Robert Kagan’s opinion piece in The Washington Post last week was right about one thing—President Barack Obama is indeed moving away from America’s national security approach of 1947. It is about time. That strategy was designed for the Cold War, which we won 20 years ago. It simply cannot work today, as we found out the hard way during the Bush administration’s various misadventures around the globe.
To keep Americans safe from the most dire threats, the Obama administration has to work with others. American power would not be enough, even if we had 10 times the enormous amount we do. And, unfortunately, America does not always get to choose its partners. In Kagan’s world, we can solve the most dire and urgent threats with the assistance of our democratic allies alone. If only it were that easy.
But when your house is on fire, you don’t get to pick the firefighters. When President Obama inherited a raging financial crisis that threatened to sink the world economy, he turned to the big economies in the Group of 20 nations to coordinate a solution. It’s a pipedream to think America could have addressed this crisis without coordinating with Beijing and Delhi in addition to London and Berlin.
In the same vein, we cannot arrest climate change without China, cannot stem nuclear proliferation to terrorists without Russia, and cannot fight extremists without Saudi Arabia. President Obama is not trying to improve relations with nondemocracies for the sake of it, as Kagan charges. Instead, the president is engaging them to solve these kinds of problems. American global leadership flows from its efforts to tackle common challenges and expand the common good.
A central challenge for America, then, is to get other major powers, some of which boast values we may not share, to nonetheless step up and support the system the United States created at the end of World War II to address shared threats. This will take ongoing aggressive and creative diplomacy, which takes time and attention. If Kagan has a shortcut, he didn’t reveal it.
We see results already. China and India would not have gone as far as they did on promises to reduce their carbon emissions if the Obama administration had not vigorously engaged on the climate negotiations. Both of these rapidly developing nations need to do more, of course, as do we. Similarly, Russia would not be helping to pressure Iran on its nuclear program if our relationship with Moscow had continued on its rapid downward spiral.
None of this changes the fact that the United States will disagree with these powers on a host of issues and certainly on ideology. The president repeatedly displays his willingness to vigorously defend U.S. interests and values. The leaders in Beijing are hardly feeling coddled after President Obama last month announced a $6 billion arms package for Taiwan and welcomed the Dalai Lama in the White House. This is not the kind of attention they want.
Moreover, Kagan’s assertion that President Obama is not tending properly to American allies is based on very selective evidence. For every article that questions the special relationship with Britain are others that describe how it is more important than ever. Popular opinion in Europe toward the United States has skyrocketed since President Obama came to office—German approval ratings of the United States more than doubled from 2008 to 2009. And the six trips to Europe Kagan mentions hardly constitute inattention. There may be discontent in Europe, but at its root is Europe’s identity crisis, not a lack of love from Washington.
That the president has also traveled to Asia shouldn’t come as a big surprise, given the deficit of attention to Asia policy in the Bush years and the blizzard of analysis noting the increasing importance of Asia. Paying attention to Asia is not ignoring democratic allies—we have a whole bunch over there, too.
With one of them, Japan, tensions arose because a political party, the Democratic Party of Japan, which never before held power recently won a historic election and questioned a basing agreement the Bush administration had meticulously negotiated. The issue is now getting resolved, and the alliance was never in doubt.
And some differences with our allies are inevitable. To expect otherwise is again to be nostalgic for the Cold War—when the United States and our allies suppressed their differences in the face of a shared, existential threat of the Soviet Union. Frictions are nothing new. Surely Kagan remembers the era of “freedom fries,” when U.S.-France relations were at a historic low under the Bush administration.
Earlier this month, Israel created new difficult dynamics for the peace process with its surprise announcement of expanded settlement activity in Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit. Even our very staunchest allies have to expect that Washington will react when they complicate progress on a matter of U.S. security.
In the 21st century, we have newly potent threats and a changing multipolar world, but conservatives offer the same old hollow strategy. Clinging to this framework would be more understandable if we hadn’t just spent eight years proving how destructive that can be.
Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise (Simon & Schuster, 2008).