Over the summer, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy briefly created a stir in Washington. According to Clinton, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
The phrase “Don’t do stupid stuff” was used by Obama as a critique of the Bush administration’s reckless war in Iraq. Obama was elected president in part for his campaign promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since then, however, a series of civil wars and related atrocities have broken out in countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. The Obama administration’s failure to effectively deal with such crises has been interpreted as signaling the weakness and retreat of the United States.
Russia and China, meanwhile, now challenge the U.S. as if to suggest that “might makes right.”
In such circumstances, can a foreign policy of “not doing stupid stuff” really suffice? Clinton is keenly aware of this concern, and sought to emphasize the differences between herself and Obama on matters of foreign policy. Her remarks were clearly made with an eye toward the next presidential election.
But could Clinton’s criticism simply represent the impatience of members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, while the American public remains more closely aligned with Obama’s approach?
There is no doubt that Obama’s decision to rule out military intervention in Syria echoed the sentiments of the general public, at least at that time. Nevertheless, public opinion polls show that as many as 58 percent of Americans are “not satisfied” with Obama’s foreign policy. Why is this?
There are, in fact, three types of foreign policy: policies that “don’t do stupid stuff,” policies that “do stupid stuff,” and policies that “do the smart thing.” What people really want is a foreign policy that “does the smart thing.” Perhaps people don’t believe they should be satisfied with policies that simply avoid “doing stupid stuff.”
In the case of the U.S., people also expect a visionary foreign policy — in other words, an idealistic foreign policy that seeks to shape the world in ways that reflect the core American ideals.
Obama is taking the utmost care to prevent such idealism from leading to further U.S. military interventions overseas. On his tour through Asia this past spring, Obama discussed the goals for his foreign policy in the following terms: “You hit singles, you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” Such modest ambitions may be the reason for the unpopularity of Obama’s foreign policy. Americans would prefer their country to remain a home run hitter.
Still, Obama’s foreign policy takes care to avoid swinging too strongly or striking out. In a May speech at West Point, Obama told his audience: “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.”
This marked the advent of the Obama doctrine of self-restraint — the broad contours of which had already become visible in the Asia-Pacific region through his administration’s strategy of rebalancing.
This strategy seeks to balance against a rapidly rising China’s aggressive and even combative approach to its external relations in military, diplomatic and economic arenas. Its organizing principle is to persuade China that “not doing stupid stuff” is in Beijing’s own best interest. For this to work, the U.S. must first assure China that it will also refrain from “doing stupid stuff.”
This strategy does not seek to suppress, contain or cut off China’s ascent. Rather, by exercising restraint, the U.S. asks China to do the same, and thus to maintain equilibrium through mutual self-restraint.
Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has engaged in two fierce conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region: the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Before the Korean War, the U.S. left North Korea uncertain as to whether the Korean Peninsula fell behind the “red line” (according to Dean Acheson’s “defense perimeter” within which the U.S. would intervene in the case of an invasion). It thereby failed to prevent the enemy from “doing stupid stuff.”
In the Vietnam War, the U.S. “did stupid stuff” as it adhered to the domino theory regarding the potential for the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. The U.S. failed in an attempt to force an enemy (North Korea) to exercise self-restraint, then failed to exercise self-restraint itself in Vietnam.
By contrast, the Cold War-era policy of containment toward the Soviet Union can be considered successful in the sense that it avoided outright conflict — nuclear warfare.
But the containment policy also served to contain the U.S. itself, as it compelled both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to exercise self-restraint.
The importance of “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is all the more compelling when it comes to what is the 21st century’s greatest geopolitical drama: developing a strategic approach to China.
Obama is not mistaken in adopting a doctrine of self-restraint. And Clinton has not voiced any criticism of Obama’s rebalancing strategy in itself.
The challenge for the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy is that diplomatic and economic interactions lag behind military ties in terms of U.S. involvement with the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. also lacks the necessary human resources, interest and mind-set needed to sustain continuous engagement with the region.
These unresolved issues make it all the more vital to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and solidify a system of free trade in the region.
Yoichi Funabashi is currently chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and formerly served as editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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