Why Cold War Presidents Were Better

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For two decades now, there has been a disappointment with American presidents in the realm of foreign affairs. Bill Clinton was seen, fairly or not, as fundamentally unserious: insufficiently decisive on humanitarian tragedies in the Balkans and Rwanda and believing in the delusion that, as he reportedly put it, geoeconomics had replaced geopolitics. George W. Bush was more decisive and skeptical about elite nostrums like geoeconomics uniting the world, but he decided upon invading Iraq and subsequently prosecuted the aftermath of that invasion in such an undisciplined fashion until 2006 that it is hard to see how his reputation will be restored. Barack Obama has all the discipline that Bush lacked, and little of the delusion that marred elements of Clinton's presidency, but absolutely no compelling vision about the world - except to keep it far away so that he can concentrate on the home front.

Now compare Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama with George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. The difference is profound. The elder Bush helped steer the Cold War to a nonviolent conclusion beneficial to the United States, even as he fought a war with Iraq without a quagmire ensuing. Reagan hastened the end of the Cold War through Wilsonian rhetoric combined with pragmatic diplomacy and targeted defense expenditures. Nixon opened up relations with "Red" China in order to balance against the Soviet Union, even as he restored diplomatic relations with pivotal Arab countries while coming to Israel's rescue during the 1973 war. Kennedy accepted full responsibility for the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, then expertly steered the country through the Cuban missile crisis. Eisenhower, for eight long years, combined toughness with restraint in dealing with the Soviet Union and Communist China. Truman rightly dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in order to avoid a land invasion of Japan, prevented a Communist takeover of Greece and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Of course, all these men made major mistakes, and some of them would not be suited for -- and thus would not perform well in -- a post-Cold War environment. (For example, Reagan was a man who knew only a few things, but they were the right things to know at the right time in history.) Moreover, the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter were far less distinguished: Johnson got the United States deeply embroiled in Vietnam, and Carter was powerless to prevent pro-Soviet takeovers in Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the loss of an important American ally in Iran under his watch.

Nevertheless, overall, there is a qualitative difference between Cold War and post-Cold War presidencies. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, presidents have been more distracted, more -- not less -- enslaved to the barons of punditry in the media (whether liberal or neoconservative), and seemingly less cognizant of the realities imposed by geography. During the Cold War, the word "realist" was a mark of distinction in foreign affairs; it was afterward a mark of derision. Nothing could better illustrate the decline of American foreign policy -- both the practice and public discourse of it -- than that.

What made Cold War presidents generally appear more serious than their successors in foreign policy? The Cold War elevated geography, and hence geopolitics, to the highest level. The primacy of geopolitics simply could not be denied, except at a president's reputational peril.

Indeed, the Soviet Union was the world's pre-eminent land power, dominating Eurasia. The United States was the world's pre-eminent sea power, dominating the Western Hemisphere, with power to spare in order to affect the balance of forces in the Eastern Hemisphere. The battlefield was the Rimland of Eurasia, toward which the Soviets wanted to extend influence to the sea: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Vietnam and Korea. The crucial questions were, henceforth, geographical -- geopolitical, that is. For example, how to prevent the Soviets from extending their reach into Western Europe? How to use the geography and demography of China against that of the Soviet Union?

Ideology and philosophy mattered, but only if they were combined with geography: hence the American fixation with Fidel Castro's Cuba, 145 kilometers (90 miles) from Florida. Yes, that fixation was unhealthy and self-destructive at times; just as getting involved in a massive land war in Asian jungles proved a nightmare. But the map did not just say: Go to war or refuse to be reasonable. Rather, the map for the most part imposed a structure and discipline on Oval Office thinking.

The post-Cold War is less one-dimensionally geographic. But geography still plays a significant role. Russia still seeks to undermine Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia for the sake of buffer zones. China covets adjacent seas in the Western Pacific as well as the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Japan, Vietnam and other Pacific nations push back at China for the same geographical reasons. China and India engage in an intensifying, albeit quiet, strategic rivalry. Energy deposits in the Persian Gulf, North America and elsewhere will continue to determine power relationships more than any lofty ideas. Israelis and Palestinians battle in zero-sum style over the same territory. The toppling of a regime in Iraq abets Iranian influence, even as a civil war in Syria may possibly undermine it. A dictatorship dissolves in Libya, indirectly leading to the dissolution of nearby Mali into anarchy. These are all geographical phenomena about which globalization -- with which elites are so fixated -- has relatively little to say.

While it is true that financial markets and electronic communications make the world more integrated, they also make geography more claustrophobic, so that an obscure geopolitical competition in one area echoes worldwide. Every place matters now to a degree it didn't before. Even the militarization of space and cyber warfare have geographical dimensions. After all, cyber attacks by China against the United States are simply another form of warfare directed from one continental-sized country in Asia against another in North America. These are realities that the Pentagon, for one, has deeply internalized.

However, American elites, who help condition the thinking of American leaders, have become spellbound over democratization, humanitarianism and other values-driven enterprises, so that leaders must make excuses for acting geopolitically to a degree they never had to during the Cold War. Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, could justify moving closer to totalitarian China in geopolitical terms, without the risk of embarrassment or the need for excuses. But Obama has been castigated in the media on moral grounds for wanting to improve relations with a far less authoritarian regime in Russia, even though it may make geopolitical sense to do so. It certainly isn't that Obama is dumber than Nixon, or thinks less in terms of geography than Nixon. It's more that he is operating in a less serious public policy climate, and that helps make his public explanations less serious.

It was easier for Cold War presidents to explain their actions geopolitically. Nowadays presidents continue to want to act geopolitically and periodically do so, but more often they have to explain their actions solely in moral terms. Thus, by speaking exclusively in moral terms, they, counterintuitively, lack the courage of their convictions. Reagan's morality was in line with his geopolitics -- eject Red Army troops from Central and Eastern Europe in order to end regime-inflicted poverty and tyranny there. Conversely, Obama speaks out against the tyranny of the al Assad regime in Syria while doing relatively little to undermine it, because he does not want the United States to own, even partially, the responsibility for the ground situation there. But Obama rarely speaks honestly about this. Thus, his policy lacks serious purpose.

Geopolitics is not immoral. Actually, as many a Cold War president showed, it can be quite moral. If a liberal democracy like the United States does not employ geopolitics to its own purposes, illiberal autocracies like China and Iran certainly will -- and will have the field to themselves. Indeed, China is acting and speaking geopolitically in the South and East China seas; Iran is doing likewise in Iraq and Syria. When post-Cold War presidents justify to the American people their actions in geopolitical terms, the public will likely understand and support them, even if some sectors of the elite do not. And from that will flow a more serious, more coherent foreign policy.

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