Watching Obama’s recent journeys to Europe and Latin America, I was reminded of actress Sally Field’s embarrassing acceptance speech at the 1985 Academy Awards: “I've wanted more than anything to have your respect,” she gushed to her colleagues, adding in the same needy vein, “I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” The Obama administration and its media supporters have been behaving like Fields, so pleased and relieved that after eight years of Bush-generated anti-Americanism, the world once again likes us.
Of course, lost in this delight are some critical points. The President’s foreign policy responsibility is not to be liked, but to look after America’s interests. The love-fest in Europe has not resulted in our NATO allies making anything other than cosmetic changes to its half-baked support of our efforts in Afghanistan. American troops will continue to bear the lion’s share of the burden of fighting and dying, while Europeans train policemen. Obama’s handshake with Hugo Chavez will not stop that autocrat from working against our interests by buddying up with Iran, a state that has the blood of American soldiers on its hands, or by fomenting revolution in neighboring Columbia. Nor will that embarrassing bow to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah convince the Saudis to stop funding terrorists or to reform a school system that preaches jihadist intolerance and hatred. And of course, the overtures to Iran will not convince the mother-ship of jihad from abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weaponry and Israel’s destruction. Obama has forgotten Hamlet’s wisdom that “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
In other words, the nations of the world will continue to pursue their interests, many of which run counter to ours. Their behavior is not going to be changed by cosmetic public relations gestures or by legitimizing autocratic regimes by cozying up with dictators. Worse yet, the groveling apologies that have issued from the “leader of the free world” will not give “greater moral force and clarity,” as the President claimed, to our criticisms of human-rights violations or support for terror and revolution. On the contrary, donning the hair shirt of American guilt will only damage our prestige and tell the world that we are weak, that despite our power and wealth we can be had. France’s President Sarkozy said as much in his off-the-record critique of Obama’s performance when he called Obama “Weak, inexperienced, and badly briefed.”
Obama and his team, however, have a bigger problem than inadequate briefings: an apparent ignorance of human nature and history. They have endorsed the EU approach to foreign relations: global conflict can be managed and reduced not by unilateral force but by multilateral, transnational institutions that constrain individual nations and subject them to international norms. These norms favor diplomatic discussion and international institutions that promote tolerance, peace, and mutual respect, all directed towards acknowledging and correcting grievances. This ideal, however, is based on a Western Enlightenment view of human nature that assumes all peoples and regimes want and respect the same things we do, such as freedom, peace, tolerance, and affluence, and that they fear what we fear, violence and conflict. And it assumes that most people are essentially rational and thus amenable to rational persuasion.
Even a casual survey of actual human and state behavior reveals that this ideal is delusional. The old master, Thucydides, is closer to the mark: nations are driven by irrational motives such as fear, interest, and honor, and people by nature are subject to what Thucydides called “imperious necessities,” drives, impulses, and passions constantly chafing against the limits imposed by law. When the law weakens, those “necessities” will ignite destructive behavior that will not be restrained by rational discussion or acknowledgment of grievances. Nor do all peoples necessarily desire peace and freedom: they also desire to be right with God, or to be secure, or to achieve revenge, or increase their power and status. And they are willing to use violence to achieve all these aims.
And when such states are too weak to achieve such aims, diplomatic dialogue and dickering become a means for biding their time or extracting concessions from more powerful states. That’s why militarily weak states, such as those in the EU, are great champions of diplomacy and transnational institutions, and criticize the use of force in global affairs––not on principle, but expediency. As Robert Kagan writes, “Because they are relatively weak, Europeans have a deep interest in devaluing and eventually eradicating the brutal laws of an anarchic Hobbesian world where power is the ultimate determinant of national security and success.” Unfortunately, we still live in a Hobbesian world filled with states such as Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela that have shown their contempt for the non-violent mechanisms and values of international institutions, and that are willing to use force both conventional and unconventional to achieve their interests. In such a world, only the military power of the United States maintains enough order in the world for the global economy to function and create the wealth subsidizing EU idealism. After all, it’s not the EU Parliament or the UN that keeps the oil flowing to Europe through the Straits of Hormuz. It’s the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
This is not to say that there is not a need for diplomacy, negotiation, or sanctions to change state behavior. But such non-military instruments of persuasion must be used from a position of strength, and with the certainty that military power will be used to enforce agreements and punish those who break them. Otherwise, as Hobbes wrote, “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” The sorry record of diplomacy, sanctions, and international institutions in stopping the slaughter in Rwanda, Darfur, Congo, and numerous other conflicts proves the truth of Hobbes’ wisdom.
So it’s no surprise that the world is delighted with our new president. Rather than projecting strength and a willingness to defend and promote America’s interests, he is eager to validate the criticisms of states that are our rivals or enemies. Where liberals see a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to global affairs, one that dismisses the crude moral tone of George Bush, these states see a weakness to be exploited in order to achieve their own national interests, which necessarily must often conflict with ours. Weakening America’s security is too large a price to pay for transient popularity.