Much of the criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy has been that he projects weakness – that somehow, murderous thugs like ISIL would abandon their posts and flee for their lives if President Obama was just…tougher, somehow.
Projecting toughness in this case, it seems, comes down to talking tough and being willing to risk another world war over every slight, incident, or threat, real or perceived.
It is true that everyone must understand that the U.S. is committed to protecting our allies and interests, no matter the costs. But what does that actually look like? It seems that many of the tough talkers have not thought that far ahead.
An under-discussed example of how President Obama has projected actual toughness in tackling a national security challenge is China. It’s a complex relationship with a nation that is committed to pursuing its own interests – occasionally at the expense of its neighbors, our allies.
The President has never hesitated to push back on the Chinese, not just with rhetoric – though that has been necessary at times – but with actions. Concerned that the Chinese were attempting to occupy international waters by building artificial islands that could be transformed into military installations, the President sent a destroyer through those waters, demonstrating that they did not in fact belong to China and that we were more than capable of projecting the kind of force needed to keep them open.
When hackers compromised the Office of Personnel Management and investigation revealed links to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, President Obama pushed back hard, threatening to sanction companies or individuals who participate in cyber-attacks; and while we have no illusions that China has somehow given up cyber-warfare cold turkey, it forced China to publicly state that they would do just that.
And, recognizing that no progress could be made addressing climate change without the participation of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the President pushed publicly and privately for China to commit to serious, meaningful reductions in emissions. The result was a landmark bilateral agreement where, for the first time, China agreed to concrete targets for emissions reductions. That, in turn, helped pave the way for the COP21 agreement reached in Paris.
The President also refused to let China set the economic rules of the road in the Pacific – say what you will about some of the details of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but by bringing ourselves closer economically with key allies like Japan and the Philippines, we lift them up, strengthen our own hand, and diminish China’s ability to dominate the region economically. It’s a recognition that drone strikes or special forces represent only one aspect of American power.
Toughness is not about threatening to “carpet bomb” someone or to “bomb the [expletive] out of them.” Blind tough talk accomplishes nothing and risks much.
Rather than tough talk, true leaders are calm and steadfast in the face of multiple threats. True leaders stick to their values and stick by their allies. And a true leader knows that we must use every tool in our arsenal to stare down those threats and take advantages of the opportunities this century offers us.
There has not been as much written about the so-called “pivot to Asia” as there has been about ISIL, but the challenges and opportunities in addressing a rising China are just as great. When historians look back on this period they will note that China repeatedly tested the boundaries and the norms of the international system – and, at each turn, was met by a President who pushed back forcefully in defense of our values, our interests, and our allies.
That is a legacy of toughness that no amount of talk could match.
Brandon Fureigh is the Chief Strategy Officer of the Truman National Security Project.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the start of the climate summit in Paris November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque