In one of his last presidential speeches, Bill Clinton said, “People say I’m a pretty good talker, but I still don’t think I’ve persuaded the American people … to care a lot about foreign policy, about our relationship to the rest of the world.”
A major task for President Obama is to find the words that eluded President Clinton. From the 1940s to the 1990s everyone understood the overriding challenge. It was to avoid a Third World War. Now that threat has subsided. We cope with particular problems, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. But we no longer have a shared sense of what matters most and what therefore should shape our responses to these particular problems.
In the same speech, President Clinton suggested that the overriding challenge now is “to build a global economy with a more human face.” That is probably right — neither on one hand the prosperous but homogenized world promised by globalization nor, on the other, a world where people savage one another to protect their own identities and interests.
The words needed now will not be like “Containment” or “Deterrence.” They will probably resemble more “the Open Door” or “the Good Neighbor” or perhaps, more sweepingly, something like FDR’s “Four Freedoms.” But so long as we lack the right words, we will continue to improvise and to risk incoherence.