We spend more on healthcare than others, but our outcomes are generally no better, often worse. I’d suggest the same could be said about our foreign affairs, often accompanied by military action. Don’t get me wrong, we have great, often leading edge, medicine and remain the most powerful nation on the globe. But so much of what we do internationally, especially what may best be described as our “adventures” abroad, fail to achieve their stated or implied goals. Often those goals shift with the wind or are never clearly defined.
On August 14th, Secretary John Kerry spoke at the reopening of our Havana embassy. Part his speech was delivered in Spanish, something not many of his predecessors could (or in some cases would) do. Watching the symbolic end of one of our most inane policy standstills, I couldn’t help thinking about our all too often-hapless foreign policy over my lifetime. Perhaps Jeb Bush’s preposterous blaming Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the mess in the Middle East a few days earlier had already started me on that track.
As a superpower, our world reach is undeniable, though not unprecedented. Perhaps we don’t rule an empire in the sense that did the Romans, Ottomans, Spaniards, French or English, but these are different times. What’s most remarkable, especially in the post WW II age, is how very inept and, in many cases, shortsighted our foreign policy has been. Why is that?
I think geography plays a significant role, certainly on our mindset. Surrounded by two vast oceans, we have been largely untouched by foreign invasion or even immediate and regularized contact with others. That has left us with somewhat of an island, even provincial, mentality. The curiosity of a State Secretary speaking Spanish underscores how few of us are conversant in other languages, or need to be. Driving from Chapel Hill to New York, I pass through six states knowing that along the way everyone speaks English. A trip of similar distance from Paris to Prague takes one through only three states, but each with their own distinct culture and language — French, German and Czech. Driving here from Carolina to California (ocean to ocean) involves many more miles and states but still one language, our language. We expect immigrants to learn and speak English — quickly.
It isn’t only geography and language that impact on our foreign policy. We are a country that tends to focus mostly on the immediate present, paying only lip service to history and its perspective. We have the national attention span of a distracted child or an adult with onset dementia. We seem rarely to think through the consequences of our actions — our leaders certainly don’t communicate risks or any sense of realistic uncertainty or self-doubt. Equally so, despite our flexibility and ingenuity in so many areas, we tend to hold fast to a “story” once told oblivious to any change it might undergo. Cuba, as the threatening Communist menace, is just such a story. Conversely, we seem to routinely switch sides where one moment’s close friend is the next moment’s adversary. The “friend” hasn’t really changed, but the relationship turns out to have been opportunistic rather than longstanding, much less real.
Jeb Bush’s critique was a classic case of throwing stones from a “glass house”, but in truth our misadventures and culpability are bi-partisan. A Republican president, in this case brother George, may gave gotten us into the Iraq mess — more accurately the neighborhood mess — but Democrats Kennedy and Johnson got us bogged down in Indochina. Lessons not learned, certainly ignored. In each case, our adventures went ary in large measure because we didn’t (and still don’t) understand the country/neighborhood and the critical nuances that drive its ways. Colin Powell invoked his Pottery Barn rule — if you break it, you own it — and it seems that we are constantly breaking and consequently talking ownership of things that don’t belong to us. We don’t speak the languages and we most defiantly don’t understand the culture and ethos; both remain profoundly “foreign” to us. Our claim, or more accurately often excuse, is that we pursue what’s in “our national interest”. Too often, that’s more fiction than a reality — a different kind of story we tell others and, perhaps worse, ourselves.
To be sure elements of our policy are driven by self-interest. An insatiable dependence of oil to power our inefficient cars has always loomed large in our Middle East interactions and interventions from Iran to the Persian Gulf. But we are also often moved by the usually short term and short sided idea that “your enemy is my enemy” even when the momentary “friendships” that derive from it often end in disaster. We sided with what became the Taliban, indeed facilitated their rise to power, because they were fighting the Russians. Likewise we allied ourselves with Saddam Hussein when he was at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Taliban hosted and sided with Al Qaeda and Saddam morphed into a fabricated existential enemy. Eisenhower’s CIA helped overthrow the elected government of Iran reinstating a brutal dictator and we wondered why those who took their country back didn’t view us as a friend. We invaded Iraq without thinking of what sectarian strife that was bound to unleash. The turmoil of today in which old pent up rivalries and animosities are playing out isn’t totally or even fundamentally our fault, but we certainly have acted as a naive midwife.
In today’s polarized politics, foreign policy once a unifying force has become a point of hot contention. There have always been so-called hawks and doves, but a shared discipline about the water’s edge. Even that is gone. It seems the only thing on which all sides agree is that America is, as Muhammad Ali used to claim for himself, “The Greatest”. In that context, the supporters of even patently disastrous policies not only don’t admit to their mistakes but also continue to support the same adventurism or stories. Those who urged us into Iraq want us to engage in Syria, those who contributed to dangerous instability in the Middle East want to kill the Iran agreement. On the other hand, playing into our distaste for the body bags returning from the front, a more dovish president orders killer drones that can be deployed from safe places away for the dirt of the battlefield — antiseptically without shedding our own blood.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of our most aggressive presidents famously said, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Too often we seem to rely on the big stick while giving short shrift to speaking at all. In these instances we often conflate diplomacy and military action as if they are one and the same, interchangeable. If you look at the last half-century that’s exactly when we have gotten in the most trouble, been on the shakiest ground. It isn’t a matter of not having diplomatic skills, which we clearly do possess, but in replacing them with adventures that have almost all dead-ended. What a dismal track record is that? When we pretend to engage with each other on matters of foreign policy — as we may do during the coming election campaign — we are likely to see more posturing than serious discussion. It will be a far cry from Isaiah’s (1.18) invitation to “reason together”.
Without question, there are times when military force must be employed; even times where we should intervene on foreign soil to save lives or legitimately protect our national interest. To claim otherwise would be naïve, even irresponsible and dangerous. Criticizing and questioning, as I do here, is far easier than executing. That said, heeding Isaiah’s invitation, as a guideline for foreign affairs seems more compelling — would produce better outcomes — than TR’s advice. His direction was flawed because “speaking softly” and a “big stick” aren’t honest equivalents. At the least, it’s speaking so loudly (read what Obama and others did with Iran), so that the stick need never, or rarely, to be used. More important, as technology shrinks the world, we’ve got to move on from our island mentality and learn some new “languages” — ways of engaging with our now near neighbors around the globe.