February 23, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

A Return to a Consensus Foreign Policy

When Jeb Bush gave the first foreign policy speech of his in utero presidential campaign to the Chicago Council last week, he lit into President Obama’s record abroad. Fair enough. When then-candidate Obama gave his first foreign policy speech to the Council eight years ago, he lit into Bush’s brother’s record abroad.

That’s politics. But beneath the rhetorical artillery, the most interesting thing about Bush’s speech was how much its main themes resembled those of Obama’s speech.

Both insisted on a strong U.S. engagement in the world. Both stressed a strong military to back American diplomacy. Both said alliances—especially NATO—are vital. Both rejected the idea that American is declining or its leadership no longer necessary. Both defended America’s intelligence establishment. Both promised that Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons. Both said a strong foreign policy abroad rests on a strong economy at home.

It was almost as though the same speechwriter crafted both speeches.

More than anything, this similarity testifies to a broad national consensus on America’s place in the world and a continuity in US foreign policy that guides almost all administrations, Democratic or Republican, including that of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, or Bush 41.

In a sense, we’ve returned to a common, almost bipartisan, view of foreign policy, at least in the adult wings of the two parties. This is not to say that there’s total agreement, or that Jeb Bush would make the same decisions as Obama or any other president. But at least they’re starting from consensus on America’s place in the world.

We’ve almost forgotten what this consensus looks like, because it broke down during the administration of Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, or Bush 43.

The foreign policy of Bush 43 forsook US leadership for US dominance. It based its military strategy on first-strike pre-emptive war, not deterrence or containment. It scorned NATO and other allies. It sought enemies where none existed.

And it got us into a lot of trouble. Instead of patient tending to American interests, the second Bush administration violated John Quincy Adams’ admonition that America “goes not abroad in search of dragons to destroy.”

That administration, by seeking dragons such as Saddam Hussein, bogged the nation down in Iraq, botched the search for Osama bin Laden, severely strained America’s alliances and undermined the economy that paid our superpower bills. By the time of the 2008 election, Obama was being cheered abroad mostly because he wasn’t George Bush.

All this gave Obama plenty of ammunition in his 2008 Chicago speech. But what he really was saying then was that we needed to return to the policies that guided every other postwar administration, including that of Bush 41, who may have been our most skillful foreign policy president since Harry Truman.

Jeb Bush told his Chicago audience that “I am my own man,” beholden to the ideas of neither his father nor his brother. But he sounded a lot more like his father—and Obama.

“America is a force for peace and security in the world,” Bush said here. Eight years earlier, Obama said “I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth.”

Obama “has left America less influential in the world,” Bush said. Obama said that “we know what the war in Iraq has cost us in lives and treasure, in influence and respect.”

Obama: We must help “working Americans burdened by the dislocations of a global economy.” Bush: “We can’t be a force for peace if our economy doesn’t grow over the long haul.”

Bush: “The president’s word must be backed by the greatest military force in the world.” Obama: “We must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world.”

Bush: “America needs to lead, but it can’t do it alone,” which first means strengthening NATO. Obama: “As we strengthen NATO, we should also seek to build new alliances and relationships.”

Obama: “We need a nimble intelligence community.” Bush: To defeat non-state threats, “we need strong intelligence.”

Bush: “America doesn’t have the luxury of withdrawing from the world.” Obama: “We must neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission.”

Obama: “The world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” Bush: Keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons “is the defining foreign policy issue of our time.”

The devil, of course, is in the details. Bush made it clear that he opposes Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, favors sending arms to Ukraine, feels that stability in places such as Egypt is more important than any quick transition to democracy, and indicates that he may like Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu better than Obama does.

But details dropped into a speech by a candidate can turn out differently for a president. In his speech, Obama said he would “bring a responsible end to this war in Iraq,” and promised to change America’s reputation as a “country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there,” a reference to Guantanamo. Things haven’t quite worked out that smoothly.

Important figures in both parties frequently oppose the terms of this foreign policy consensus. On a rare occasion, these forces can seize that policy and twist it out of recognition: this is what Dick Cheney and his allies did in the Bush 43 Administration. Even Jeb, who wants to be Bush 45, admitted that this was a mistake.

Much has been made of the presence of the disgraced Paul Wolfowitz, a leading architect of the Iraq War, on Jeb Bush’s foreign policy team. But that team also includes James Baker, the mastermind of the first President Bush’s successful policy, plus veterans from other administrations.   

In the end, the next president, whoever he or she is, will rely on a small cadre of foreign policy advisers. Making foreign policy is an elite preoccupation. The Wise Men, who devised America’s postwar policy to contain the Soviet Union, would have fit into a large taxi. But the policy, once adopted, led the country through the Cold War and into the reunification of Europe: it had its faults—some horrendous, such as Vietnam—but in the end, it worked.

That same policy of strong American engagement and leadership in the world, based on diplomacy and alliances backed by military strength, with an underpinning of liberal ideas and a strong economy, still prevails.

From Vietnam to Guantanamo, it looks messy in its execution. But Jeb Bush, like Barack Obama before him, seems to feel it’s the best policy we’ve got.


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


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