If you’ve been at the beach and missed the latest world news, let me briefly catch you up. Terrorists in Syria and Iraq have been overrunning the countryside, pausing to savagely murder an American journalist. Pakistan is reeling from political crisis. The Russians just made an incursion into Ukraine, the Israelis have been blowing up every other building in Gaza, and Ebola’s rampaging through West Africa.
All of which has led to some of the most blistering criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency — and not just because he found time to golf. Republican leaders have called Obama feckless and incompetent, a man without a grand plan. Hillary Clinton dismissed Obama’s internal mantra of “Don’t do stupid stuff” — “stuff” being the G-rated term — as a lame excuse for a foreign policy.
There’s some politics at work here, of course, but at the core of these criticisms is a much deeper question that divides Republicans from Democrats, and some Democrats from one another. Should such a thing as a foreign policy even exist? Or do world events defy some unifying theory?
Of course, if you ask them, no one in the Democratic policy world will ever put it quite that starkly. They’ll tell you that naturally an administration needs a coherent foreign policy, and they’ll say that theirs has been to undo the damage done by their predecessor, and then they’ll throw a bunch of phrases at you that employ some combination of buzzwords like “muscular engagement” or “robust multilateralism,” which have the effect of sounding scholarly while communicating nothing at all.
In reality, though, the very idea of having a “foreign policy” — as opposed to, say, foreign policies — means there’s a single, overarching way to see what’s happening in the world and respond to it. And going back to the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the boomers, cleaved by a profound disagreement over the utility of such grand theories, have been pulling us back and forth between impossibly rigid doctrines, on one hand, and no doctrine at all on the other.
As a rule, conservative policymakers of the ’60s generation saw the failure in Vietnam as a failure of commitment. To them, the domino theory — the idea that if one country or one region fell to Soviet domination, the rest would surely follow — was a logical extension of America’s stand against tyranny in World War II. But whereas America stood firm against Germany and Japan, in Vietnam the country wobbled, fighting without overwhelming force or public support.
The lesson there, conservatives decided, was that not only did you need a morally clear, black-and-white framework, but you also needed to stand by it, no matter the cost. This was the basis of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” and of George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” with its famous corollary: “You’re either with us or against us.” (One of those doctrines worked out better than the other.)
Liberals, by and large, took away an altogether different lesson from Vietnam. For them, there was always something tragically flawed about the way policymakers insisted on seeing the conflict through a prism of good vs. evil, when the reality on the ground was so much more nuanced. This simplistic notion of falling dominoes was to them a kind of madness, locking leaders into the same trajectory year after year, long after it was clear they were headed nowhere useful.
And so basically every Democratic president (and nominee) in the past 40 years has resisted any sort of unified string theory for world affairs. Bill Clinton cast around for a slogan early in his tenure (Madeleine Albright, his United Nations ambassador and then secretary of state, tried out “assertive multilateralism,” which I guess might be like muscular multilateralism, only more robust), but ultimately Clinton settled for confronting post-Cold War chaos on a pragmatic, ad hoc basis.
As the party’s first nominee after the terrorist attacks of 2001, and its first to have seen combat in Vietnam, John Kerry was especially averse to binary doctrines. He cast doubt on Bush’s construct of a war on terror, but he steadfastly refused to offer any tidy, alternative way of looking at the threat, which had the effect of making him a less comprehensible candidate at a moment when voters were looking for exactly that.
Obama is, if anything, even more circumspect. Hillary Clinton was only partly right when she said that “Don’t do stupid stuff” wasn’t a framework for foreign policy; in fact, the phrase mocks the very concept of a framework. What Obama and his aides were really saying is that stupid stuff — like, say, the invasion of Iraq — happens when you get irrationally invested in overarching theories. The smartest doctrine you can have, in their view, is one that swears off doctrines entirely.
There’s something to this idea. As the old saying says, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And if all you have is a rule that says you’re going to stop all the communists or kill all the terrorists, then suddenly communists or terrorists are probably all you’re going to see.
But what this summer’s tumultuous events have done is to expose the limits of an anti-doctrine doctrine. It’s fine to say you’re not going to twist all the disparate challenges in the world so that they fit into a neat little box, requiring a one-size-fits-all response. But it’s another thing if you can’t offer any comprehensive explanation for the dangerous disorder we read about every day, so we can at last make sense of our times.
Because most of these things are, in fact, interconnected, and they require a fundamental shift from the way we grew up thinking about global affairs. To put it crudely, the Cold War and its immediate aftermath were all about states — states we liked and didn’t like, states that meant us harm or not, states whose borders needed to be protected or contained. The operative question then was, What kind of government do you have, and does it threaten our security?
Bush and his advisers, all of whom were reared and trained at the height of the Cold War, carried this same worldview into their war on terror. Other governments had to make choices, they said, and if we just took out all the states that chose the terrorists over us, we’d win.
But as some of our more visionary politicians have been warning for decades now, the moment of rampant statelessness has finally arrived, on Obama’s watch. Sure, there will still be profound ideological conflicts with other militarized states, like an expansionist Russia, or Chinese pilots menacing American planes. But now this struggle among rival governments is complicated by the fight between order and chaos, between societies that arrange themselves within borders and extremist movements that would obliterate them.
Whether you’re talking about al-Qaida or ISIL or whatever nihilistic gang comes along next, what you’re talking about is a global assault on the very idea of statecraft. And increasingly the operative question will probably be, Do you have a functional government at all? And if you do, can’t we find interests that align?
I can’t say what American foreign policy should look like in a world like this, or whether there has to be a Cold War-like doctrine for it. But before we can have that debate, someone has to take all of these crises and put them in a rubric that’s coherent and less overwhelming. And that someone should probably be a president.
Finding a larger way to explain the current of history isn’t an invitation to do stupid stuff. It’s called leading.