What I hope the next President will bring us: A sober foreign policy.

May 22nd, 2008

The great investor Warren Buffett loves to play bridge. Since he’s an avid fan of the game — and, no doubt, since he’s Warren Buffett — he’s gotten to play with some of the luminaries of the bridge world. He has talked about how the very best bridge players virtually never make a mistake: they may lose a hand because of the cards they are dealt, but they don’t lose by making bad plays trick by trick.

With hopes of setting aside all partisan differences, I would note that the United States has undergone a period of intensely ideology-driven foreign policy during this decade. As it happens, the ideology in question has been (more or less) neo-conservative, and it has centered on Iraq and the “War on Terror.” In earlier generations, ideologically driven foreign policy has sometimes come from the Democrats rather than the Republicans (for example in the cases of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter), and it has centered on other themes and other areas of the world.

There’s no need for a long essay belaboring this point, but what the United States needs in foreign policy, probably for a good twenty years to come, is a notable lack of ideology. Sure, we’ll always stump for democracy and free markets in general, and well we should. We ought to speak up likewise in favor of human rights. But we can’t afford — not even us, not even with our great resources — to fight ideological wars abroad, or cultural wars at home, if we are to retain our influence on the world, or if we are to regain the international standing that we have lost in recent years.

Saber-rattling won’t get us where we need to go. Wilfully simplistic misreadings of the world’s politics, ditto. In some cases, we may have to hold our noses as we make the smart play.

But for a couple of decades at least, we need a bipartisan commitment to making the smart play — like a master bridge player, like Warren Buffett choosing his investments — rather than the play that makes us feel vindicated in the moment, or that scratches an ideological itch.

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