GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted President Ronald Reagan’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” He exploits the sense that America’s world leadership has waned and caters to the sentiment of people wanting to feel good about their country.
This appeal is based on American “exceptionalism” – the belief that the U.S. is a special country whose great power should enable it to lead the world.
It’s likely that most Americans share some version of this belief. They expect the federal government to act accordingly.
When Barack Obama was elected president on a platform of change, nowhere did it seem more likely than in foreign affairs. One reason he received the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office was hoped-for change in America’s leading role in the world.
The promise of that Nobel has not been realized and, instead of the U.S. becoming a new kind of world leader, change has been limited. The president has sometimes seemed invisible.
Obama has had some accomplishments. He finally set relations with Cuba on a more positive path. This was real change, belated recognition of the long-known truth that hostility to Cuba was accomplishing nothing.
The Iran deal, no matter how controversial, is an achievement, perhaps as much of Secretary of State John Kerry as of Obama. If the major complaint with the deal is that it only delays by 15 years instead of forever the possibility of Iran having nuclear weapons, that’s a reasonably good deal.
The problem, as Sen. Angus King recently reminded us, is there’s a rogue power that already has nuclear weapons. No matter how difficult dealing with North Korea may be, there’s no sign the Obama administration is giving it a fraction of the attention Iran received.
And today, the U.S. has fighting forces in three countries – “boots on the ground” with Americans in them. It has ended no major armed conflicts, while key elements of the world situation deteriorate.
The lack of clearly defined and openly stated foreign policy objectives is a major defect of Obama’s approach. Of course, the U.S. should not tip off our opponents about details of foreign policy plans, but it owes allies a sense that it is still the world’s leader and Americans a sense of their country’s strength and determination.
It seems weak to have allowed the Chinese to build phony islands in the South China Sea far from their shores. American surveillance is no substitute for a policy that should have attempted to block such a blatant violation of international law.
Part of the problem is that, even when it’s on our side, the U.S. avoids using international law for fear that someday the rules might be applied to this country.
As for Libya, the congressional hearings on Hillary Clinton’s action relating to Benghazi obscured the more serious question of what American strategy and goals were. A brutal dictator was toppled, but what did the U.S. gain? Right now, chaos.
The U.S. is sending a few troops into Syria, after Americans were promised that ground forces would not be used. What is their mission and how will we know if it has been accomplished? Based on past actions, isn’t it likely that more troops will follow?
As for both Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama inherited U.S. military involvement when he took office. Promised change has consisted of reducing troop strength, but American forces remain on the ground.
Limited military involvement in Afghanistan was justified to root out Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks. Going into Iraq was pointless, because Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction and the U.S. knew that. The war served mainly to destabilize the Middle East.
Neither of these countries has a history of democratic, self-government. Yet the U.S. has become involved in trying to help them achieve a level of stability that has only been possible under dictatorships.
The Russian seizure of Crimea, not strongly opposed by the U.S. and its allies, is somehow different from Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait, which the U.S. fought. No explanation has been provided.
There may be logic behind all of this, but it has not been well communicated. It is not enough to tell Americans world affairs are complicated.
The problem is that Obama has not used the presidency to develop and communicate a clear message of strength and determination to Americans and the world.
As Reagan showed, making Americans feel better about their country can be a key to political success. However Trump does, it can be expected to be a campaign theme.