We need a Reaganite foreign policy

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

Arrival of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR for his first meeting with President Reagan for the Geneva Summit at Fleur D’Eau in Switzerland .

Article Highlights

  • The spectacle of an American president negotiating on his own behalf rather than for his country is deeply troubling.

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  • Global stability, a prerequisite for trade, investment, communications and travel, is hardly spontaneous.

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  • Beyond the immediate threat of nuclear proliferation & the ongoing war against terrorism, other risks are accumulating.

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Barack Obama has always been a comfort to European social democrats, given how similar their philosophies are, domestically and internationally. But in American terms, he is a radical president, and a failed one. A second term would be worse, as vividly evidenced in his famous ‘off microphone’ conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Obama pleaded for ‘space’ before the US election, after which he would have more ‘flexibility’ towards Russia.

This spectacle of an American president negotiating on his own behalf rather than for his country is deeply troubling. Equally troubling is Obama’s failure to understand the vital nexus between an internationally strong America and sustained domestic prosperity. Global stability, a prerequisite for trade, investment, communications and travel, is hardly spontaneous. What stability we have depends on the visibility and strength of America and its alliance partners, especially NATO.

But Obama has spurned prudent security policies, starting with national missile defence, the ostensible subject of his Medvedev conversation. Ronald Reagan, whose national security philosophy was ‘peace through strength’, rejuvenated national missile defence. In 2001, George W. Bush carried the ideas forward, announcing US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty so we could develop missile defence capabilities against rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. But ‘mutual assured destruction’ still holds sway among Democrats, and combined with the ‘reset’ button approach to Russia, Obama set about gutting missile defence. Moscow still opposes US attempts to protect our civillian population, and Obama surrendered to its views, cancelling facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, follows Reagan’s vision, insisting on protecting our civilian population from the devastating impact of nuclear, chemical or biological attacks delivered via ballistic missiles. This is sound defence policy in its own right, but also much more: the missile defence debate vividly illuminates the huge gap between Obama’s search for foreign forbearance, and Romney’s adherence to Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’.

Obama has stumbled from the start where American leadership is particularly crucial: preventing the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. By any measure, the proliferation threat is substantially greater now than when he took office. Iran and North Korea have taken full advantage of our weakness to advance their nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Yet Obama remains more concerned that Israel may take pre-emptive action against Iran’s nuclear programme than he is about Iran actually getting nuclear weapons. Iran’s threat is not Israel’s problem alone, but a global problem. Nonetheless, faced with a possible nuclear Holocaust, Israel has a legitimate right of self-defence to strike before Iran obliterates it, as Tehran has repeatedly threatened. Just before Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt, justifying US attacks against Nazi U-boats, aptly described why Israel is entitled to act first: ‘When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.’ Plainly, Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

Today, the most likely outcome is that Iran will get nuclear weapons, leading to exactly the existential threat Israel fears. And even the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has warned that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and perhaps other regional states will not be far behind. Considering also Iran’s continuing support for international terrorism and Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, the risks of wider Middle Eastern conflict only increase.

Beyond the immediate threat of nuclear proliferation and the ongoing war against terrorism, other risks are accumulating. Russia is modernizing and expanding its conventional forces, rebuilding its nuclear arsenal, and aggressively pursuing its political agenda in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. China is similarly expanding its conventional, nuclear and ballistic missile force, building blue-water naval capabilities for the first time in centuries, and conducting the world’s most aggressive campaign of cyber-warfare. And Obama’s response has been, at best, indifference and inattention.

Unlike Reagan, however, Obama acts as if US strength is provocative, and that our actions cause the international misbehavior of others. In his worldview, if only America were less visible, less powerful, less ‘offensive’, others would be more restrained. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It is our weakness that is provocative, encouraging our adversaries to think we are distracted by domestic affairs, uninterested in the threats they pose, and unwilling or unable to do anything to stop them.

When that perception becomes widespread, we are truly in danger. Others calibrate their policies to take advantage of our weakness or inattentiveness, and act to our detriment and that of our friends, as has been happening these past three and a half years, as friend and foe alike around the world has taken Obama’s measure. That is why Romney’s return to a Reaganite foreign policy is so necessary for Washington and our allies.

John Bolton is former US ambassador to the United Nations

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