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Principle and Prudence: A Foreign Policy of Prudent American Realism

President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster. The failures are legion: the Russian “reset” that has enabled Vladimir Putin to strut about as a latter-day czar; the reintroduction of Russia into the Middle East; the betrayal of allies, especially in Central Europe, not to mention Israel; snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq by failing to achieve a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would have helped to keep Iraq out of the Iranian orbit and have prevented the rise of ISIS; the muddled approach to Afghanistan; our feckless policy—or lack of policy—regarding Iranian nuclear weapons, not to mention Libya and Syria.

President Obama has said that he was elected to end wars, not to start them, as if wars are fought for their own purpose. Ending wars is no virtue if the chance for success has been thrown away, as it was in Iraq. We can say of Obama’s approach to foreign policy what Winston Churchill said in 1936 about Stanley Baldwin’s policy as Hitler gained strength on the Continent: it was, said Churchill, “decided only to be undecided, resolved to irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

To criticize the Obama approach to foreign policy should not be seen as an endorsement of the Bush approach. While there was certainly a justification for action against not only the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda after 9/11, but also against Saddam Hussein for his serial violations of UN Security Council resolutions, the Bush administration overreached, seeking to transform Afghanistan and Iraq into something like a western-style liberal democracy. What was missing here was prudence, the virtue that Aristotle called most characteristic of the statesman. Prudence requires the statesman to always maintain a clear vision of what needs to be achieved—the ends of policy—while maintaining flexibility regarding the means.

Today’s foreign policy debate is only the latest version of one that dates from the very beginning of the Republic. In a speech to the federal convention in Philadelphia delivered on June 25, 1787, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared that the purpose of the American Republic under the Constitution was to make Americans “happy at home” rather than to make them “respectable abroad.” Republican institutions were not intended, he continued, to enable conquest or to achieve “superiority among other powers…If they are sufficiently active and energetic to rescue us from contempt & preserve our domestic happiness and security, it is all we can expect from them…”

Four days later on June 29, Alexander Hamilton replied to Pinckney. “It has been said that respectability in the eyes of foreign nations was not the object at which we aimed; that the proper object of Republican government was domestic tranquility & happiness. This was an ideal distinction. No government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which did not possess sufficient stability and strength to make us respectable abroad,” not in the sense that the United States seeks the favorable opinion of our enemies, but in the sense that the Republic will vindicate its interests in a hostile world.

The debate between Hamilton and Pinckney has echoed across the years. Is America to be inward- or outward-looking? Is republican foreign policy to be expansionist or isolationist? Offensive or strictly defensive? Designed to support freedom of navigation and global strategic flexibility or limited to protecting its position in the Western hemisphere?

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