?

As for Israel, it is more than capable of defending itself—it out-spends and out-equips in military hardware all the Arab nations combined together.

As for an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war it would be a terrible thing, but it makes no sense for the U.S. to get in the middle.

One could go on and on with such examples. Wars on distant continents will only threaten American security if the U.S sticks its nose in the middle. An Obama foreign policy cast on these lines would show the American public that reconciliation is cheaper and more effective than confrontation.



Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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