No Time for a Learning Curve on Foreign Policy

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

Americans will go the polls and elect a new president in 2016. The person elected is going to need a foreign policy grand strategy on day one. There will be no time for a learning curve, or “honeymoon.” The dangers that the United States will face in 2017 are too grave.

The next president will need to return American foreign policy to its traditional roles: America is the leader of the free world and the protector of human dignity and international trade. These three roles compliment, enhance and depend on each other. The next president will have a domestic task equal to this challenge: He will need to find a method to reunify the country behind foreign affairs. This can be achieved by a deft combination of international relations, liberalism and realism.

The foreign policy goals declared from the end of the Reagan-Bush era to today can be analyzed to see where the Republican and Democratic nominees stood before the winner took the oath of office. The overall trend was the decline in interest in Europe in favor of Asia with a roller-coaster ride regarding American relations towards Russia. The upward movement of the ride reached almost euphoric levels, making the downward plunge look like the gates of hell. In reality, U.S.-Russian relations are best left in purgatory. The last two decades have mainly shown Democratic administrations more interested in international support, multilateralism and leaving a softer footprint across the globe. The tensions for the Democrats have been between the remnants of paleoliberalism, establishment liberalism and the rise of the new left.

Republicans have remained fairly consistent with the conservative international approach that is focused on muscular defense initiatives, free trade and democracy promotion and military action. Tensions for the Grand Old Party are primarily between this viewpoint and a rising libertarian voice which is unhappy with interventionism and the rise of the national security establishment.

The 1992 election produced rhetoric where the Republicans were glorifying in the democratization of Russia, a united Germany and peace. Smarting from Republican comments that Bill Clinton’s only foreign policy experience was having breakfast at the International House of Pancakes, the Democrats were critical of President Bush’s “timidity” over Iraq, Serbia and human rights. In 1996 Clinton basked in the glow of the American economy as he represented the status quo, and the Dole campaign attempted to alert the American public to “dark forces” that were multiplying as the United States was taking less and less of an active role.

The 1990s represent many of the strains that have come forth today. The Democrats, overly concerned that the United States might be seen as imperial, become shell shocked before the first artillery has even fired, while the Republicans waffle between realism and democracy promotion. The one area on which there is agreement is a lack of consistency. Part of this is caused simply by the American electoral process which rewards simple, direct attacks on the status quo. However there is a deeper tension, the one that has defined the American foreign policy experience from the beginning; the tension between liberalism and realism, used in an international relations context, not a domestic liberal/conservative dichotomy. The next president will need to merge these if he wishes to be successful at home and abroad.

The 2000 presidential election mirrors our current one in that there was no incumbent running. It was a free-for-all for both parties. Republicans called for a new “American internationalism,” a new “realism,” which would restore American primacy, while other nations were called upon to join a “fellowship of freedom.” The Democrats promoted a policy of “forward engagement,” a term that never caught on and would require anyone, including the foreign policy elite, to research. It stressed peace, stability and globalization, a new relationship with Russia and democracy promotion through the use of media.

Whatever trajectory American foreign affairs were on when the election occurred was entirely upended within a year by the 9/11 attacks. The 2004 election was a competition over which party was going to be stronger on counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, with the Democrats attacking the Republicans over Iraq and Afghanistan. As this election mirrors the one we live in, we should remind ourselves that this lack of consistency is telegraphed to the nations and people of the world. The United States made a commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001, regardless of the right-or-wrong aspect of that decision, a decision was made, American credibility was and is on the line. This is the golden currency in foreign affairs, and both parties need to be warned that scoring political points is less relevant than global integrity and security.

The 2008 and 2012 presidential election foreign policy declarations illustrated an even greater divide between the parties. However, even more notable was the absence of foreign affairs from the main electoral battleground, the candidates and even the electorate. Rather than measured analysis, the Democrats in 2008 tried to right flank the Republicans on Afghanistan, al-Qaida and in Asia while left flanking on defense spending, Iraq, nuclear weapons and multilateralism. The Republicans wanted to adhere to the Bush administration’s policies on most items but were especially concerned about finishing what was started in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 2012 race was one that even had less to do with foreign affairs than the previous one. Democrats attempted to make lemonade from lemons with “leading from behind” by stressing burden sharing, the dealings with Iran and scaling back intervention and military action. Republicans warned again of “dark forces” without using the term, especially those forces emanating from the Kremlin (while being mocked by the Democrats for reigniting cold war-era politics). They warned of an American leadership vacuum in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iran and of a wistful attitude towards allies like Great Britain, Japan and Israel.

What does all this rhetorical history tell us? First, this kind of rhetoric is more important in foreign affairs than in domestic issues because this is what the world sees and assumes is America’s current or future policy. Second, the rhetoric, though not always followed to the nth degree, shows the trajectory, if not the specific policy, of any given president in international relations.

This period from 1992 until today illustrates that the lack of consistency, the use of national security for political scoring points and the inability to merge the strains in American diplomatic history has failed the nation and the American people.

As we enter the presidential election cycle, the American people need to be reminded that politicians have sold them a domestic bill of goods: The American presidency has very little constitutional power over domestic affairs, and in an almost inverse relationship, has supremacy in foreign affairs and national security. However, politicians who are often not skilled in areas of diplomacy, defense and security spend most of their time attempting to pander to domestic constituencies and national legislation – legislation and programs they have almost no ability to enact. It might be cliche, but a president can spend two terms begging, pleading, cajoling and coercing for a tax decrease on income and get nowhere. This same president can bomb Damascus at will, with a single order to the American military. This should be the first acknowledgement of whomever the nominees are for president, and for whomever the president elect is: The president’s power lies in foreign affairs and national security, and this is his number one job. A president that is clearly uncomfortable with foreign policy should not be the nominee and definitively not be president. We have had examples of this in the recent past, and the result has been uniformly disastrous. The mantra that this “can be learned on the job” does not apply to matters of war, peace, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, alliances and trade.

However, the natural question is asked: How can a president in today’s climate of extreme polarization achieve unity at home and among allies for his foreign and national security policies? The answer lies in American history and even deeper in the waves of western political thought. The next president must merge liberalism and realism to create policies that appeal to both constituencies. If done successfully, the president will be able to count on a coalition of paleo- and classical liberals, realists, democratic realists and conservative internationalists to back his plans. Who does this leave out? It jettisons the extremes of the left and right to where they belong: the dustbin of history. Libertarians and the new left will be out of this coalition, for good reason, they don’t have cogent, rational foreign policy. It will include the majority of those that self-identify as mainstream Republicans, Democrats and Independents. The two strains in American foreign policy history are those of liberalism and realism since the Colonial period. This argument between liberalism and realism, free trade and protectionism, liberty and despotism, and republic versus empire exists over the entire American experience. Liberalism in international relations definitely promotes the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination and democracy. It rests on premises of multilateral cooperation, successful international organizations and the combining of power with the desire for economic (usually capitalist) prosperity. Liberalism advocates democracy, self-determination, collective security, international organizations (League of Nations), openness and human rights.

Realism is a policy based on force that is neither moral nor immoral. Realists are focused on the unitary state, on interests and not ideology, on peace through strength and on the balance-of-power, and they are wary of universalistic notions of morality. In the end realism simply advocates that American foreign policy should first strive to achieve American vital interests, then national interests and nothing more. Realists accept whatever tool is necessary to achieve these goals be it war, peace, trade, diplomacy or silence.

The president that can merge and serve these two strains will find an abundance of domestic support at home and welcome alliances abroad. This American doctrine will outlast him and will serve as a touchstone for future success.

The third recognition that is needed by the next president is consistency. American foreign policy is rife with broken promises and groups and nations that assumed support and were undercut. The examples are numerous whether it was as titanic as the silence and ambiguity of the interwar period of the 1930s and early 40s, the fall of Saigon and the Shah, the on-again, off-again interventions in Iraq or the modern dithering over the Islamic State group. What is needed is a consistent policy that is based on long lasting commitments, that once decisions are made, decisions are kept. The old chestnut that this will doom America to supporting a failing premise is a false logic that has never proved accurate in almost three centuries. It is a hackneyed saying that is masquerading as hip intellectualism.

In one year we elect the new president, often people ask who to vote for and why. The answer can be made simple: Which person running for president can handle a Russian invasion of the rest of Ukraine within minutes of the inauguration?