Why Obama Got the Fundamentals of American Foreign Policy Right

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Why Obama Got the Fundamentals of American Foreign Policy Right

There is one overriding task that has guided the exercise of American power abroad since 1945.

Why Obama Got the Fundamentals of American Foreign Policy Right
Credit: The White House

Ronald Dworkin, the legal philosopher who died in 2013, famously used a metaphor once to explain the core of his thinking on the philosophy of law. In the context of American common law and constitutional interpretation, Dworkin analogized the role of judges as the writers of a “chain novel.” The law, per Dworkin, was a collective novel, composed by a sequence of jurists. In his words: “In this enterprise a group of novelists writes a novel seriatim; each novelist in the chain interprets the chapter he has been given in order to write a new chapter, which is then added to what the next novelist receives, and so on.”

When reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s new article in the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic, which seems to have opened the doors to a public debate measuring the legacy of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, I was reminded of Dworkin’s metaphor and wondered if it might be a useful way to think about assessing the foreign policy records of U.S. presidents. Critical to Dworkin’s metaphor wasn’t merely the idea of continuity in the “novel” of law, but jurists had to preserve what he called “narrative coherence” – the idea that law, as interpreted by contemporary judges, had to effectively make sense given what had come before it. The core narrative had to persist, binding judges to interpret and reason about the law within certain bounds, proscribed by their predecessors and, ultimately, the constitution.

American presidents have a similar task when it comes to foreign policy. Even though the challenges they’ll face will appear discrete and episodic, there is a fundamental task that has guided the exercise of American power abroad since 1945, which is making sure that the liberal international order that was set up after the Second World War persists unchanged. This is the “narrative” to the story of why American power has mattered.

Whatever a president’s failings and regrets regarding how specific crises were handled and mishandled, as long as this fundamental objective isn’t lost, we can say that their presidency wasn’t a “disaster.” In particular, with the prospect of an outsider like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, neither of whom has shown much interest in preserving the liberal international order, potentially on the doorstep of the White House, it may be an opportune moment to take stock of just how critical it has been to have U.S. presidents who recognize the fundamental importance of preserving that order.

To be sure, this mode of evaluation sees the forest for the trees. Like judges in the Dworkinian metaphor, every American president since Harry Truman has succeeded in exercising American power in a way that has, at a minimum, preserved the liberal international order. The better foreign policy presidents have left the world and the United States’ place in it better off than when they entered office. Obama, like his twelve predecessors going back to Truman, has accomplished the former with little difficulty. The latter is where, I suspect, there will – and should be – greater debate.

Goldberg notes that Obama is fundamentally an admirer of “the foreign-policy realism of President George H.W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.” This assertion struck me as particularly noteworthy, given that the Bush saw the United States’ emergence out of the Cold War at a moment of triumphalism for the liberal order – what Charles Krauthammer called the “unipolar moment” for the United States. Francis Fukuyama, extrapolating on the consequences of American triumph in the Cold War for political order in the world at large, famously declared the “end of history.”

In the quarter century that has elapsed, unipolarity has given way to a fuzzy world of either U.S.-China bipolarity, “weak” unipolarity, or multipolarity, depending on who you ask. Reading Goldberg’s discussion of Obama’s realism, it’s clear that this president’s big takeaway from the Bush 41 years was to avoid over-extension and the over-commitment of U.S. assets to crises that wouldn’t matter in the big picture of world order. It’s tempting given present realities for the United States and Obama’s “Don’t do stupid shit” mantra to brand this president a realist with an instrumentalist understanding of U.S. power, divorced from values, but this only tells part of the story.

At the risk of getting mired in the discussion of what-is-or-isn’t-realist, I’d aver that Obama is better described as a liberal idealist keenly aware of his place in the broader “novel” of American foreign policy, to return to Dworkin’s metaphor. As he ascended to the presidency, Obama was reminded time and time again – indeed, even by some nice people in Norway who gave him a medal – that his presidency would follow that of George W. Bush’s and must avoid repeating that administration’s mistakes. Bush’s exercise of American power embodied over-extension, unilateralism, and a values-first, reason-second approach to the world.

The bet Obama campaigned on and then honed throughout his time in office was that a temporary period of military retrenchment, buttressed by diplomacy, would best position his successors to carry on with the central foreign policy project of sustaining the liberal international order that has been so good to American interests. The end of the war in Iraq and the almost irresponsible pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whatever their negative short-term effects may have been, were borne of this impulse. Similarly, the administration’s pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the nuclear deal with Iran, and diversification of partnerships in Asia speak to Obama’s belief in the value of diplomacy.

Obama’s record suggests that he’s firmly grounded in the liberal tradition in international affairs, favoring internationalism and outreach, but is a realist in his thinking about the exercise of material power, understanding the limits of what American power can accomplish. As a strategist, he is more keenly attuned to costs over strategic end states.

The ‘Pivot’

As someone who thinks and writes a lot about Asia, I also sense that the origins of the “pivot” to Asia revealed the administration’s long-term approach to U.S. foreign policy. Derailed though it was by unexpected crises in the Middle East and Europe, the pivot, in theory, showed a recognition by the president that the United States wasn’t ready to underwrite the international order where it would come under the most stress over the coming generation: in East Asia. Though China’s rise had largely been peaceful up to time the pivot was declared, the administration correctly bet that given China’s unsettled interests, in the South and East China Seas, and in Taiwan, for example, friction would soon emerge.

There’s much to take issue with in the execution of the pivot. The administration ended up preferring to describe the initiative as the “rebalance,” a less energetic descriptor, lacking the suddenness and energy of what the pivot had implied in 2011, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the initiative in Foreign Policy magazine. Clinton, at the time, wrote that the United States needs to be present in Asia as the future of international order is molded there, in a region encompassing half the world’s population:

At a time when the region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, U.S. commitment there is essential. It will help build that architecture and pay dividends for continued American leadership well into this century, just as our post-World War II commitment to building a comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships has paid off many times over — and continues to do so.

It’s interesting to note that Obama echoes some of this in his conversation with Goldberg on why it’s so important for the United States and China to get their bilateral relationship right. “If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order,” he says.

With months on the clock on the Obama presidency, it’s safe to say that the pivot has delivered modest dividends and challenges for U.S. leadership persist in the Asia-Pacific today. Nevertheless, the framing of the pivot as a grand strategic exercise showed that the administration recognized the fundamental task for American leadership and power. In Asia, Obama saw value in supporting old alliances, fostering new partnerships, and encouraging robust multilateralism all as net positives to buttressing the liberal international order. His successor will have much to be thankful for as he or she will face challenges in the region beyond 2016.

My chosen mode of assessing Obama’s success here may employ too generous a yardstick. After all, it basically gives every president for the last 70-some years a pass, with different degrees of success. Obama, I think, on balance has been more successful than the running average of presidents. Perhaps he hasn’t surpassed Bush 41, his supposed realist idol, but he certainly delivered on avoiding a repeat of Bush 43’s failings. Despite these assessments, Goldberg’s piece makes clear that the episodic successes and failures of the administration in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and elsewhere will likely capture a lot of the presidential foreign policy post mortem as we head toward the end of Obama’s eight years. Here, the Obama years come off worse.

In the grand strategic view, Obama’s foreign policy legacy is greater than the sum of its parts. In his eight years, American leadership has mostly muddled and moseyed its way through challenges and crises, suggesting, to the administration’s critics, that the president lacks vision or interest in the proper exercise of American power. But as his predecessors understood (or came to understand by the end of their terms) and as his successor will come to understand, the fundamental objective is supporting the international order that has enabled a period of unprecedented human prosperity, interconnectedness, and relative peace. As he tells Goldberg, “For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world.”

Ankit Panda is an associate editor at The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter at @nktpnd.