The Foreign Policy Borg

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the most common criticisms of Obama from the left is that his foreign policy is not discernibly all that different from that of late period George W. Bush–Guantanamo was never  closed, Obama employed a surge strategy in Afghanistan, drone attacks were used, troop numbers continued to decline in Iraq, it all felt, and perhaps it all feels, as though nothing has changed. At the same time, many on the left like to argue that, were Kerry or Gore elected, things would have been quite different, that Bush was discernibly distinct from Clinton. The historical record shows this to be false–Bush’s foreign policy amounted to a mere evolution of Clinton’s military interventionism and embrace of the democratic peace theory, the notion that democracies promote peace and prosperity and that, consequently, democracy should be spread to foreign lands. It’s not as if the interventions in Somalia and Yugoslavia during the nineties were motived in any way significantly differently from the reasoning eventually supplied for the occupation of Iraq–spreading freedom, ending tyranny, and so on down the line. Of course, when these people were running for office, they talked a different game. They tried to draw distinction from their predecessors and purported to offer a serious foreign policy alternative–Mitt Romney as we recall attempted this very line of argument. So why is it that our presidents get assimilated into the foreign policy borg and adopt policies that are, for the most part, quite similar to those adopted by their predecessors? That’s today’s topic of investigation.

It did not used to be this way. There was a time in which the person you voted for did have a significant impact on America’s foreign policy behaviour. Theodore Roosevelt delivered nationalist interventionism to protect American interests in Latin America. Woodrow Wilson delivered liberal internationalism, trying to unite the world community into a peaceful, cooperating, democratic utopia. Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover all embarked on a policy of isolationism. Franklin Roosevelt returned to nationalist interventionism. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower gave us containment. Then something interesting happened–our presidents stopped driving our foreign policy.

Kennedy came into office as a more liberal, relaxed alternative to the Cold War machismo of Ike/Nixon, but upon taking office, he followed Eisenhower’s lead, and the result was Bay of Pigs and a gradual escalation of Vietnam. When Lyndon Johnson took over, he followed Kennedy, and escalated Vietnam further. Nixon then extended the conflict over into Cambodia, while Jimmy Carter’s presidency was, in terms of its foreign policy, characterised by indecision and paralysis, as Carter’s natural instincts made him uneasy about what he was often advised to do–but even this did not stop Carter from attempting the military rescue of the hostages in Iran. Reagan followed Nixon’s old blueprint–bellicose and interventionist. The first Bush’s foreign policy was an extension of Reagan’s, and, though the target shifted from the communists to “rogue states”, Clinton followed suit, as did Bush. Now we see that, broadly speaking, so has Obama. After all, Bush in 2008 was about as mellow relative to Bush in 2003 as Obama in 2012 is. For whatever reason, the recent run of presidents we’ve had have all been quite susceptible to finding themselves agreeing with the pre-existing ideas of how America conducts its foreign policy.

Many people claim that the cause of this is the military bureaucracy, such that regardless of which administration is running things, everyone gets assimilated into the bureaucratic culture and its prevailing ideas and norms. However, I have a bit more radical idea. You see, the change in behaviour coincides with the transformation of the presidency from a predominantly administrative role to a role in which the president is increasingly expected to be a television character, to be appealing via the media. The 1960 election which brought in Kennedy was also the first election with televised debates, and since that time we’ve seen a greater and greater tendency for presidents to be air-brushed, polished orators. This has come at cost. Intellectuals and real, serious administrators lack the necessary sycophancy for modern presidential politics. The people who tend to be elected are the people who look good on camera, know what the people want, and give it to them. In other words, they are good at being popular.

Our society has conflated being good at being popular with  being good at governing. It’s the full on embrace of the high school student government election, where the cool kid wins because he’s likeable, not because he has anything of substance to offer. Ike was bald, FDR was crippled, and you rarely saw any of those old guys on television, and, a mere few decades before that, you never even heard them on the radio. Voting back then had more to do with achievement and less to do with the political special effects. Our modern elections are to the elections of earlier history as the Star Wars prequels are to the original trilogy–full of excitement and adrenaline, but lacking in the substance that made the originals work. Sure, people still went to see the prequels, but it was out of loyalty to and nostalgia for the original trilogy, not for the prequels themselves.

So what happens when the sort of person who wins a modern presidential election takes office? He is immediately surrounded by a great many people who, you know, have actually been doing the serious administrative work of running the country as generals and civil servants, and he wants to be respected, liked, and admired by his new peer group. His natural drive and tendencies urge him to become popular among this group, because his entire life has been successful on account of his being well-liked. This makes him non-confrontational and excessively agreeable to their ideas, and it makes him easy to socialise and assimilate into the borg.

The personality traits voters find appealing are personality traits that make leaders less effective. Good leaders have to be willing to stand up to bad ideas, they have to be intellectuals with confidence in themselves intellectually and in the policy manifestations of their ideas. The people we are electing to be president, from both parties, do not fit this mould  They have been trained by their years of political experience to give the people what they want, whatever it is, regardless of whether or not they themselves personally believe it to intellectually be a good idea. Think Romney has ever actually made a point to give a speech in which he details his actual beliefs, rather than the beliefs which he believes most people would like to hear? I doubt it. But I do not merely doubt it for Romney, I doubt it for all of these presidents and for all of their opponents. Voters select their presidents on the basis of defective criteria, they consequently get leaders with defective leadership skills, and the final result is a foreign policy that is itself defective.

If we want strong leaders with independent ideas, either voters have to start actually supporting those kind of leaders or, failing that, we have to seriously question this whole enterprise of voting for our leaders in the first place. Voting only works if the voters make competent choices. The last fifty years of US foreign policy suggest that they can’t do it, at least not any more.