Must Obama Sup with the Devil?

One in a series of excerpts from THE NEXT DECADE by Stratfor CEO George Friedman.

The dangers of imperial power are substantial, and these dangers will become increasingly contentious issues in American politics, just as they are already hotly debated around the world. In retrospect, the non-interventionism of the republic the founders created was rooted in the fact that the republic was weak, not that it was virtuous. The United States of thirteen former colonies could not engage in foreign entangle­ments without being crushed. The United States of 300 million people cannot avoid foreign entanglements.

Managing the unintended empire while retaining the virtues of the republic will be an important priority of the United States for a very long time, but certainly, in the wake of the jihadist wars, it will be a particu­larly intense challenge. Most of the discussion will be wishful thinking. There is no going back, and there are no neat solutions. The paradox is that the best chance of retaining the republic is not institutional but per­sonal, and it will depend on a definition of virtue that violates our com­mon notions of what virtue is. I don’t look to the balance of power to save the republic, but to the cunning and wisdom of the president. The president certainly has a vast bureaucracy that he controls, and that con­trols him, but in the end it is the Lincolns, Roosevelts, and Reagans we remember, not bureaucrats or senators or justices. The reason is simple. Along with power, presidents exercise leadership. That leadership can be decisive, in the context of a decade or less.

Individual personalities would seem to be a thin reed on which to base a country’s future. At the same time, the founders created the office of the president for a reason, and at the heart of that reason was leader­ship. The presidency is unique in that it is the only structure in which an institution and an individual are identical. Congress and the Supreme Court are aggregations of people who will rarely speak with a single voice. The presidency is the president alone, the only official elected by representatives of all the people. That is why we need to consider him as the primary agent for managing the relationship between empire and republic.

Let’s begin by considering the character of presidents in general. Pres­idents differ from many other people in that they, by definition, take pleasure in power. They place its acquisition and use before other things, and they devote a good portion of their lives to its pursuit. A president’s knowledge and instincts are so finely honed toward power that he under­stands it in ways that those of us who have never truly had it could not appreciate. The worst president is closer by nature to the best than either is to anyone who has not gone through what it requires to become pres­ident.

The degree and scope of the power that modern American presidents achieve inevitably make them see the world differently, even in compar­ison with other heads of state. No other leader must confront so much of the world in so many different ways. In our democracy, the president must achieve this position while pretending to be indistinguishable from his fellow citizens, a thought both impossible to imagine and frightening if true. The danger is that as the challenges of empire become greater and the potential threats more real, leaders will emerge who will need and demand a degree of power that slips beyond the constraints imposed by the Constitution.

It is both fortunate and ironic that in creating an anti-imperial gov­ernment, the founders provided a possible road map for imperial leader­ship with republican constraints. They created the American presidency as an alternative both to dictatorship and to aristocracy, an executive that is weak at home but immensely powerful outside the United States. In domestic affairs, the Constitution dictates an executive that is hemmed in by an inherently unmanageable Congress and by a Supreme Court that is fairly inscrutable. The economy is in the hands of investors, man­agers, and consumers, as well as those of the Federal Reserve Bank (if not by the Constitution, then certainly by legislation and practice). The states hold substantial power, and much of civil society—religion, the press, pop culture, the arts—is beyond the president’s control. This is exactly what the founders wanted: someone to preside over the country but not to rule it. Yet when the United States faces the world through its foreign policy, there is no more powerful individual than the occupant of the White House.

Article Two, Section Two, of the Constitution states, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” This is the only power given to the presi­dent that he does not share with Congress. Treaties, appointments, the budget, and the actual declaration of war require congressional approval, but the command of the military is the president’s alone.

Yet over the years, the constitutional limitations that reined in the diplomatic prerogatives of earlier presidents have fallen by the wayside. Treaties require the approval of the Senate, but today treaties are rare and foreign policy is conducted with agreements and understandings, many arrived at secretly. Thus the conduct of foreign policy as a whole is now effectively in the hands of the president. Similarly, while Congress has declared war only five times, presidents have sent U.S. forces into conflicts around the world many more times than that. The reality of the American regime in the second decade of the twenty-?rst century is that the president’s power on the world stage is almost beyond checks and balances, limited only by his skill in exercising that power.

When President Clinton decided to bomb Yugoslavia in 1999 and when President Reagan decided to invade Grenada in 1983, Congress could not stop them had it wished to. American presidents impose sanc­tions on nations and shape economic relations throughout the world. In practical terms, this means that an American president has the power to devastate a country that displeases him or reward a country that he favors. Legislation on war powers has been passed, but many presidents have claimed that they have the inherent right as commander in chief to wage war regardless of it. In practice, they have brought Congress along to support their policies. That is unlikely to change in the next decade.

It is in the exercise of foreign policy that the American president most resembles Machiavelli’s prince, which isn’t that surprising when you con­sider that the founders were students of modern political philosophy and that Machiavelli was its originator. Just as we must acknowledge the exis­tence of an American empire, we must acknowledge the value of his insights and advice for our own situation. That the president’s main con­cern is foreign policy and the exercise of power conforms to Machiavelli’s teaching:

A prince, therefore, must not have any other object or any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war, its institutions and its discipline; because that is the only art befitting one who commands. This discipline is of such efficacy that not only does it maintain those who were born princes but it enables men of private station on many occasions to rise to that position. On the other hand, it is evident that when princes have given more thought to delicate refinements than to military concerns, they have lost their state. The most important reason why you lose it is by neglecting this art, while the way to acquire it is to be well versed in this art.

The fundamental distinction in U.S. foreign policy, and in the exer­cise of power by U.S. presidents—the distinction discussed by Machi­avelli—is between idealism and realism, a distinction embedded in the tradition of U.S. foreign policy. The United States was founded on the principle of national self-determination, which assumes a democratic process for selecting leaders, re?ected in the Constitution. It was also built on principles of human freedom, enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Imperialism would seem to undermine the principle of self-determina­tion, whether formally or informally. Moreover, the conduct of foreign policy supports regimes that are in the national interest but that don’t practice or admire American principles of human rights. Reconciling American foreign policy with American principles is dif?cult, and repre­sents a threat to the moral foundations of the regime.

The idealist position argues that the United States must act on the moral principles derived from the founders’ elegantly stated intentions. The United States is seen as a moral project stemming from the Enlight­enment ideals of John Locke and others, and the goal of American for­eign policy should be to apply these moral principles to American actions and, more important, American ends. Following from this, the United States should support only those regimes that embrace American values, and it should oppose regimes that oppose those values.

The realist school argues that the United States is a nation like any other, and that as such it must protect its national interests. These inter­ests include the security of the United States, the pursuit of its economic advantage, and support for regimes that are useful to those ends, regard­less of those regimes’ moral character. Under this theory, American for­eign policy should be no more and no less moral than the policy of any other nation.

The idealists argue that to deny America’s uniquely moral imperative not only betrays American ideals but betrays the entire vision of Ameri­can history. The realists argue that we live in a dangerous world and that by focusing on moral goals we will divert attention from pursuit of our genuine interests, thereby endangering the very existence of the republic that is the embodiment of American ideals. It is important to bear in mind that idealism as a basis for American politics transcends ideologies. The left-wing variant is built around human rights and the prevention of war. The right-wing version is built around a neoconservative desire to spread American values and democracies. What these two visions have in common is the idea that American foreign policy should be primarily focused on moral principles.

In my view, the debate between realism and idealism fundamentally misstates the problem, and this misstatement will play a critical role in the next decade. Either it will be resolved or the imbalance within U.S. foreign policy will become ever more evident. The idealist argument constantly founders on a prior debate between the right of national self-determination and human rights. The American Revolution was built on both principles, but now, more than two centuries later, what do you do when a country such as Germany determines through constitutional processes to abrogate human rights? Which takes precedence, the right to national self-determination or human rights? What do you do with regimes that do not hold elections like those in the United States but that clearly embody the will of the people based on long-standing cul­tural practice? Saudi Arabia is a prime example. How can the United States espouse multiculturalism and then demand that other people select their leaders the way people do in Iowa?

The realist position is equally contradictory. It assumes that the national interest of a twenty-?rst century empire is as obvious as that of a small eighteenth-century republic clinging to the eastern seaboard of North America. Small, weak nations have clear-cut de?nitions of the national interest—which is primarily to survive with as much safety and prosperity as possible. But for a country as safe and prosperous as the United States—and with an unprecedented imperial reach—the de?ni­tion of the national interest is much more complicated. The realist the­ory assumes that there is less room for choice in the near term than there is, and that the danger is always equally great. The concept of realism cannot be argued with as an abstract proposition—who wants to be unrealistic? Coming up with a precise de?nition of what reality consists of is a much more complex matter. In the sixteenth century, Machiavelli wrote, “The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms. You cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow.” This is a better de?nition of realism than the realists have given us.

I believe that the debate between realists and idealists is in fact a naive reading of the world that has held too much sway in recent decades. Ideals and reality are different sides of the same thing: power. Power as an end in itself is a monstrosity that does not achieve anything lasting and will inevitably deform the American regime. Ideals without power are simply words—they can come alive only when reinforced by the capac­ity to act. Reality is understanding how to wield power, but by itself it doesn’t guide you toward the ends to which your power should be put. Realism devoid of an understanding of the ends of power is frequently another word for thugishness, which is ultimately unrealistic. Similarly, idealism is frequently another word for self-righteousness, a disease that can be corrected only by a profound understanding of power in its com­plete sense, while realism uncoupled from principle is frequently incom­petence masquerading as tough-mindedness. Realism and idealism are not alternatives but necessary complements. Neither can serve as a prin­ciple for foreign policy by itself.

Idealism and realism resolve themselves into contests of power, and contests of power turn into war. To turn once again to Machiavelli: “War should be the only study of a prince. He should consider peace only as a breathing-time, which gives him leisure to contrive, and furnishes an ability to execute, military plans.”

In the twentieth century, the United States was engaged in war 17 percent of the time—and these were not minor interventions but major wars, involving hundreds of thousands of men. In the twenty-?rst cen­tury, we have been engaged in war almost 100 percent of the time. The founders made the president commander in chief for a reason: they had read Machiavelli carefully and they knew that, as he wrote, “there is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”

The greatest virtue a president can have is to understand power. Pres­idents are not philosophers, and the exercise of power is an applied, not an abstract, art. Trying to be virtuous will bring not only the president to grief but the country as well. During war, understanding power means that crushing the enemy quickly and thoroughly is kinder than either extending the war through scruples or losing the war through sentimen­tality. This is why conventional virtue, the virtue of what we might call the good person, is unacceptable in a president. Again as Machiavelli put it, “The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way nec­essarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

Machiavelli introduces a new de?nition of virtue, which instead of personal goodness consists of being cunning. For princes, virtue is the ability to overcome fortune. The world is what it is, and as such, it is unpredictable and ?ckle, and the prince must use his powers to over­come the surprises the world will present. His task is to protect the republic from a world full of people who are not virtuous in any conven­tional sense.

Presidents may run for office on ideological platforms and promised policies, but their presidency is actually defined by the encounter between fortune and virtue, between the improbable and the unex­pected—the thing that neither their ideology nor their proposals pre­pared them for—and their response. The president’s job is to anticipate what will happen, minimize the unpredictability, then respond to the unexpected with cunning and power.

From Machiavelli’s point of view, ideology is trivial and character is everything. The president’s virtue, his insight, his quickness of mind, his cunning, his ruthlessness, and his understanding of the consequences are what matters. Ultimately, his legacy will be determined by his instincts, which in turn re?ect his character.

The great presidents never forget the principles of the republic and seek to preserve and enhance them—in the long run—without under­mining the needs of the moment. Bad presidents simply do what is expe­dient, heedless of principles. But the worst presidents are those who adhere to principles regardless of what the fortunes of the moment demand.

The United States cannot make its way in the world by shunning nations with different values and regimes that are brutal, all the while carrying out exclusively noble actions. The pursuit of moral ends requires a willingness to sup with the devil.