Although America’s government has enormous strengths, its foreign policy is a major weakness, since it is essentially up for election every four years. This weakness severely reduces the scope and range of policies that individual administrations can adopt.
During his first term, President Bush launched a new foreign policy—one that journalist Charles Krauthammer termed “Democratic Globalism”—in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Under this policy, America would seek to spread democracy to various parts of the globe, particularly poor sections of the Islamic world. The idea was that by promoting freedom, it might be possible to create free societies where people have opportunities and would be less likely to turn to terrorism.
In theory, naturally, this idea has its logic. And under the logic of spreading democracy, America stayed the course in Afghanistan and Iraq. All in all, Bush spent most of his two presidential terms working on these countries.
But as President George W. Bush steps down from office with approval ratings as low as 28 percent, he leaves behind two unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have lasted six and eight years respectively. Yet in spite of the huge amount of blood and treasure expended during the Bush Administration, the ultimate fate of these wars will lie in the hands of President Barack Obama, whose foreign policy goals are clearly different from his predecessor. If Obama delivers on his campaign promises, America will soon be withdrawing from Iraq, which will likely leave the original goals of the Bush foreign policy unfulfilled. As for Afghanistan, Obama will certainly invest troops and material resources there, but his scope of action will be far different from Bush’s scope, because their goals are different.
America’s inconsistent foreign policy puts it at a huge disadvantage relative to other nations that have stable governments that can plan their goals over several decades. Consider America’s situation vis-à-vis communist Cuba, where Fidel Castro, from 1959 to 2008, outlasted nine U.S. presidents. At bottom, America adopted at least nine inconsistent policies towards Cuba, none of which was individually sufficient to dislodge a determined dictator who had just one goal: to stay in power.
Neither does the inconsistency of American foreign policy help us with respect to rising superpowers. Consider China. The Chinese government, being heavily institutionalized, is determined by a relatively small group of leaders with clear, narrow goals on what they think their country needs. One of China’s main goals has been to achieve what analysts call a “peaceful rise,” in which China avoids expensive wars and tries to maintain a realist position with regards to world politics. This policy has been pursued in various forms and over several leaders for entire decades. Over the years, China’s rapid growth of economic and national power has been made possible by its stable foreign policy, which reforms incrementally over entire decades rather than changing every few years.
In contrast, having spent heavily on Bush’s expensive foreign policy, America will soon abort this policy in favor of Obama’s, which will proceed in a different direction. This may lead to unnecessary waste. Our policies toward Russia, China, India, Israel, Japan, and a host of important countries will change—some drastically, others less so. In the case of countries like Iran, where Obama has stated his desire for talks, America may be adopting a 180-degree policy shift.
But is such volatility necessarily helpful to American interests? For example, it is arguable that had Bush’s more aggressive approach to Iran could possibly lead to peaceful regime change if given at least a decade. But because Bush’s terms lasted only eight years, with much of it spent on long election cycles, it is arguable that the Iranian government could afford to play a waiting game, knowing that it would be dealing with a new president and new foreign policy within the blink of an eye.
In the coming decades, America may need to amend the Constitution—perhaps making terms last six or seven years at least—to allow its foreign policy to adapt to its long-term interests. A maximum of two four-year terms is too short a period to create and conduct a foreign policy, and ultimately, President Bush’s ambitious foreign policy risks being assigned to the ash-heap of history, not necessarily because it was wrong, but because it couldn’t deliver results within such a short period of time.