Finessing Foreign Policy


In his testimony at yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry said,

It is also imperative that in implementing President Obama’s vision for the world as he ends more than a decade of war, we join together to augment our message to the world. President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.

American foreign policy is also defined by food security and energy security, humanitarian assistance, the fight against disease and the push for development, as much as it is by any single counter terrorism initiative. It is defined by leadership on life threatening issues like climate change, or fighting to lift up millions of lives by promoting freedom and democracy from Africa to the Americas or speaking out for  the prisoners of gulags in North Korea or millions of refugees and displaced persons and victims of human trafficking. It is defined by keeping faith with all that our troops have sacrificed to secure for Afghanistan.  America lives up to her values when we give voice to the voiceless. [Emphasis added]

This is one expression of the realignment away from imperial overreach that I wrote about last week in explaining why President Obama – mistakenly, I think – chose Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. It is a realignment that is imperative to America’s future, in part because it is not merely a post 9/11 international role that requires redevelopment: post 9/11 policy has merely been an extension, against a different enemy, of Cold War militarism, and two decades after the end of the cold war – how time flies – it is essential that the country envision a new international role in a new global environment.

It isn’t always necessary to enunciate  change, however. Declarations can be simplified and mistaken. By belligerent or duplicitous foes, olive branches can be taken for fig leafs. President Obama’s outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds in his Cairo speech of June 2009 earned him and the United States exactly no credit from the elements in those regions who already despise and mistrust the U.S., and it managed to persuade others, including some allies, that Obama misunderstands the nature of some international conflicts. The choice of Hagel for Defense reinforced that perception.

Friends and foes, and those at a wary distance, will know the U.S., as always, by its actions. When the U.S. leads in the humanitarian ways Kerry spoke of, that will be clearly seen. When it leads more forcefully as an advocate, if necessary, and resource, when necessary for international actions that are truly international, when it acts militarily both shrewdly and forcefully, and only massively in true self-defense, that will be clearly seen.

A small occurrence during the committee hearing is mildly instructive. Kerry at the start was interrupted by a protester. It was an ironic moment for he who began his public career as leader of an anti-war organization invited, finally, to appear before that very committee in 1971. Under the circumstances, Kerry might not be expected to respond in any but the empathetic manner he did, respectful of the role of public protest in a democracy. It needs to be noted, though, that what the young woman shouted was nonsense.

Before the woman was pulled out of the room, she declared that “we” are killing “thousands” in the Middle East, and that the “Middle East” is “not a threat to us.” Rather a large untooled umbrella, but these days, gone from Iraq, not remotely true. The Syrians are killing thousands, tens of thousands, but she did not cry out about that. She said she is “tired of her friends in the Middle East dying” and  didn’t know if her they would be” alive the next day.” Unless her friends live in certain remote areas of Yemen, where the U.S. makes drone strikes against Al-Qaeda – but is not killing thousands – whoever is endangering her friends, it is not the U.S. She cried out that we need “peace with Iran.” We are not, of course, at war with Iran. Otherwise, she expressed no opinion on Iranian nuclear, or for that matter, civil rights policy.

Kerry, forty years ago, was protesting an actual war. He was protesting a war in which the United States was itself actually engaged. Maybe the woman would like to protest the ongoing war in Afghanistan. That at least would be coherent. But distinctions matter. Active agents. Cause and effect. Accurate numbers. Words. They all matter. And they send messages, sometimes the ones we want and sometimes not. John Kennedy learned that coming out of his Vienna Summit with Nikita Kruschev.


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2 thoughts on “Finessing Foreign Policy

  1. As always, an excellent and insightful article. We find ourselves in a new age of foreign policy. The paradigms of war have changed. I think Kerry knows this, and will be able to resist absolutist approaches of either side.

    Outside of Middle East relations, I believe Kerry’s most important role will center around his views on climate change, one of the most important security issues facing the world. I think he responded boldly to concerns of the economic impacts of environmental action in his testimony.

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