It’s been a heady few weeks for Obama’s foreign policy. It has echoes of Carter all around. It is animated chiefly by guilt and a lack of confidence. Its big features in recent weeks are as follows: (1) we will have more due process for al Qaeda detainees in Afghanistan; (2) we are going to give Russia a huge victory (and our allies a huge headache) without anything in return by dropping missile defense in Eastern Europe; and (3) we are going to meet unconditionally and bilaterally with North Korea, even though this marginalizes Japan, South Korea, and other important and interested parties in the region.
Foreign policy was a campaign prop for Obama, but it was not nearly as important as it was to John Kerry, for whom getting the respect of the French was the most important thing in life. Obama’s apparent belief that if we are “nice” to people that are critical of us, hostile to us, or competitive with us, they will back down. This is reminiscent of President Carter, who dropped the B-1 bomber program, abandoned the Panama Canal, defunded the MX Missile, and reduced military spending–all in an attempt to treat all countries as our equals, even when we were many times stronger, and also to placate the Soviet Union. The end result was an emboldened Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan, the toppling of the Shah in Iran, and the loss of the Panama Canal. Obama takes this principle further, thinking that it is important not to be nice merely to potential competitors like Russia and China, but also to cultivate the self-respect of the Third World by treating weak dysfunctional countries like Egypt or Iran or North Korea, as if they were our equals.
It’s true the Cold War is over. Insofar as NATO should exist at all, it made sense after the Cold War to integrate the fundamentally western and friendly powers of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into its command structure. These countries were bullied by the Soviet Union and also by Tsarist Russia, and the would risk being bullied by an independent Russia after the Soviet collapse without western support. That said, Russia is a great power, and there is no good reason today to antagonize a post-Soviet Russia through policies like missile defense or expanding NATO to countries on its border like Georgia.
Whether aimed ostensibly at Iran or in actuality at Russia, missile defenses in Eastern Europe were a mistaken policy of the last eight years, a product of the neoconservatives’ view that Russia was an intractable enemy as opposed to a manageable regional power with basic nationalist concerns for influence and security.
Even with these caveats in mind, the President and conservatives who applaud this decision, such as Daniel Larison, should recognize that the friendly countries of Central Europe have gone out on a limb for the United States in Iraq, and their governments whethered a great deal of pressure from domestic political factions and Russian saber-rattling for their friendliness to missile defense. If this policy turned out to be counterproductive, the reward for their support of the United States should be something tangible such as conventional arms sales, and this substitution should have been public and showy. Instead, for Poland in particular, insult was added to injury as the dropping of missile defense was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland in 1939. Nice optics there Obama.
It’s not so clear this policy will gain us anything from Russia on Iran, which was the ostensible purpose of this gesture. Russia simply implied this would be an opening for more brinksmanship, viz., Putin was quoted as saying “And I hope very much that this correct and brave decision will be followed by others.”
Why did the administration do this in a way so insensitive to our partners in Eastern Europe? Well, first, I think Obama thinks the US was not such a great guy in the Cold War, and that our pig-headedness and myopia did much to increase tension. Giving Russia respect is part of his concept of justice, therefore. Second, he believes we’re much too concerned with Europe in general. To him, part of global social justice requires the protection of the rights, independence, and sovereignty of the Third World from the machinations of the First World (US and Western Europe) and the Second World (former Communist Countries). Keeping the First and Second Worlds’ conflict down to a dull roar allows him to focus on the Third World, with gestures like amnesty for illegal aliens, human rights reforms in our treatment of terrorists, increasing foreign aid, standing on the side of leftists in Honduras, and kowtowing to Muslims in Cairo.
Obama’s heart is in the Third World. In the 1980s when he was in college, he was inspired by anti-apartheid politics and movements for domestic nuclear disarmament, not the heroic Contras of Nicaragua or the Poles of Solidarity. As he said in Dreams of My Father regarding a post-college trip to Europe, “[B]y the end of the first week or so, I realized that I‘d made a mistake. It wasn’t that Europe wasn’t beautiful; everything was just as I‘d imagined it. It just wasn’t mine.” And love of the Third World, the Third World of his father’s national socialist Kenya, is the ideology of the Third World nonaligned movement. The Nonaligned Movement was led by countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil to forge a new, independent socialist destiny. It viewed the Cold War as an act of quasi-imperialism, which diverted attention from the Third Worlders’ nationalist interest in expropriating wealth from First World businesses and their interest in gaining independence from the influence of both the United States and the Soviet Union. As Obama said in Cairo, “More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.”
In this view, Russia will not treated with exceptional respect, and it wasn’t on his recent state visit. Instead, it’s just a big hungry bear that needs to be appeased so the real business of radicalizing the home front and forging common cause with “oppressed peoples” at home and in the Third World can continue.