Who was the best foreign policy president?

Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

President Reagan, with Chancellor Kohl and Eberhard Diepgen, arriving to give a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany, June 12, 1987.

Article Highlights

  • Measuring the relative success of American presidents in foreign policy is an almost impossible task. @DPletka

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  • Different Americans want different things for the US, and even those Americans aren’t divided into neat partisan lines.

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  • Ronald Reagan knew not only what the US opposed, but what America supported: freedom in all its iterations. @DPletka

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(Editor's note: CNN's Global Public Square asked a group of historians and commentators to offer their choices for the most successful and least successful U.S. presidents from a foreign policy point of view. AEI's Danielle Pletka provided her picks.)

Measuring the relative success of American presidents in foreign policy is an almost impossible task. Even narrowing the task to the 20th and 21stcenturies demands almost ridiculous comparisons. What are the metrics?  Lives lost? Lives saved? American interests served? But which ones?  Many might argue that Franklin Roosevelt was one of our nation’s greatest foreign policy leaders, ushering in the era of American global leadership, ridding the world of a vile dictator. But World War II was also a tale of missed opportunity; of lives lost because the United States would not act.  Can any war that ends with the death of six million Jews be considered a “success”?

Then too, there are contests, many partisan, for the title of worst foreign policy president. Was it Lyndon Johnson, who failed to successfully prosecute the Vietnam War and sacrificed tens of thousands of American lives only to see us leave a few short years later? Was it George W. Bush, scourge of liberals for beginning the Iraq War, a conflict supported by the United States Congress but long and complex in its undertaking? Or Jimmy Carter, for whom ideology was paramount, therefore allowing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist takeover of Iran?

There are no serious answers to the question because American leadership doesn’t lend itself to a neat, nonpartisan dissection of our presidents. Different Americans want different things for our country, and even those Americans aren’t divided into neat partisan lines. There are Republicans and Democrats for retreat; conservatives and liberals for internationalism.

Still, two men vie for the title of best and worst, though each has many competitors. Each governed at a seminal moment, and saw the United States through a crossroads, determining a path that would govern our future for many years.

Ronald Reagan had a vision for America in the world. Importantly, his ambitions for America’s role on the world stage were not shaped by our enemies, but rather shaped by his own view of American exceptionalism.  Reagan hastened the end of the defining battle of the 20th century, the fight between those who believed in freedom and those who embraced communism. True, there were bad choices of allies (Pinochet, Savimbi), but in the aftermath of the Carter era – dominated by a president who believed American power was an embarrassment to be lived down – Reagan knew not only what the United States opposed, but what America supported: freedom in all its iterations.

 

 

For worst, it is always tempting to crown Jimmy Carter, not least because he has become an intense version of his self-loathing, anti-democratic, anti-Israel presidency. But Carter did not change the world and despite his efforts, he didn’t change America either. That privilege falls to Barack Obama.

On the face of it, Obama has not seemed the worst of America’s foreign policy presidents. He initially sought to win the war in Afghanistan; he successfully honed anti-terrorism policies and capitalized on his predecessor’s interrogation strategies to find and order Osama bin Laden killed. These are important accomplishments, and notwithstanding his unattractive credit-grabbing, to be lauded.

But our foreign policy is inextricable from our economy; those who suggest that America cannot afford greatness are looking to our FY2012 $1.16 trillion dollar deficit; our planned trillion dollar cuts in military spending, our crippling debt to China and to the concurrent rise of important challenges to American power that have gone unchecked.

Once again, America is at a crossroads. The urgency of the post-9/11 era has passed and the fight against Islamist extremists has lost its appeal.  China is rising and seeks to dominate the Pacific. Europe itself can no longer project power and is consumed by the Euro fiasco. And that Reagan era vision – embraced by every President since – is at risk. Are we exceptional in our commitment to expanding liberty? Rolling back threats to our allies? Sharing our blessings? Or will we turn inward, our clarion call being “nation building here at home”?

The road chosen in the coming election will do a great deal to set our nation on its future path. Will we be a nation in decline, afraid of confrontation, indifferent to our allies and our values? Or will we be a nation that invests in greatness – not by making subsidized solar panels or government supported cars, but by recognizing that we alone have the power to move the world? If we stay on the path chosen by Barack Obama, we will be a nation in which more Americans enjoy disability payments than get new jobs, in which the percentage of Americans that work will continue to decline; in which entitlements explode and defense withers. That is the Obama legacy, in foreign policy and at home.

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About the Author

 

Danielle
Pletka

  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.


    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


     


    Follow Danielle Pletka on Twitter.


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