Does Obama Have a Foreign Policy?

One might credit President Obama with this much – his foreign policy has fundamentally not changed since he took office – it was and remains a day by day, week by week invention based on headlines in the morning papers.

If there is one thing we know without much debate it is that consistency is not a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy these days.
In fact, if we think of foreign policy as an intentional and planned strategy, it might be fair to say that we have no policy at all. What we have is a series of actions taken in response to actions by others for reasons not clearly articulated or understood.
Why intervene in Libya, for example, but not Syria? Why support protesters in Egypt, but not Iran? Why pummel China for trade policies, but stand passively by while Russia engages in all sorts of rogue behavior?
Those who make it part of their daily ritual to criticize the governing administration are not much help. They are as inconsistent in their criticism as the Obama administration is in its execution of policy. The very folks who applauded Bush for seeding a democracy in Iraq are now up in arms because the Obama administration allowed the democratic process, however messy, to unfold in Egypt. The folks who slammed Bush because he had sown discontent among the international community are strangely mute in the face of the protests against this nation that have occurred during the Obama administration.
This is not foreign policy but partisan carping. This sniping is not worthy of a great and free nation that has no choice but to lead on many fronts and whose policies can shape our future, and the world’s, for years to come.
Over the past century, at various times, the United States did have a coherent foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson sought to remake the world in the vision of a non-colonial democracy. In the post-World War II era, we pursued a bi-partisan policy of containment with respect to global communism. In the period between the two World Wars, we returned to isolationist tendencies prevalent during our first hundred years as a nation.
No administration is fully consistent, of course, when it comes to foreign policy. George W. Bush campaigned in terms almost Robert Taft-like – he would not engage in nation building, but instead would pursue a foreign policy that was humble and realistic. Then came 9/11 and he was transformed, with help from neoconservative internationalists, into a democratic crusader. Ronald Reagan won office with tough talk about standing down world communism with a military buildup and a foreign policy rooted in reality. By the end of his two terms he was accused by other conservatives of being naïve as he negotiated arms reductions with Gorbachav. FDR publicly pronounced his intention to stay out of World War II even as he secretly maneuvered the United States in support of the allies.
One might credit President Obama with this much – his foreign policy has fundamentally not changed since he took office – it was and remains a day by day, week by week invention based on headlines in the morning papers. It might be helpful, as protests continue around the Middle East and tensions rise with China and in Russia, to look at foreign policy as a strategic exercise. I would argue that our foreign policy inevitably falls into one of five categories with respect to an overarching approach.
1. Disengagement.
Prior to the turn of the century, the United States operated mostly under the admonition of our founders — we need not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Rather, we should avoid entangling alliances and the balance of power diplomacy that embroiled Europe in centuries of conflict and war. Our studied indifference to international relations was forgotten with the Spanish American war and the Teddy Roosevelt era. For the first time, this national systematically began to project its power abroad — in Cuba, in the Pacific, in Latin America and finally, under Woodrow Wilson, in Europe.
Even disengagement (or isolationism as it is better known) did not mean we never projected power. We were prepared to protect our interests within our hemisphere and we went after the Barbary pirates as well.
The problem with disengagement today, despite a current of thought that yearns for it, is that the world is truly global today. Terrorists and rogue states are not deterred by borders or even oceans. Global economics shape our domestic concerns in massive ways. Communications occurs in the blink of an eye. We are inevitably pulled into the world whether we want to be or not, though the degree to which we engage is a matter of policy.   
2. Reactionary engagement
We might call this the policy of the new Democrats as reflected in the Clinton and Obama administrations. The defining trait of reactionary engagement is policy driven by polls, the news of the day, or emotion — we react to facts as they unfold and our approach is piecemeal and inconsistent. This lack of clarity tempts adventurism among our adversaries, and endless half-baked entanglement as we seek to put out fires with no consistent strain of thought or interest guiding our approach. One analyst called this approach “international social work.”
The upside of reactionary engagement is that it can feel good short term and win accolades internationally as we seek to assist other nations with the issue of the day. Inevitably, however, it will begin to test our capacity and the goodwill of others. Those we help will begin to demand a sustained commitment. Those we don’t help will accuse us hypocrisy. Those who oppose us will wait until we leave and resume whatever activities led to the intervention in the first place.
Perhaps most important, we will be squandering national resources and lives without a clear vision as to how we are contributing to the national interest or building a sustainable future for those we are seeking to assist. Over time, a reactionary foreign policy that is inconsistent and lacks commitment will tempt others to fill the power vacuum that our drive-by approach leaves behind.  
3. Idealistic engagement
Idealistic engagement, as its name implies, is a sustained commitment to a foreign policy driven by idealism — the notion that we can make the world safe for democracy or create a world that is a mirror image of our own relative domestic tranquility. American idealism might be driving force, or internationalism. Woodrow Wilson was the most ambitious in this regard in the post-World War I era, with his advocacy of the League of Nations and self-determination for all people.
Despite his good intentions, Europe played power politics and Wilson lost support at home. The United States retreated into disengagement until Pearl Harbor. Jimmy Carter’s policy of human rights advocacy was likewise lost on the shoals of political reality. Charles Krauthammer termed this tendency “liberal internationalism,” though category two fits into this broader collective term. Underlying this approach is an aversion to engaging in “interest” foreign policy. We can be idealistic and humane, but advocates of this approach view the use of American power skeptically if we have material interests to protect as well.
Ernest Hemingway once said that all things truly wicked start with innocence. When we become convinced of our relative moral superiority we run the risk of alienating the pragmatists in the world, most of whom see politics (or foreign policy) as war without the guns. They adhere to the idea that foreign policy is about power relationships and they will exploit the naiveté of those who seek to change the world rather than maneuver realistically (see the Soviet Union and Jimmy Carter.) Even more problematic, no nation, not even a great superpower, has the resources to remake the world. Indeed, most efforts to remake even a single nation are fraught with difficulties and dangers (see Iraq). A little humility and realism is not a bad thing.
4. Realistic engagement
Realistic engagement calculates policy based on interests. These interests may be economic, political and even idealistic at times, but there is a fundamental appreciation of the fact that power calculations are the driving force of geopolitics and that a clear headed policy of enlightened self-interest has the benefit of being limited, achievable and clear. We will do business with any nation that functions within acceptable norms of nation-state behavior and we will weigh human rights concerns against our own interests, but we will not go abroad looking for monsters to destroy. We do not seek to impose our power on others as a routine matter of policy. We would use our power selectively when we feel our interests are at stake or when human rights concerns are so overriding that our long-term interests would be compromised by inaction. Krauthammer has suggested that America by its very nature must have a foreign policy rooted in its founding ideas but any zeal for projecting our power abroad must be tempered by a realistic assessment of our interests, our limited resources and the cost of engagement. This is the foreign policy of a republic, not an empire, but it need be neither isolationist nor driven my fantasies of remaking the human condition. It is a foreign policy for adults who appreciate that power is limited and human problems are usually intractable.
5. Imperialistic engagement
Imperialistic engagement is the notion that we can impose our will through the projection of military power. If we accept Hans Morgenthau’s notion of imperialism – a commitment to change the status quo power balance – it could be argued that the United States has very rarely, despite the leftist critique, had an imperialistic foreign policy.
Ronald Reagan’s tough stance against the Soviet Union is open to question. Some would argue he sought to win the Cold War and engaged in a tough carrot and stick approach that helped bring about the fall of Soviet tyranny and the liberation of Eastern Europe – anything but a status quo approach. Others would argue that he had no expectation of destabilizing the Soviet Union short term, but rather sought to contain and contrast. Bush and the neoconservatives after 9/11 certainly sought to tip the balance of power away from tyrannies in the Middle East toward a more democratic framework, and likewise could be put in this category based on the Morgenthau definition.
If we think of imperialism in its more popular manifestation – an intentional policy to dominate the world or other nations militarily or economically – one could argue that United States at various times, particularly in Central and Latin America during the past century had “imperialistic” tendencies. This has not been a sustained policy, however. One must also take into account imposing domination and simply having domination because of economic or political success. A nation is hardly imperial, as Krauthammer has argued, when it is looking for an exit strategy as soon as it goes into another country, which has been the traditional American approach. On the other hand, we have troops in many countries – those who feel this is a critical engagement could be accused of harboring dreams of empire.
The right approach?
There might be times when any one of these approaches is appropriate, given unfolding circumstances. A consistent and well thought out foreign policy that is unrealistic might be more dangerous than reactionary engagement approach that has the advantage of not being overly ambitious.
I would suggest, however, that a thoughtful foreign policy requires an articulated and thoughtful understanding of what our nation’s role in the world should be if it is going to be coherent. The Obama administration does not seem to have wrestled with a strategic approach on any level, simultaneously disengaging and engaging depending on the flavor of the day. Such an approach sends confusing signals, appears muddled and tempts real imperialists around the globe to test our power and resolve. (There are those on the right who argue that he is seeking to disengage and thereby reduce American power – perhaps, but the evidence is seems mixed.)
While I am realistic engagement proponent myself – limited engagement driven by enlightened national interests – whatever policy our nation pursues ought to be strategically measured, weighed and executed within the context of history and the geopolitical realities of the world we inhabit. The world is teetering on instability and Obama’s foreign policy (or lack of one) is contributing to the dangers that are emerging even as the presidential race gets mired in the silliness of sound-bite politics.   

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