Bret Stephens writes The Meltdown in the September Commentary.


Should any of this have come as a surprise? Probably not: With Obama, there was always more than a whiff of the overconfident dilettante, so sure of his powers that he could remain supremely comfortable with his own ignorance. His express-elevator ascent from Illinois state senator to U.S. president in the space of just four years didn’t allow much time for maturation or reflection, either. Obama really is, as Bill Clinton is supposed to have said of him, “an amateur.” When it comes to the execution of policy, it shows.

The myth of Obama’s brilliance paradoxically obscures the fact that he’s no fool. The point is especially important to note because the failure of Obama’s foreign policy is not, ultimately, a reflection of his character or IQ. It is the consequence of an ideology.

That ideology is what now goes by the name of progressivism, which has effectively been the dominant (if often disavowed) view of the Democratic Party since George McGovern ran on a “Come Home, America” platform in 1972—and got 37.5 percent of the popular vote. Progressivism believes that the United States must lead internationally by example (especially when it comes to nuclear-arms control); that the U.S. is as much the sinner as it is the sinned against when it comes to our adversaries (remember Mosaddegh?); and that the American interest is best served when it is merged with, or subsumed by, the global interest (ideally in the form of a UN resolution).

A new order that’s based on a different set of principles: Just what could that new order be? In the absence of a single dominant power, capable and willing to protect its friends and deter its foes, there are three conceivable models of global organization. First, a traditional balance-of-power system of the kind that briefly flourished in Europe in the 19th century. Second, “collective security” under the supervision of an organization like the League of Nations or the United Nations. Third, the liberal-democratic peace advocated, or predicted, by the likes of Immanuel Kant, Norman Angell, and Francis Fukuyama.

Yet, with the qualified exception of the liberal-democratic model, each of these systems wound up collapsing of its own weight—precisely the reason Dean Acheson, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and the other postwar statesmen “present at the creation” understood the necessity of the Truman Doctrine, the Atlantic Alliance, containment, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and all the rest of the institutional and ideological architecture of America’s post–World War II leadership. These were men who knew that isolationism, global-disarmament pledges, international law, or any other principle based on “common humanity” could provide no lasting security against ambitious dictatorships and conniving upstarts. The only check against disorder and anarchy was order and power. The only hope that order and power would be put to the right use was to make sure that a preponderance of power lay in safe, benign, and confident hands.

In 1945 the only hands that fit that description were American. It remains true today—even more so, given the slow-motion economic and strategic collapse of Europe. Yet here was Obama, blithely proposing to substitute Pax Americana with an as-yet-unnamed and undefined formula for the maintenance of global order. Little wonder that leaders in Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow quickly understood that, with Obama in the White House, they had a rare opportunity to reshape and revise regional arrangements in a manner more to their liking. Iran is doing so today in southern Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Beijing is extending its reach in the South and East China Sea. Russia is intervening in Ukraine. It’s no accident that, while acting independently from one another, they are all acting now. The next American president might not be so cavalier about challenges to the global status quo, or about enforcing his (or her) own red lines. Better to move while they can.