A for­eign pol­icy ref­or­ma­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE AP­PLE­BAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

Sev­eral times lately — of­ten enough for it to have be­come a dis­tinct pat­tern — I’ve found my­self part of a heated dis­cus­sion, some­where in Europe. Maybe it’s at a din­ner or a con­fer­ence; maybe the topic is Rus­sia, Libya or the eco­nomic cri­sis in Greece. But at some point, some­one looks up in won­der. “Isn’t it odd: We haven’t men­tioned the United States once!” Yes, ev­ery­one agrees, it’s odd! And then the sub­ject changes again.

Few here doubt that Amer­i­can in­flu­ence in Europe is shrink­ing, along with Amer­i­can en­gage­ment in the world, though the ex­pla­na­tions dif­fer. Some date the decline quite pre­cisely, to the Iraq war in 2003 and to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion that launched it. That was the mo­ment when Europe di­vided over whether to sup­port the United States; worse, those who did paid a high price af­ter­ward. Cer­tainly Tony Blair never quite re­cov­ered from his de­ci­sion to join the in­va­sion, and Bri­tain’s newly re­luc­tant for­eign pol­icy is partly a prod­uct of the war, too.

Oth­ers blame the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, with equally good cause. Pres­i­dent Obama’s fail­ure to de­fend his own “red line” in Syria and his ad­mit­ted lack of strat­egy against the Is­lamic State have left many won­der­ing whether he’s in­ter­ested in the Mid­dle East at all. The same prob­lem ex­ists with re­gard to Rus­sia, where there is a strange split be­tween NATO mil­i­tary lead­ers, who are pub­licly very blunt in their as­sess­ment of Rus­sian ma­neu­vers over the Baltic Sea and Scan­di­navia, as well as in Ukraine, and the strangely san­guine White House. While Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der for Europe, warns of “re­van­chist Rus­sia,” Obama lightly dis­misses Rus­sia as a weak “re­gional power” that poses no larger threats.

Na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum — and for the dozen-odd peo­ple seek­ing to be­come the next U.S. pres­i­dent, Amer­i­can drift and in­de­ci­sion look like easy tar­gets. Cer­tainly Repub­li­cans have iden­ti­fied for­eign pol­icy as a win­ning is­sue. While in Ger­many last week, Jeb Bush de­scribed Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin as “a ruth­less prag­ma­tist who will push un­til some­one pushes back” and called for a re­newal of the West­ern al­liance. Marco Ru­bio has also de­manded re­newed “Amer­i­can strength” and greater global lead­er­ship. It’s prob­a­bly only a mat­ter of time be­fore Hil­lary Clin­ton finds a way to del­i­cately sep­a­rate Obama’s first term from his sec­ond, the bet­ter to attack the lat­ter as well.

Which is all very well, ex­cept that no “state­ment of re­solve,” how­ever fierce, is go­ing to fix the prob­lem. It’s easy enough to sound tougher, but the real task for the next pres­i­dent is not merely rhetor­i­cal. If he or she truly wants the United States to lead the West again, any fu­ture pres­i­dent — or in­deed the cur­rent one, since he’s got more than a year left to go — needs to launch a rad­i­cal re­form of the al­liance it­self, as well as the in­sti­tu­tions of the al­liance, to ad­dress the lega­cies of both Bush and Obama. This isn’t 1979, and a re­vival of Rea­gan­ism isn’t go­ing to work: Amer­ica’s al­lies are as wary of Amer­i­can bel­liger­ence as they are of Amer­i­can in­de­ci­sion.

NATO is the ob­vi­ous place to make a new­start. The al­liance needs a stream­lined de­ci­sion-mak­ing process, as well as a stronger com­mit­ment to the threat­ened states in the East— but the chal­lenges fac­ing the West aren’t just mil­i­tary. We also need new in­sti­tu­tions to fight new kinds of threats. Dur­ing the next decade, the United States should lead a broader con­ver­sa­tion about the vast and grow­ing chal­lenges from for­eign com­puter es­pi­onage, which is en­ter­ing new lev­els of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, as well as ped­dlers of dis­in­for­ma­tion from Rus­sia, China and else­where who have be­come far more adept at in­flu­enc­ing our own po­lit­i­cal de­bates, and in sow­ing chaos. Equally, Amer­ica needs al­lies in the West­ern strug­gle against in­ter­na­tional cor­rup­tion that is un­der­min­ing the po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence of many weaker West­ern states. The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s dis­mem­ber­ing of FIFA made an in­ter­est­ing case study: Why not ap­ply the same en­ergy and thor­ough­ness to the money-laun­der­ing op­er­a­tions that have en­riched so many oli­garchs all over the world — as well as their West­ern part­ners?

I can see that this is a prob­lem for your av­er­age can­di­date: re­form­ing and re­in­forc­ing NATO, build­ing new in­sti­tu­tions to fight transna­tional cor­rup­tion and cy­berthreats — none of th­ese things sounds as good on the cam­paign trail as “Let’s make Amer­ica great again.” But if the next pres­i­dent is se­ri­ous about mak­ing the United States a plau­si­ble leader again, then Amer­ica needs to launch some new projects with its old friends, rein­vig­o­rat­ing the West­ern al­liance for a new era in re­al­ity. Rhetoric alone won’t do it.

No “state­ment of re­solve,” how­ever fierce, is go­ing to fix the prob­lem.

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