A Tale of Two World Views
H. David Baer

President Obama, speaking recently to the press, dismissed all criticism of his foreign policy as “half baked” “mumbo jumbo” (“Press Conference by the President,” October 2, 2015, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/02/press-conference-president). This strong declamation, coming from a President many think weak and indecisive, hardly persuaded the critics, who find Obama’s handling of international affairs rather confusing. From the Arab Spring, to Ukraine, to Syria and ISIS, Obama’s response to the string of global crises punctuating his second term has been, at best, determinedly tentative. Perhaps his reluctance to act originates in an impulse to overcorrect for the errors of his predecessor. If President Bush relied too exclusively on force to pursue unrealistic political goals, President Obama dreams unrealistically about the effectiveness of international law and institutions so as not to deploy force. Ironically, the Bush and Obama approaches to foreign policy, while diametrically opposed, have worked together to weaken international order and jeopardize global peace and security. That both approaches have failed suggests the need for a major refraction of America’s global vision.

Consider first the causes of US failure in Iraq. Some say these are to be found in the poor execution of a fundamentally sound strategy. To hold this view, however, one must believe that the goal of transforming the Middle East by force and manufacturing democracy in Iraq was realistic. To succeed in this enormous endeavor, the United States would need to hold intact a country with artificial borders dating from the British Mandate, populated by ethnic and religious groups with historic animosities, lacking substantial traditions of self-government, who had been living under an oppressive totalitarian regime for more than twenty years. The military campaign, moreover, was to be carried out without the support of existing international institutions such as the United Nations and in the face of widespread global opposition, thereby leaving the United States alone to carry out the colossal task of nation building. Even in the best case scenario, a new Iraqi state would be fragile for the considerable future, a fact which would upset the regional balance of power and clear the path for emerging Iranian hegemony.

The failures in Iraq, therefore, were rooted in an exaggerated confidence in the ability of military power to produce political solutions. Force can only be effective when employed in the service of well-defined and realistically-conceived political objectives. The Bush Administration’s plan was to transform the Middle East simply by upending the regional dynamics of power. But despite its ability to use overwhelming force, the United States lacked the power necessary to establish a new regional order among the forces it had unleashed. The Bush Administration had no plan for peace, because it believed altering the regional configurations of power would by itself be sufficient to produce the kind of peace it was wishing for. Without a concrete plan for peace, its use of power lacked a clear political objective. Because it placed power before politics, the policy in Iraq was bound to fail.

Clear about the errors of the Bush Administration, President Obama entered office determined to alter the trajectory of American foreign policy. He intended to replace the Bush doctrine with one of his own: America would henceforth “lead from behind.” Although never articulated clearly, the “Obama doctrine” centers on soft power and frequent invocations of international law and universal values. Threats to global peace can be handled best not with force, but by applying pressure on bad actors through international institutions. Democracy is so obviously attractive, the thinking goes, that given the chance everyone will want to join the club. Those who are hesitant about joining can be induced by moral censure and economic sanctions, because globalization means even the bad guys have an interest in falling into line. In the new world order, those who lead from behind will create the incentives and sanctions necessary to inspire the rest of the world to be civilized.

Yet the effectiveness of this kind of strategy depends upon an international system that is functioning well. Those who employ soft power are making moves within a geopolitical game resting on a more fundamental order of power. Shifts in the order of power alter the rules of the game, which changes the effectiveness of particular moves. Censure and sanction are not likely to be effective, for example, if those excluded from the “community of civilized nations” are building a parallel set of international institutions with its own set of rules. Thus Russia is working to build a Eurasian Union to compete with the European Union, and China is working to build up the Asian Infrastructure Bank in order to undermine the World Bank and IMF. Even existing international institutions can be compromised as bad actors gain influence within them. When Saudi Arabia leads a United Nations Human Rights Council panel, as is currently the case, one should not expect that body to censure states seriously for abusing human rights. Thus, if one hopes to use soft power effectively, one must also defend the international legal order and attend to the shifting dynamics of power which constantly threaten it. But more often than not, defense and balancing are tasks for hard power.

The truth is that “soft” and “hard” power are only different aspects of political power in general. Whether soft or hard, power’s purpose is to advance interests through persuasion in a game of claim and counterclaim. Political persuasion, of course, is inherently coercive. States persuade each other by applying pressure, sometimes through censure and sanction, sometimes through the direct application of force. Selecting the method of persuasion most suitable for the moment depends, among other things, upon a clear understanding of what one’s interests are and how they are threatened. Different threats call for different uses of power. Thus any single “doctrine” concerning the use of force is likely to be ideologically constrained in ways that obscure the ability to perceive the whole of reality. Over the past four years, President Obama has been increasingly constrained by his ideological commitment to a world order shaped by international law. Like George W. Bush, his doctrine of power precedes his definition of political purpose.

The major geopolitical challenges confronting America today are threats to the prevailing international order. That international order is fundamentally liberal: protective of human rights, supportive of democratic development, and shaped by the ideal of international law. But all such aspirations travel through the dynamics of power; they do not replace it. Nor is today’s liberal world order inevitable. It was constructed deliberately out of the ashes of World War II and developed intentionally throughout the Cold War with US leadership. Many contemporary strains on the current order are a consequence, to be sure, of mistaken US policies, but the greatest stresses are due to unavoidable shifts in geopolitics. Growing fissures in the EU coupled with the return of an aggressive Russia, the collapse of long-standing geopolitical arrangements in the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of China, and the shift toward multipolar power dynamics all have put the global order in flux in ways unfriendly to the “universal” liberal values Obama likes to invoke. Defending liberal values means protecting the international order on which they depend. To do that successfully takes strategic vision, a vision that gives purpose to power. Since shifts in international order are inevitable, which among the potential array of shifts will be most conducive to liberal values and American interests? And what means are at our disposal to direct the inevitable flow of events in a direction amenable to the world order we would like to see? Only after answering strategic questions like these can one deliberate intelligently about when and whether to employ hard or soft power. Without a strategic vision, every use of American power is bound to remain ineffective.


H. David Baer is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.

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