Obama’s Foreign Policy: What approach now?

April 2, 2010  |   Paul Crist Politics and Policy

Obama’s Foreign Policy: What approach now?

By Paul Crist

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has had to grapple with an endless list of thorny issues, but few areas of policy are more of a minefield than foreign policy.  In the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, he faces challenges that defy solutions.  Two hundred years of history provide him with role models and approaches that should guide him through the global minefield he faces.  But who should he emulate to ensure a successful foreign policy?  What foreign policy philosophy most closely resembles his basic instinct?  Which constituencies will support, and which will oppose, the policy choices he makes?  And what are the domestic political implications of the foreign policy choices he makes?

American foreign policy through the centuries has been characterized by four fundamentally different philosophies that can be traced to four great historical figures: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson. 

Hamilton favored a realist policy that included a strong national government, powerful military, and the promotion of American business and economic interests through strength and engagement.  It was Hamiltonian realism that kept George H. W. Bush from pursuing Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War.  Bush Sr. was tempted by the goal of toppling the Iraqi regime, but his strong realist instinct prevailed, understanding as he did that the political and human costs were too high.  Mocked for his frequent use of the term “prudence,” Bush was, in fact expressing a Hamiltonian, clear-eyed calculation of risks and benefits, balancing ambition with feasibility.

Jefferson sought to limit American interventionism and global commitments, and where possible, minimize the need for an extensive national security apparatus.  Jeffersonians believe that America can best spread democracy by example, pursuing a moderate, if not isolationist, foreign policy.  Jeffersonians see American exceptionalism as being rooted in uniquely American values and experience, and thus it is not possible, nor is it America’s job, to see that the rest of the world follows the American path to democracy.  Jeffersonians believe that major overseas commitments undermine U.S. democracy, sapping budgets of resources for domestic needs, while often associating America with corrupt and oppressive regimes in cynical alliances.  A large military-industrial complex, naturally pro-engagement and seeing threats around every corner, is a threat to civil liberties, and should be contained.  Jimmy Carter came from this philosophical pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and like him, Obama comes from the Jeffersonian traditions of the Democratic Party. 

Wilson was an idealist, in agreement with Hamiltonians on the need for an activist foreign policy, but with the goals of promoting democracy, seeking justice, and protecting human rights.  Wilsonians doubt that international stability and order are possible without democracy, protection of rights, and justice.  American idealism did not originate with Wilson, of course.  In the early days of the Republic, when America wielded little power on a world stage dominated by imperial England, idealism helped forge an American sense of justice and virtuosity that European colonial powers surely lacked.  Even the “manifest destiny” of creating a nation that spread across the continent to the Pacific Ocean was infused with a (wrongly placed) sense of idealism and virtue, aiming to “tame” the wilderness and “civilize” and “Christianize” the “primitive” native peoples.  Wilson’s call for American entry into World War I, to “make the world safe for democracy,” was merely the high point of American idealism prior to achieving great-power status.  What is surprising is that American idealism continued as the U.S. picked up the mantle of a great power.  Idealism and great-power realist politics can make awkward bedfellows.

Jacksonians are populists, suspicious of government and foreign entanglements, distrustful of Hamiltonian business connections, Jeffersonian weakness (or cowardice), and Wilsonian do-gooders.  Jackson’s Presidency represented a major departure in American politics, the rise of the common man.  Jacksonians are not deep thinkers, so are susceptible to populist leaders regardless of the internal inconsistencies in their values, claims, or policy proposals.  Jacksonians are the Fox News viewers of today.  While suspicious of foreigners and international entanglements, they also hate to lose, especially to terrorists engaging in “dishonorable” warfare.  When America is attacked, they demand revenge and will not likely support a U.S. pullout from countries providing safe haven for evil terrorists.

Barack Obama waged his Presidential campaign largely on anti-war Jeffersonian principles and a focus on domestic issues such as health care and education.  That approach opened him up to accusations of weakness from Hamiltonians, cowardice from Jacksonians, and moral spinelessness from Wilsonians.  His promise to renew efforts to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan garnered him little support among Jacksonians, who doubted his commitment.

As President, Obama’s approach must be influenced by all four approaches to foreign policy.  But it is seldom clear just what the right mix should be, and that opens him up to criticism from all sides.  In particular, Obama must guard against calls from the Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party that makes up his base.  Perceptions of Jeffersonian foreign policy cowardice fatally damaged Carter’s Presidency. 

George W. Bush’s failure to realistically assess the risks, costs and benefits of waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and subsequent shift of focus to nation building, cost him the support of Hamiltonian realists, and won few supporters among Wilsonian idealists who never trusted his motives.

Jacksonians, influenced by the legacy of conflict with Native Americans who didn’t fight by European conceptions of “fair war-making,” and angered when America was attacked on 9/11, demanded that terrorists be hunted down and killed without mercy.  When no weapons of mass destruction were to be found; no connection could be established between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda; and as the focus shifted away from hunting down Osama bin Laden, Bush argued that the goal was to establish stable democracy and ensure human rights for Iraqis and Afghans. That shift cost him the support of the Jacksonian wing of the Republican Party, who have no interest in idealistic meddling abroad.

Wilsonians opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, so were never fully on board with Bush foreign policy.  The late shift to nation building goals in both Iraq and Afghanistan, rightly or wrongly, struck them as disingenuous and opportunistic rather than as a reflection of deeply held idealism.  Yet, if Bush honestly believed that democracy and human rights could be built at the barrel of a gun, he may have been our most idealistic President ever, firmly in the Wilsonian mold.

Of course, Jeffersonians argued from the beginning that the Middle East wars were costly follies, doomed to make us less safe rather than more.   

Bush’s failure to develop and maintain support from constituencies supportive of these four pillars of American foreign policy opened him up to vitriolic criticism from all sides, and ultimately helped to open the political space that allowed Barack Obama to become President.

So how can Barack Obama avoid the pitfalls that Bush failed to circumvent?  It won’t be easy.

On Iraq, he ran on a Jeffersonian platform that called for bringing the troops home.  Those folks are his base.  That platform certainly didn’t enamor him to Jacksonians, who accused him of humiliating America with a “cut and run” strategy (he’d never have gotten those votes anyway, for other reasons).  Hamiltonians saw withdrawal as a threat to American economic interests, given that Iraq sits on billions of barrels of oil.  Wilsonians, already disillusioned at the prospects for democracy and open society in Iraq, were at least encouraged that Obama promised an orderly withdrawal, and transition to Iraqi control including nominally democratic elections.

Obama did throw a bone to the Jacksonians, and quite a few others, who felt that Bush had been distracted from the goal of getting bin Laden.  He promising to refocus on Afghanistan, the search for bin Laden, and to an extent, revenge for 9/11.  That promise pleased a lot of Hamiltonians, since defense spending was certain to keep important constituencies’ profits rolling in. 

Significantly, during the campaign he said almost nothing about Wilsonian nation building in Afghanistan, which is where much of the focus of his policy has been since taking office.  But, particularly after the flawed elections in 2009 and evidence of massive corruption within the Karzai government being widely reported in the U.S. media, even Wilsonian democrats are questioning the mission.  But, Obama has no good alternatives in this hotspot.

On a host of other regional issues, Obama has pursued a generally Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy.  Uncritical support for Israel has been toned down, helping to reduce anti-American hostility in the region.  He cancelled plans to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, reducing the risk of conflict with Russia. In Latin America, he has taken steps to normalize relations with Cuba; avoided serious conflict with Venezuela and its leftist regional allies; and largely took a hands-off approach to the coup in Honduras (which infuriated idealistic Wilsonians).

It appears that outside of the Middle East quagmires he was handed in January 2009, Obama seeks an orderly world characterized by regional balance-of-power arrangements, shared burdens, and reduced global reliance on American military power in true Jeffersonian fashion.  His vision is attractive and ambitious, and if successful, could reduce the level of international tension while limiting unsustainable American commitments on the international stage. 

A Jeffersonian foreign policy of limited engagement, however, is fraught with challenges.  Unlike the 19th century, when American could rely on and reap the benefits of British power to maintain global order, today there is no other great power ready and able to step into the void created by an American retreat from its role as international policeman.  Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms were characterized by refusal to confront Germany and Japanese aggression, and the result was a catastrophic war, that ultimately, America could not avoid.  Events leading up to World War II showed the weakness in the Jeffersonian philosophy as British power waned.  Jeffersonians since have had to temper their more extreme isolationist impulses in the postwar era, as American commitments expanded dramatically.  But while Jeffersonians instincts are to limit commitments, it is not so clear where American should cut in the 21st century.

The Democratic Party has a strong Wilsonian tradition, in addition to the Jeffersonian one, and Obama must pay attention to this constituency.  They ask, “If American should use its power and resources to overcome injustice and poverty at home, should it not seek the same for people everywhere?”  Wilsonians see America’s mission as moving the world toward the goal of universal rights, justice, and democracy.  Wilsonian foreign policy is value-driven and morally infused.  And like idealists Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Barack Obama is strongly influenced by the Democratic idealist impulse.  Wilsonian Democrats are disappointed by Obama’s support for corrupt regimes like that in Afghanistan, and by military aid provided to Pakistan despite evidence that the government is a tepid and corrupt ally in the so-called war on terrorism.  The failure to close Guantanamo, continuation of Bush-era government secrecy, and refusal to investigate Bush administration abuses has angered Democratic idealists.  The choices Obama has already made, compromising both his Jeffersonian and Wilsonian impulses (and constituencies), have surely been difficult ones, and he is just over a year into his Presidency.  More unpleasant and unpopular choices are to come.

Obama has run afoul of believers in all the schools of foreign policy thought, almost at every turn.  The truculent partisanship that now grips Washington and the media has resulted, and will continue to engender, virulent criticism from those who seem more interested in crippling his presidency than in protecting national interests with sound foreign policies.  Sharp criticism, some of it menacing from the right, is also coming from some on the left.  Many in his base are disillusioned by the contrast between Obama the campaigner and Obama the President.

With just over a year in office, Wilsonians have accused him of moral cowardice for his refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama prior to his trip to Beijing.  Jacksonians, on the right, simply called it cowardice, happy to jump on any opportunity to berate the President.  Hamiltonians, who generally favor free trade, a strong dollar, and muscular projection of American power, are unhappy with the administration’s progress on trade deals, fiscal restraint, and his conciliatory approach to China in the face of what they see as predatory currency exchange policies.  His Jeffersonian base is unhappy with the failure to quickly extricate U.S. troops from Iraq, and increasingly, Afghanistan as well.   In the current political climate, Obama will need nerves of steel and a stiff upper lip to see him through.  If it was ever true that politics stops at the water’s edge, it certainly is not the case today.  While the current partisanship is troubling for domestic issues, it could have quite dangerous consequences in the foreign policy realm

Between the complicated situations he faces in the international arena, and partisan criticism on the domestic front, he could easily fall into a foreign policy morass that merely looks incoherent and inept, when what the world needs is clarity, a proactive approach (which is not “preemptive” …there’s a major difference), and firm leadership.

His widely criticized extended consideration on Afghanistan is illustrative of the minefield he faces.  Obama’s Jeffersonian instinct sees war as a serious matter that is not to be entered lightly, thus his deliberation and caution before announcing a decision.  Consequently, he satisfied no one by his handling of the issue.  Jeffersonians simply saw his eventual decision as a sellout; Hamiltonians felt that his lack of rapid action sent a message of American weakness; Wilsonians, who favor an emphasis on institution building, reconstruction assistance, and rights protection, were displeased at Obama’s willingness to adopt the military approach recommended by Gen. McChrystal; and Jacksonians saw cowardice and accused the President of “dithering.”

Abroad, Obama’s conciliatory approach may also be problematic.  Will Russia and Iran cooperate?  Or will they be emboldened by what may be interpreted as American weakness and lack of will?  Will outreach to the Muslim world result in better understanding? Or will it embolden the violent minority, undercutting his standing at home and abroad?  When Obama cannot deliver all of the concessions that Arabs want from Israel, will it result in even greater alienation and anger among Muslims?  Will other countries agree to cooperate and take up a larger role on the world stage, or will they fail to fulfill their obligations as stakeholders in the international system?  A lower American profile may make others less, rather than more, willing to step up and take responsibility, while emboldening extremist regimes and groups.

What seems clear is that a Jeffersonian approach of limiting American commitments abroad is not the course he can or should chart, given that retreat from the world stage would have unpredictable and potentially dangerous consequences for global stability, security, and order.  A foreign policy based on Hamiltonian projection of American power, along the lines of either Bush administration and seen by global friends and foes alike as arrogant and domineering, has arguably left America less secure rather than more.  Jacksonian revenge for terrorist acts no longer garners support in the international arena.

So, in the realpolitik of foreign policy, with regional problems all across the globe, how should Obama proceed?  It seems that no matter what approach he follows, the way forward is fraught with unpopular choices that will open him up to political attack from all sides.  As new powers rise and the international system transitions, Obama will have to rethink Americas place in the world and how to navigate often treacherous international currents.

Ultimately, he will have to blend three of the four pillars of American foreign policy.  Jeffersonian restraint will help to guard against “imperial overstretch.”  At times, a prudent application of Hamiltonian realism and projection of power will be required in order to maintain global order, which only the U.S. is in a position to do at this point in history.  But he must not abandon the Wilsonian idealism and dedication to democracy and justice that still lends America an aura of exceptionalism among many citizens around the globe.  His decisions will invariably be unpopular with someone, and sometimes, perhaps with almost everyone.

But as an overarching paradigm, America in the 21st century must strive to create what Norwegian scholar Geir Lundestad has called an “empire by invitation.”  It is neither possible nor in our interests to compel subordination on the world stage today.  But we do possess the ability to provide incentives for willing participation on many fronts.  Economic incentives in the form of export credits; investment insurance or promotion; access to technology loans and technical assistance remain at America’s disposal.  In some cases, the lure of diplomatic recognition or participation in regional or international institutions, or the scheduling of summits between leaders can be attractive incentives.  Cultural and civil society incentives entail building people-to-people contacts; funding non-governmental organizations; facilitating the flow of remittances; and promoting tourism and student exchanges.  These options involve relationship building and non-coercive approaches that can convince states, strong or weak, to recognize and obey international norms of good behavior. 

While the international institutions that were born in the postwar era (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and what is now the World Trade Organization) may need reform and even radical re-thinking, they still provide a measure of law and reciprocity to international politics that America depends on now more than ever.  Those institutions, despite limitations, have supported unprecedented global economic expansion for three generations.  Newer challenges, such as adapting to climate change, may require new institutions, but these can only be built on the foundations of mutual trust that have been greatly enhanced by the institutions that have come before.

The U.S. policies of the past several years have deeply shaken trust in America and eroded confidence in the international institutions that are the foundation of multilateral life.  The full measure of damage done may not yet be fully comprehensible.  Obama must begin to nurture a renewed trust and confidence in the United States and in international institutions, or risk a markedly less secure world as new powers rise and old powers are in relative decline.  If he can see America through this complex period of global transition; make progress on restoring trust in American values, credibility, and dependability; and entice others to more fairly share the burdens of maintaining international order and stability, he will have accomplished something few great-power leaders in history have managed to accomplish.

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