Confident Optimism in Foreign Policy

06/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My friend Jack Farrell blogs today about what should be a central question in any McCain-Obama town hall or debate or tea party or sing-along or whatever: Suppose the Israelis launch a preemptive attack against Iran -- what does the United States do?

There are two fundamental schools of thought on foreign policy, the optimistic and the pessimistic. The latter is what we'll call the Dick Cheney outlook: Our enemies are fearfully strong, the thinking goes, and democracy, with its emphasis on things like openness, checks-and-balances and collective decision-making are too weak to operate on a global stage.

Farrell adopts the optimistic view:

Is hope too risky?

We Americans invented nuclear weapons; used them, and had a brief atomic monopoly. There was a time, in the late 1940s, when we could have attacked the USSR before the Soviets got the bomb, as some of our military leaders suggested. But U.S. presidents recognized that, with or without our atomic arsenal, we would ultimately, inevitably lose that war. Napoleon and Hitler proved that the Russians are just too big and tough and proud a people to enslave. And even if, for a time, we succeeded, we would not recognize the America we had become.

So we adopted a policy of deterrence, put faith in our ideals, and waited the Soviets out. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, we talked and talked and talked with our foes, and let freedom speak for itself. And, yes, for much of that time Americans lived under an existential threat. We do today.

But in the end, guess what: freedom won.

Jack's good, but the optimistic, secure view of foreign policy has been stated with more eloquence -- 45 years ago today, in fact. As I note at U.S. News & World Report, today was the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's great speech on peace, which he delivered at American University in 1963.

Americans should not take "a distorted and desperate view of the other side," Kennedy warned, not "see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats."

Communicating beyond merely exchanging threats? What -- without preconditions? That's just crazy talk.