Explaining Obama’s Foreign Policy: Don’t Bother

Danny Cooper*
Brisbane, 10 August 2014 (Alochonaa): Barack Obama’s foreign policy has often offended intellectuals who sit at different points along the ideological spectrum. Liberals have been nervous about the use of predator drones. Neoconservatives get nervous about Obama’s commitment to U.S. leadership. And realists get nervous about everything.
How, then, should Barack Obama’s foreign policy be described? Commentators have been asking this question for many years. In all of this commentary, the usual categories have been applied – is he a realist/liberal, a Wilsonian/Jeffersonian, an anti-imperialist influenced by his father’s anti-colonial politics/or an interventionist committed to preserving the U.S. empire?  
Admittedly, it is difficult to define a president who played a part in ending America’s war in Iraq, pursued engagement with Iran, intervened to unseat a dictator in Libya, unleashed U.S. predator drones to decimate al-Qaeda, briefly escalated the war in Afghanistan before giving the military a firm deadline signalling America’s commitment to start withdrawing, pivoted to Asia in order to contain the rise of China, and moved back and forth on the question of humanitarian intervention in Syria, eventually deciding to do very little. Is it even possible to define such an approach? Does it even matter?
Not much, I have come to believe. Historians of U.S. foreign relations have obviously gone to considerable lengths to define diplomatic traditions that can help make sense of American foreign policy. Walter Russell Mead, Walter McDougall, and Henry Nau have all written thoughtful volumes on U.S. foreign policy traditions. When these traditions are grounded deep in American political culture as is, for instance, the Jacksonian tradition (the tradition that Mead identifies as the most militaristic and links to the wave of Scotch-Irish who moved into the American Old West), there is some value in thinking about its broader impact on American society.
Yet too often these traditions do not really capture the complexities of an administration’s decision making. When Richard Nixon, for instance, renounced the possible first use of chemical weapons in 1969, making this official U.S. policy, was he acting as a liberal or a realist? When Jimmy Carter told the Soviets that if they attempted to seize control of the Persian Gulf, they would be resisted with U.S. force, was this a Jacksonian response or a Jeffersonian response? When George W. Bush rejected Vice President Cheney’s advice to bomb a nuclear reactor being constructed in Syria in 2007, was this consistent with the so-called Bush doctrine?
We obviously like to label the actions of those who lead, but the point I am making here is a rather simple one. While all leaders have belief systems, worldviews, and what some political scientists would call “operational codes,” most decision making is situational. The factors that presidents must weigh before they act in the world are many and varied.
What really matters is how actors define situations. When it comes to Obama, there have been a number of core principles guiding how he has defined the challenges he has faced as president. Principle number 1 – America must pay more attention to the means and ends of American foreign policy, making sure that it can pay for its commitments abroad. Principle number 2 – America must be willing to work through global and regional institutions to advance the interests of the international order. Principle number 3 – when American interests are threatened, America will act unilaterally with precision and stealth to reduce threats to the homeland. Principle number 4 – in an era of greater resource scarcity, America should expect more from its allies.
Each of these principles shaped how Obama has viewed the situations in which he has found himself. Winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, working with allies to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, sedulously attempting to avoid conflict in Syria’s messy civil war, relying on small contingents of special forces and U.S. technology to neutralize al-Qaeda, all of these policies have been shaped by how Obama defined the situation in which he found himself in 2009 – a time when, in the words of Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s most influential speechwriters, the U.S. was faced with the task of trying to “preserve” the era of U.S. leadership in an age of budget cutbacks and economic malaise.  
Confusion surrounding Obama’s foreign policy also masks a deeper confusion over America’s role in the world since the end of WWII. American foreign policy, after all, has never truly been defined as realist or liberal. As John Ikenberry has argued, the United States went about constructing a liberal international order after World War II that would be open and ruled based, and supported by both U.S. power and global institutions. This was the vision animating U.S. policymakers as they sought a world based on free trade, international law, democracy, and international organizations. With the onset of the Cold War, however, a much more militarized order, based on rival alliances and superpower competition, was forced to co-exist with the more hopeful vision originally espoused. These two orders would operate simultaneously throughout the Cold War.      
When the Cold War ended, George H.W. Bush proclaimed the arrival of a “new world order,” and Francis Fukuyama spoke about the “end of history.” The great hope was that the liberal international order could now flourish without policy-makers worrying about the Cold War order of arms races and security dilemmas.
 This, we now know, was wishful thinking. 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chinese assertiveness, Russian territorial conquest, all of this suggests that these two orders, whatever adjustments have taken place, will persist deep into the twenty-first century. The liberal international order, despite neoconservative concerns to the contrary, is still very much alive but so is great power competition. The Cold War is certainly gone and the world is not quite the same but the use of force is still very much a policy option for many countries, and nations continue to eye their historic adversaries suspiciously. Nobody really knows how Obama, or anyone else for that matter, would respond to Chinese aggression against Taiwan, or Russian aggression against the Baltic states. Nor does anybody really know how the rulers of these countries would respond to the U.S. response. It doesn’t matter how many red lines are drawn and crossed. It doesn’t matter how we think about “escalation” and the issuing of threats. Your guess is as good as mine.
 *Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He is a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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