A New Look (Part 2)

COMMENTARY Global Politics

A New Look (Part 2)

Jun 24th, 2013 5 min read
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

Acting Senior Vice President, Research

Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

Editor's Note: This guest post is second in a series by Kim R. Holmes on the changing face of American foreign policy. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and was an assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in George W. Bush's administration. This post is adapted from his forthcoming book, Rebound: Getting America Back to Great.

In the first installment of this series, I laid out three prevailing strategies in American foreign-policy thinking and practice today. The first I label "pull back," and it is the viewpoint primarily of those who want to dramatically reduce America's (particularly military) presence overseas. The second I call "retrenchment," and it roughly corresponds to the views of Barack Obama's administration, which accepts limits on American power but is reluctant to pull back too far. The third is the view of the "neoconservative hawks," who believe American power is being constantly tested and thus must be maintained and exercised vigorously to ensure American credibility in the world.

Each of these strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. Rather than critique them thoroughly, I suggest that each in its own way is incomplete. Neoconservative hawks, for example, don't capture the dominant mood of the Republican Party today, which is largely inward-looking and skeptical of Obama's handling of military interventions. At the other end of the spectrum, the liberal "pull back" group may be loudly portrayed in the media and certainly is a dominant voice in the academic world, but theirs is not the worldview of the Obama administration or even of establishment liberalism in Washington. Obama talks a good international engagement game, but he is deeply reluctant to get involved in overseas interventions and often is quite passive when it comes to showing leadership.

Overall the new mood is somber. This is one reason that so-called "realists" are making a comeback. They are emerging on both the right and the left, sometimes dissolving the differences between the two camps.

On the right, scholars at the Center for the National Interest see themselves as conservatives but are uncomfortable with neocon interventionist policies. As realists they hark back to Richard Nixon and in some cases even Ronald Reagan, whom they believe exercised a more restrained foreign policy than did George W. Bush. On the more liberal side of realism are journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, who argue for a more restrained role for America and thus tend to agree with Obama's strategy of retrenchment. Unlike more conservative realists, there is a tendency to accept liberal standards of international governance -- the idea that international organizations, conventions, and legal regimes are substitutes for the exercise of hard power. But there is ambivalence as well, particularly in Haass's case. He bemoans the growing "gap between global challenges and effective international arrangements," but hints that the problem may not be too little international governance, but overly inflated expectations of it.

One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the waning of the humanitarian intervention wing of the Democratic Party. For years humanitarian interventionism, under the rubric of the concept of a "responsibility to protect," was a watchword of liberal internationalism. Even though that doctrine was invoked in the U.N. resolution authorizing the intervention in Libya, it has not been applied to Syria. Obama recently agreed to send arms to the Syrian rebels, but did so only reluctantly. The appointment of Susan Rice as national security advisor and Samantha Power as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations may or may not signal a change back to the old humanitarian liberalism of the past, because Obama himself remains a reluctant warrior in humanitarian causes.

Nor is Obama as committed to international governance as one might expect. His support for the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is more about appeasing domestic gun control advocates than pleasing international arms controllers; his advocacy of the U.N. disabilities treaty is equally motivated by domestic considerations. Moreover, his engagement of the United Nations has been mainly symbolic. He did not take the lead in the response to crises in Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Syria, for example; nor has he taken the lead on dealing with Iran. Yes, he rushed through the New START treaty in 2010, and he revived his interest in arms control in his Brandenburg Gate speech in Berlin. But his main motivation here is to reduce nuclear arsenals (even if it means forging agreements rather than treaties with the Russians), rather than establishing international treaties or regimes controlling weaponry.

Overall, the defining characteristic of Obama's foreign policy appears to be preventing overseas crises from distracting from his domestic agenda. He remains a committed liberal, at least in principle, but his foreign policy is highly influenced by political expediency, which causes him to want to avoid risking overseas interventions.

Another example of this new convergence of views involves defense spending. Both Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (and many of his fellow Tea Party friends) are not big on defense spending, but in Paul's case that is because defense as a species of "government spending" should be scrutinized for effectiveness and waste, whereas in Obama's case it is because he'd rather spend the money on social programs. While some neoconservative hawks lobby for intervention of some kind in Syria, they are not averse to taking a fairly sharp knife to the defense budget, which used to be a conservative sacred cow. Nor are those Republican leaders in the House and Senate who agreed to the sequestration deal which is drastically cutting defense.

Yet another example involves civil liberties. Conservative libertarians and liberals have long held similar views of civil liberties, but Obama's drone and eavesdropping policies have united them in opposition to others as well. Paul's filibuster over Obama's drone policy received plaudits from many liberal civil libertarians. Reports that Obama's National Security Agency was eavesdropping on phone conversations and Internet communications was denounced equally severely by some liberals and some conservatives. There are still many national security conservatives who support Obama's counterterrorism policies, mainly because they are seen as carrying over Bush's policies. But there can be no doubt that there are divisions within both left and right over the domestic implications of current counterterrorism and homeland security policies.

What's behind all this?

First there is the reaction to the wars; both liberals and some conservatives are now skeptical of hyper-military interventionism. The silence of much of the right as Sen. John McCain lobbies for a more interventionist policy in Syria is as deafening as that of the humanitarian interventionism wing of the Democratic Party. Secondly, there is the fiscal crisis; a lack of money is forcing both liberals and conservatives to focus on what they care most about. In the case of liberals it is saving money from defense to spend on social programs, whereas for conservatives it is to cut spending period. And third, the rise of the libertarian right has opened a new line of criticism of interventionism that had once only existed below the surface.

Whatever the causes, the upshot is a new world weariness with big ideas in foreign policy. Liberals are not as excited as they once were about stopping humanitarian catastrophes like genocide, while conservatives are not as set on using force to make the world safe for freedom and democracy. Far-reaching strategies to transform the world are out of fashion now on both the right and the left.

Is it possible with all this change to create a new realignment of views? Probably not in the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and academia in the near term; there are too many entrenched battle lines drawn and too many careers dependent on the defense of long-standing ideological positions. But who knows how a new generation will handle the change?

In the next installment, I will outline a strategy that may be able to take advantage of some of these convergences of views.

-Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Foreign Policy