Four Qualities Key to a President’s Foreign Policy Success

File photo of the presidential seal.


Aaron David Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and most recently the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” He is on Twitter: @AaronDMiller2.

After years working for Republican and Democratic administrations, I’ve come to believe that the dividing line for a successful foreign policy isn’t between left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic; it’s largely between being smart and being dumb.

More specifically, if you want the U.S. to be on the smart side when it comes to succeeding or at least holding its own on the global stage, consider these four qualities when thinking about who would be our next leader.

Curiosity: The next president doesn’t have to have all the answers when it comes to details of alliance politics or political events in far-flung countries. But he or she does need to know what questions are worth asking. When I worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, I got a call from then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. He asked about a memo I’d written on Lebanon, seeking clarification on more than one point. Bush 41 was a strong foreign-policy president in part because he was willing to probe, doubt, question, and seek alternative explanations when things didn’t seem to add up. This kind of curiosity is critical in the White House’s insular environment. There is danger in a president who doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know and isn’t trying to find out.

Judgment: Common sense and judgment can outperform foreign policy experience and expertise. George W. Bush‘s advisers had extraordinary foreign policy credentials, yet they still came to launch the Iraq war, a standout blunder in U.S. foreign policy. James Baker taught me that in foreign policy prudence and wisdom–knowing when not to act and how to stay out of trouble–can sometimes be more important than being bold and muscular. Judgment involves understanding the difference between what’s vital for the United States and what’s discretionary; setting the right priorities and, when the U.S. does act, having the means to accomplish its goals. I admired President Bill Clinton’s notion that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all when we went to the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000. But the old college try is not a substitute for serious foreign policy of the world’s most consequential power. Failure damages the nation’s credibility.

Emotional intelligence: When it comes to governance generally, not just in foreign policy, it’s critical that presidents understand their temperament and character and be able to keep their demons and excesses under control. The presidency is a dangerous place for pettiness, narcissism, and displays of competitiveness or self-absorption. Lyndon Johnson understood the Vietnam trap but couldn’t get past his fear of showing weakness; it led to escalation in Southeast Asia. The presidency demands toughness but also self-control and calmness in the face of challenges that present highly imperfect options. Being comfortable in one’s own skin helps create the confidence and authority to make the right decisions.

Rhetorical discipline: Words are not always as important as deeds. But U.S. presidents’ words are scrutinized from every possible angle. and there are risks to committing rhetorically beyond what they’re prepared to deliver. The more presidents speak, the greater the risk they might speak without having considered the impact on allies and adversaries. Despite his skill with words, President Barack Obama fell early into the trap of saying things he couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver: his call for a freeze on Israeli settlements, repeated calls for Bashar al-Assad’s removal, the infamous “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons. Mr. Obama’s gap between words and actions damaged U.S. credibility, confused allies, and emboldened adversaries. Message  discipline is critical, as is the capacity to lay out foreign policy goals in ways that are accessible and compelling here and abroad.

None of these qualities guarantees success. Presidential success or failure abroad is often determined by unanticipated events over which a president has little control. But without these qualities, the already-steep odds of successfully defending U.S. interests abroad are even narrower.


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