afghanistan, arab spring, barack obama, david cameron, foreign policy, frank kellogg, george w. bush, henry cabot lodge, idealism, interventionism, isolationism, kevin garnett, league of nations, nobel peace prize, pince-nez spectacles, realism, the matrix, treaty of versailles, woodrow wilson, world war i
You can dig on Part I of this series here, in which I go through some of the recent developments that have made this topic newsworthy.
I’d like to preface this by saying how easy it is to find comical or interesting images of Obama with various facial expressions and/or body language. Google Image is the Matrix.
Anyway. How do we describe Barack Obama’s foreign policy orientation? What about his overall strategy for foreign policy events? I’m sort of using these interchangeably here, both are rather abstract and the lines between then tend to blur.
The most general way of approaching this question is to reiterate the importance of George W. Bush to Barack Obama’s Presidency. So much of Obama’s political identity, so much of what he capitalized upon to secure election in 2008, rests on drawing distinctions with W. With this in mind, I think that George W. Bush explains why we’re having this conversation in the first place. Bush was sure. About everything. At least, that’s what he projected to the American people. We knew Bush, and we knew what we would get from him. That he seemed doctrinaire and predictable was one of the things people came to tire most of by the end of W’s Presidency. As such, Obama has calculated that he must be a pragmatist. He must seek consensus, cooperation; he must be seen to consider many options and make a logical choice when it comes to tough issues. Obama realized, and continues to believe, that these traits are essential to his political brand. This is why we have to ask ourselves what his foreign policy looks like in the first place – if he was following a clear, concrete program, he would be Bush’s proximate other from a methodological if not a political standpoint.
The Economist’s Britain correspondent Bagehot said of David Cameron (whose affinities to the Obama Political Brand I mentioned before) in a recent article about his own foreign policy that it “looks like realism but which is on closer inspection a low-ambition variety of optimism.” If D-Cam is the Right-wing doppelganger of Obama, you might invert this and say that Obama’s foreign policy “looks like idealism but on closer examination is a high-ambition variety of realism.”
Unfortunately, this predisposes both men to incoherence – either within or between strategy and policy.
Ideologically, Barack Obama skews toward Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, for the historically rusty, was a Princeton academic who believed that he could, using a bit of politico-moral technocracy, engineer a new settlement for international politics from the ruin of the First World War. His concept was “national self-determination” (choice), his machinery was the League of Nations (predecessor to the UN), and his delivery method was insanely fastidious political treatymaking, speech-stumping, and pince-nez spectacles. He is often used as the exemplar of “idealist” foreign policy – like Kevin Garnett, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
In the interests of space, I offer this from Obama’s most recent speech on Afghan troop withdrawal: “We stand not for empire, but for self-determination.” For this reason, then, we have a stake in, and will intervene in, the “Arab Spring” (disdain for this term already noted) – we mean to enforce the right of nations to choose their mode of government. And for self-determination, we mean for those nations that are choosing freedom the way we see it. From his speech at Westminster: “Let there be no doubt: The United States and United Kingdom stand squarely on the side of those who long to be free. And now, we must show that we will back up those words with deeds. That means investing in the future of those nations that transition to democracy, starting with Tunisia and Egypt…” No word on what happens if these nations emerge with Islamist regimes.
Wilson took a similar line toward Latin America in the 1910s: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” The United States intervened on numerous occasions during his presidency to assert stability and pro-American regimes. Few of these, not to mention the disastrous intervention to support the anti-Bolshevik faction in Russia, turned out well.
Barack Obama isn’t Woodrow Wilson. For one thing, he doesn’t intervene enough. We aren’t going to put troops on the ground to support Tibet in a bid to weaken China (as Wilson meant to do against the Soviets). When things started rapidly escalating on the Korean peninsula this winter, cooler heads prevailed. Don’t forget that this administration took its time in endorsing and encouraging the Arab unrest, and then in calling for the departure of dictators like Muammar Qaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. France, among others including Britain, took the lead there. We’re showing signs of realism here: the United States will deal with oppressive regimes when necessary, because doing otherwise could be counterproductive or dangerous.
That brings me to my next point: Obama has none of the “insanely fastidious” that Wilson had – despite his anointment as a transcendent President in the domestic sphere, and his premature anointment as leader of the free world in Europe and in the Nobel franchise, he is not an ideological torchbearer on the global scene. Wilson crusaded for his causes, from the League of Nations to the Treaty of Versailles, to extreme lengths and at the cost of his personal life and health – he basically worked himself to death. You’re not going to get this from Obama. It doesn’t fit his personality (if it does fit his academic training), and it doesn’t fit his style of politics. As much as he wants to be a visionary, he’s too pragmatic for it to work. George W. Bush was a visionary, if a misguided one. Few visionaries aren’t misguided in some way.
Speaking of Woodrow Wilson, his life’s work was more or less torpedoed by a very organized, isolationist Right in the United States. Led by Henry Cabot Lodge (whose views were actually more nuanced) and Frank Kellogg, this group was very opposed to an active American role in the world. You might say, as Obama did in his recent speech that they wanted to “stop focusing on nation-building abroad and start focusing on nation-building at home.”
Recently, it’s become common to characterize present-day Republicans as isolationists, because they have criticized Obama’s intervention in Libya. Just as he is no Wilson, they are no 1920s Republicans featuring no Frank Kelloggs. Rather than committed philosophical isolationism, Republican sniping at Obama is little more than political opportunism. It is too out of sync with the neo-conservative sympathies of the Republican voting base, and many have already started to backpedal from the implications. Ironically, Kellogg and Obama are peers: Kellogg won the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which banned war as in international policy instrument. You read that right.
And here we are. We’re going to carry on getting “high-ambition realism” from Obama, even if this does not produce predictable results. In essence, Barack Obama is doing what we expected him to do. We elected him to be pragmatic and conciliatory and most of all, not George W. Bush. So he’s going to keep doing the unexpected.