Barack Obama has been pilloried for his cautious response to the Arab revolutions. One critic writing in The Post calls him “a president in full flight.” Many urge the president to make a big bet in favor of democracy in the region. When the uprisings known as the Arab Spring first began, some analysts were optimistic about the prospects for democracy, but the revolutions should be viewed in terms of decades, not seasons. Few observers in Paris in 1789 would have predicted that a Corsican corporal would lead French forces to the banks of the Nile within a decade. And interventions in the French Revolution by great powers such as Austria and Prussia fanned, rather than extinguished, the nationalist flames.
Big bets in foreign policy should have at least a reasonable prospect of success. My research of 20th-century American history has found that transformational foreign policy presidents who made big bets were not better in ethics or effectiveness. Woodrow Wilson placed a costly and mistaken bet on the Versailles Treaty that helped contribute to the disastrous isolationism of the 1930s. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made erroneous bets that Vietnam involved dominoes, not checkers, whereas Dwight Eisenhower — who coined the domino terminology — refused to intervene. And Richard Nixon, who bet successfully on an opening to China in 1971, laid down a nearly simultaneous but mistaken bet on the destruction of the Bretton Woods monetary system that helped to unleash a decade of inflation. More recently, George W. Bush made a costly strategic blunder by invading Iraq, partly in hopes of democratizing the Middle East.
It is useful to compare Wilson with George H.W. Bush. In the long term, Wilson’s vision of a League of Nations was partially vindicated by the creation of the United Nations, but he lacked the leadership skills for its implementation. Bush famously said that he did not do the “vision thing,” but his prudent execution and management of foreign policy in a revolutionary time was excellent.
This is not an argument against transformational leaders or big bets in U.S. foreign policy. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman contributed crucially to the creation of the American era by sending U.S. troops to Europe and keeping them there after World War II. If plausible candidates such as Charles Lindbergh or Henry Wallace had been president, the world would have been worse. But in judging leaders in history, we need to pay attention to dogs that barked and those that did not.
The big problem in foreign policy is the complexity of context. One has to understand not only international and transnational systems but also the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple societies. This complexity gives special relevance to Aristotle’s virtue of prudence — avoiding excess or deficiency. We live in a world of diverse cultures and know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” That is particularly true with regard to revolutions.
When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and grandiose visions can pose a grave danger. This is sometimes forgotten by those who want Obama to place bigger bets in the revolutions of today’s Middle East. It is one thing to try to nudge events at the margins and assert our values in the long term; it is another to think we can shape revolutions we do not fully understand. There is a difference between a limited punishment of Syria for breaking an international taboo on the use of chemical weapons and becoming involved in a civil war. In foreign policy, as in medicine, it is important to first do no harm. Bush 41, who lacked the ability to articulate a vision but was able to steer through crises, turned out to be a better leader than his son, who had a powerful vision but little contextual intelligence about the region he tried to reshape.
In trying to explain the role of secretary of state, George Shultz once compared it to gardening: “the constant nurturing of a complex array of actors, interests and goals.” One of his successors, Condoleezza Rice, called for a “transformational diplomacy.” There is a role for both, depending on the context, but we should avoid the common mistake of celebrating the transformational landscape architect. In reacting to what may turn out to be a decade of Arab revolutions, the better leader is a careful gardener.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University.