Nature abhors a vacuum — and for the dozen-odd people seeking to become the next U.S. president, American drift and indecision look like easy targets. Certainly Republicans have identified foreign policy as a winning issue. While in Germany this week, Jeb Bush described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a ruthless pragmatist who will push until someone pushes back” and called for a renewal of the Western alliance. Marco Rubio has also demanded renewed “American strength” and greater global leadership. It’s probably only a matter of time before Hillary Clinton finds a way to delicately separate Obama’s first term from his second, the better to attack the latter as well.
Which is all very well, except that no “statement of resolve,” however fierce, is going to fix the problem. It’s easy enough to sound tougher, but the real task for the next president is not merely rhetorical. If he or she truly wants the United States to lead the West again, any future president — or indeed the current one, since he’s got more than a year left to go — needs to launch a radical reform of the alliance itself, as well as the institutions of the alliance, to address the legacies of both Bush and Obama. This isn’t 1979, and a revival of Reaganism isn’t going to work: America’s allies are as wary of American belligerence as they are of American indecision.