America has had presidents who were realists and idealists and realistic, even cynical, about the world yet idealistic about America’s mission in the world, but Barack Obama is unique among this fraternity. For arguably the first time in 220 years, we have a president who is idealistic about the world but cynical about America’s role in it. Obama’s recent flurry of nuclear diplomacy and declarations is just the latest example.
First, his administration carried out a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that, among other things, pledges that the United States:
- “will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,”
- “will not develop new nuclear warheads,” and
- “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.”
Obama’s NPR also removes the protection afforded by what Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls “calculated ambiguity.” “If a non-nuclear-weapon state is in compliance with the nonproliferation treaty and its obligations,” Gates explains, “the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it.” Instead, such an enemy “would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response”—even if that enemy “were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners.”
“Calculated ambiguity” has kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades—and, not coincidentally, kept America and American forces safe from nuclear, biological or chemical attack. Recall Secretary of State James Baker’s implied threat to his Iraqi counterpart regarding how the U.S. would respond to Iraq’s use of chemical or biological weapons. Or consider Eisenhower’s counsel:
“One of America’s great tacticians, Stonewall Jackson, said ‘Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.’”
Ike had quite a surprise in store for North Korea’s patron and protector in China. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote years after Ike’s presidency, “Eisenhower began by invoking the nuclear threat to end the fighting in Korea,” letting the Chinese know that, in Eisenhower’s own words, he “would not be constrained about crossing the Yalu or using nuclear weapons.”
Fifty-seven years later, we have a president eager to constrain American power—and willing to surrender the strategic deterrent advantage of ambiguity—in hopes that thugs, dictators and outlaws can be reasoned with.
And yet there appear to be no constraints on the bad guys. North Korea, for instance, tested a nuclear weapon and long-range missiles during Obama’s first year in office, just as it had during the Bush administration. Likewise, when evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear-fuel manufacturing plant came to light in September 2009, there was no punishment or sanction. French president Nicolas Sarkozy was so furious that he detailed for the UN Security Council everything the UN Security Council has allowed Iran to get away with:
“Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”
Finally, after signing a deal with Russia to cut America’s arsenal of nuclear warheads by 30 percent—thankfully in exchange for reciprocal cuts on Moscow’s part—Obama convened a summit in Washington “dedicated to nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism,” in the words of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Obama’s goal is “to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years.”
That’s a worthwhile objective. Of course, two of the gravest nuclear threats we face—Iran and North Korea—were not at Obama’s nuclear summit. In fact, they weren’t invited. Given that both are known terrorist states, given that Iran is racing to build a nuke, and given that North Korea already has nukes, it seems likely that this shameless pair would be prime candidates for nuclear terrorism.
But perhaps it’s good that they weren’t at Obama’s conference. After all, international summits and conferences are only as dependable as the parties participating in them. Again, Ike’s words are instructive. Always dubious of what he called “the conference method” to foreign policy, he noted that
“We have had a lot of talks and some of them have produced very disappointing results…The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”
It is doubtful that Obama—the product of a postmodern, relativistic era that views American power as something to constrain and America’s role in the world as something to apologize for—would agree with that.
In this regard, it pays to recall that Obama himself concedes, with a shrug, “I believe in American exceptionalism…just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, every nation is exceptional, which means no nation is exceptional.
Now, contrast that with Woodrow Wilson’s idealism and liberal internationalism. Sure, Wilson envisioned a gauzy, global federalism that made—and still makes—American nationalists uncomfortable. But Wilson’s idealism was couched in a strong belief in American exceptionalism. It was America’s duty, Wilson argued, to make the world “safe for democracy…to vindicate the principles of peace and justice.”
Our current president simply doesn’t believe that. As Johns Hopkins scholar Foaud Ajami has observed, there is an “ambivalence at the heart of the Obama diplomacy about freedom.”
And there is a sad relativism about America’s place and purpose in the world at the heart of this president’s foreign policy. It pays to recall that under the Obama administration, for the first time ever, the United States will conduct a human rights review of itself, hand it over to the UN Human Rights Council, and then “submit itself to a process in which America’s record might be judged by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers,” as Foreign Policy magazine reports.
In a similar vein, the United States is edging closer to the International Criminal Court. “That we are not a signatory,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said of the ICC, “is a great regret.” UN Ambassador Susan Rice has called the ICC “an important and credible instrument.”
By the way, among those currently under indictment and/or investigation by the ICC are warlords in Uganda, genocidal generals in Sudan, and, apparently, U.S. troops trying to rebuild Afghanistan: According to a Wall Street Journal report, the ICC is conducting a “preliminary examination into whether NATO troops, including American soldiers, fighting the Taliban may have to be put in the dock.”
That’s the inevitable destination of a foreign policy that is idealistic about the world but cynical about America’s role in it.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.