Magazine Article - Harvard Magazine

Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy: A Memo for the Next President

| March-April 2008

"On January 20, you will inherit a legacy of trouble: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, North Korea for starters. Failure to manage any one of them could mire your presidency and sap your political support—and threaten the country’s future. At the same time, you must not let these inherited problems define your foreign policy. You need to put them in a larger context and create your own vision of how Americans should deal with the world.

Some pundits believe that no matter who wins the 2008 election, he or she will be bound to follow the broad lines of President Bush's strategy. Vice President Cheney has argued, 'When we get all through 10 years from now, we'll look back on this period of time and see that liberating 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq really did represent a major, fundamental shift, obviously, in U.S. policy in terms of how we dealt with the emerging terrorist threat—and that we'll have fundamentally changed circumstances in that part of the world.' President Bush himself has pointed out that Harry Truman suffered low ratings in the last year of his presidency because of the Korean War, but today is generally held in high regard, while South Korea is a democracy protected by American troops. Do not accept this over-simplification of history. By this stage of his presidency, Truman had built major cooperative institutions such as the Marshall Plan and NATO. In contrast, the unbridled unilateral style of the neoconservatives and assertive nationalists in the Bush administration produced a foreign policy that was like a car with a hairtrigger accelerator but no brakes. It was bound to go off the road.

The crisis of September 11, 2001, created an opportunity for George W. Bush to express a bold vision. But one should judge a vision by whether it balances ideals with capabilities: anyone can produce a wish list, but effective visions combine feasibility with the inspiration. Among past presidents, Franklin Roosevelt was good at this, but Woodrow Wilson was not. David Gergen, director of the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, has described the difference between the boldness of FDR and that of the current president: 'FDR was also much more of a public educator than Bush, talking people carefully through the challenges and choices the nation faced, cultivating public opinion, building up a sturdy foundation of support before he acted. As he showed during the lead-up to World War II, he would never charge as far in front of his followers as Bush.' Bush's temperament is less patient. As one journalist put it, 'He likes to shake things up. That was the key to going into Iraq....'"

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For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.. “Toward a Liberal Realist Foreign Policy: A Memo for the Next President.” Harvard Magazine, vol. 110. no. 4. March-April 2008.