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On Foreign Policy  

By William Rabbe on 08/12/2008

Whatever happened to "speak softly and carry a big stick?" Our voice is clearly audible and our stick is stuck in the mud...

In the wake of Russia's flagrant use of power, the foreign policy challenge of our next President will be to effectively move away from the neoconservative ideology of the last eight years and toward the application of "realpolitik" -- a pragmatic approach to foreign policy balancing power with the national interest.

Russia's invasion of former Soviet satellite state Georgia has prompted many to wonder why the United States and Western world have not been able to better influence the unfortunate course of events over the last several days. Despite Georgian President Saakashvili's attempt to encourage the US to take a bigger role at his side, America has largely been ineffective in curtailing Russian aggression, the scope and swiftness of which has shocked the international community. So why couldn't we do more to avert or cease this conflict earlier?

The answer to this question may lie in the doctrinal application of neoconservatism to American foreign policy. The idea of neoconservatism is confusing -- it has been used pejoratively to describe George Bush's brand of "Cowboy Diplomacy," military pre-emption in the name of security and even American zionism -- but those interpretations aside, at the core of the neoconservative movement is an idealism that democracy can easily flourish worldwide and that the United States is the missionary of that Democracy -- a philosophy that has put more emphasis on confrontation than on compromise. In fact, Robert Kagan described neoconservatism's ultimate goal as "benevolent hegemony."

As applied over the last seven or eight years, our over-eagerness to export democracy has tied up our military and resources, lost us favor with friendly nations and has increased our deficit. This has left us more vulnerable and less credible on the world stage.

In the late 1960's, a costly war in Vietnam coupled with increased spending was referred to as "guns and butter" by critics of the Johnson administration. Now the comparison the LBJ's administration may be more appropriate since Russia has acted so flagrantly: in August of 1968, during the Lyndon Johnson's lame duck term and on the eve of the Presidential election, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia -- the US, with it's hands full, was unable to roll back the tanks.

Vladimir Putin is most certainly aware that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Czechoslovakia invasion and, conveniently for him, just as in '68, the US doesn't have much leverage -- even after having had prior knowledge of Russia's plan. Putin foresaw a narrow window of opportunity and used it.

Encouraging former Soviet states to continue on their democratic trajectory is certainly in the national interest, while Iraq appears less and less to have been the "imminent threat" it was portrayed to be. Despite Bush's outward confidence in Putin (having famously looked into his eyes and having "seen his soul"), it appears the United States somehow underestimated Russia's prowess. It is clear that we can no longer assume that Russia is the same disorganized, weakened nation it was ten years ago and ignore it on the world stage -- Vladimir Putin proved long ago that he was no Boris Yeltsin and as Prime Minister it appears he has a heavier hand.

The next president will be faced with the challenge of returning to "Realpolitik," an approach to diplomacy that has eluded this Administration -- one that will allow for a more flexible response to crises of this nature the military might to back up critical rhetoric. Realpolitik ("the politics of reality" in German) is defined as "policies based on hard, practical considerations rather than on moral or idealistic concerns."

So, this being an election year, which candidate will be better suited to respond to problems of this type on the world stage? Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama are neocons, but who would be more effective? There are arguments on both sides. John McCain would not likely put ideology before practicality, as shown by his great regard for the decisions of the generals on the ground in Iraq. And Barack Obama would likely gain more leverage among more countries, as he plans to cultivate allies and recoup our military.

Henry Kissinger once summarized that, "a statesman's test is whether he can discern from the swirl of tactical decisions the true long term interests of his country and devise an appropriate strategy for achieving them." This still rings true...

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