The German Statesman Otto von Bismark told us that “politics is the art of the possible.” In foreign relations, what is possible is a matter of trust built on consistency. From the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama has either displayed a total lack of understanding of that idea, or simply chosen to undermine it at every turn.
The history of foreign policy, of course, is largely a study of self-interested states. Whether it is a choice to go to war, make an alliance or enter into a treaty, from NATO to the ancient Greek city-states and before, countries generally act in their own best interests. In the competition between states, such parochial action is the historical norm and idealism more often than not takes a back seat to realism.
Even if state actions tend to be more relative than ideal, the currency for stability in foreign policy – for any one nation or all – is consistency from which trust is earned and becomes valuable. Nations whose leaders or actions breed distrust, especially nations of considerable power, cause instability and worse.
For instance, beginning with World War I, American foreign policy turned toward world engagement. We took the extraordinary foreign policy step of fighting two wars of liberation, World War I and II. We followed those wars with treaties and aid designed to secure borders and make them endure. The lengths we took to do so, across partisan lines, created a strong American foreign policy brand.
In 1950, however, that constancy was severely damaged when then-Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson limited the American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific. In a speech before the National Press Club, he effectively denied U.S. military protection to the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Within six months, North Korea invaded South Korea and America was involved in a major war with worldwide implications. Such is the risk of the loss of constancy and ultimately trust.
Perhaps more than any other President, Obama has broken the world’s trust in America. Recall that in his first year, Obama scrapped a missile system that was slated for Poland. The agreement to place them there was years in the making. With one quick decision, he effectively told Poland that its reliance on and trust in the U.S. was misplaced. At the time, the Polish hero Lech Walesa complained about the way they were treated. In 2012, the Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski spoke of their “mistake” of accepting the original American offer and how Poland does “not want to make the same mistake again.”
That blow to the United States constancy and loss of trust under Obama was not limited to Poland when he made that decision. The World noticed what he did. As the 1950s example South Korea provides, decisions in the realm of foreign policy have a far-wider audience and potentially far greater and dangerous implications.
Since that missile about-face, Obama has compounded that error by publicly disrespecting Israel and abandoning Egypt’s Mubarak. Under Obama, if you were a friend before, that friendship may not matter now. He has spoken toughly about Iran from time to time but has not taken any real action. Conspicuously, Obama failed to even speak in support of those fighting for freedom within Iran’s borders.
Then came Benghazi.
The world now knows that the U.S. more than aided the overthrow of Qaddafi. The world knows that the current president of Libya, Mohammed Magariaf, owes his job to the actions of the U.S. and other countries. We also know that, from day one, he believed that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attributable to terrorists — not a video.
From a world perspective, incredibly, instead of working in concert with Magariaf, the Obama Administration publicly chose to disagree with him on Benghazi. Rather than stand by this fragile “ally,” Obama publicly undermined if not humiliated him.