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.