The Big Idea

What Is Obama’s Foreign Policy?

He was a realist. He’s becoming an idealist.

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama

Few presidents arrive in office with large plans around foreign affairs. Yet most live to see their reputations defined by it. For Barack Obama, whose time in office coincides with a series of tectonic shifts in global structure—the Arab revolutions, the relative decline of American power, the rise of China—that pattern shows signs of holding. But what kind of foreign policy leader is he? How Obama thinks about America’s role in the world turns out to be one of the murkier questions about his presidency.

Obama’s views fit neatly into none of the conventional categories like “realist” or “idealist,” “interventionist” or “isolationist.” At the time he began his presidential campaign, less than four years ago, Obama had no discernible approach to foreign affairs. He had been an Illinois state legislator, a professor of constitutional law, and briefly a U.S. senator who was mainly concerned with issues of social policy. His most notable stance was clear opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which he called a “dumb war” at a 2002 peace rally in Chicago.

At the same time, his personal background pointed to an unusual kind of engagement with the rest of the world. He is not only America’s first black president, but one of our first truly multicultural politicians, with an African father, an Asian stepfather, and a childhood spent in Indonesia and the Pacific mixing bowl of Hawaii. As a candidate, Obama displayed a less America-centric view of the world than we are used to in politicians.

As is often the case, his foreign policy emerged in reaction to the biggest mistakes of his predecessor. That meant emphasizing multilateralism and respect for international laws in place of unilateralism and scorn for the United Nations. It proposed engagement with rather than demonization of the regimes George W Bush described as “evil.” It focused on Afghanistan as the war we ought to have fought more effectively, over Iraq, the war we oughtn’t to have fought at all. The foreign policy thinker most closely associated with his views was the Democratic realist Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Responding to Bush’s inept idealism and militarized approach to democracy promotion, Obama initially shied from ideas of humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, or human rights advocacy—what Democrats more typically call for. Instead, he declared his “enormous sympathy” for the foreign policy of George Bush senior. Obama cited the first Bush team’s prudent, nontriumphal management of the Soviet empire’s collapse as his model. After winning the election, he reached out to Bush senior’s foreign policy alter ego, Brent Scowcroft, for advice. As a decision-maker, Obama has lived up to Bush senior’s positive example.

If his two national security advisers have seemed less than pivotal figures in his administration, it is because Obama is the kind of commander-in-chief who functions as his own national security director. As both the NATO intervention in Libya and the strike against Bin Laden show, Obama is a strong executive, capable of weighing probabilities and yet acting quickly and decisively. He is far from the lawyerly or wishy-washy figure his opponents have often caricatured.

Obama views himself, as he has often said, as a pragmatist. He has approached international problems on a case-by-case basis and shows little interest in having his name associated with a grand doctrine. This ad-hocracy can, however, produce policy that seems muddled or contradictory. At the time of the green revolution in Iran, Obama held back from criticizing the crackdown because of his eagerness to open a dialogue with the Ahmadinejad regime. When that position was criticized as callous, the president belatedly identified himself with the protesters.

This lack of an articulated philosophy has been frustrating at times to both of the two principal camps in his administration—call them the realists and the ethicists. The realists—who predominate at his National Security Council and have been led by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates—did not see fundamental American interests at play in Libya. The ethicists, who are centered at Hillary Clinton’s State Department (though Samantha Power is at the NSC), support intervention on the basis of a “responsibility to protect.” They favor more aid for the Libyan rebels, advocacy of human rights, a push for Internet freedom, and stronger promotion of democracy around the world.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Obama acknowledged what he described as the “tension” between a foreign policy based on interests and one based on values. Lately, he has expended many words trying to square that circle. But his pragmatic, split-the-difference approach has enmeshed him in a series of contradictions.

The United States has encouraged the revolution in Egypt and intervened on behalf of the one in Libya while calling upon the regimes in the Gulf to reform rather than abdicate. Obama has issued no call for democratic transformation in totalitarian Saudi Arabia, where the American interest in stability is greatest. With a virtual Berlin Wall messily collapsing in the Mideast, he has pitched his response somewhere between the idealist Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) and the realist George Bush senior, who said nothing to agitate the Soviet Politburo when it finally did fall.

In his response to the Arab revolutions, the realist Obama is in eclipse, the humanitarian Obama ascendant. In his 2009 Cairo address, the president had spoken against any nation imposing its system of government on any other. In last week’s speech on the Middle East, he declared democracy in the region as American policy and concluded with the words: “We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” It is ironic that Obama seems to be following the trajectory of the younger Bush, who ran as a foreign policy realist like his father but in office turned into an idealist zealot.

A version of this piece appeared in the Observer.