Don't Expect Obama to Change Dynamics of US Foreign Policy

Cape Times (South Africa), October 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

Don't Expect Obama to Change Dynamics of US Foreign Policy


BYLINE: Milton Shain

Few South Africans have taken to George W Bush. This is hardly surprising. His inarticulateness, his messy "War on Terror", and his undermining of civil rights at home have made him the target of political commentators, the butt of talk show hosts, and the focus of dinner party mirth. On the other hand, Barack Obama appears to most South Africans as a breath of fresh air, a man with ideas who will return some respectability to the American people.

In particular, South Africans anticipate a less confrontational American foreign policy under an Obama presidency, with a greater emphasis on diplomacy and a downgrading of force. America's belief in "Manifest Destiny" will be relegated to the dustbin of history. But will it?

Not according to Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative. In a deeply informed analysis of American foreign policy since 1776 ("Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c.1776," World Affairs, Spring, 2008), Kagan makes the case that, notwithstanding oppositional voices, American foreign policy has for over 200 years been dominated by the expansion of American power and influence.

And Obama is unlikely to change this. Bush's War in Iraq was very much in line with this long tradition; it was not foisted upon the Bush administration by neo-conservative hawks.

The United States, argues Kagan, has always seen itself as a model for the world; it has always engaged with the world in terms of an ideological belief in "Manifest Destiny". This was evident in New York Governor William Henry Seward's call for America "to renovate the condition of mankind", and in William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan's view that the war against Spain at the end of the 19th century was fought "for liberty and human rights". It was incumbent on America, they declared, "to confer the blessings of liberty and civilisation upon all the rescued peoples".

Similar sentiments were expressed by Woodrow Wilson during America's great moral crusade for democracy against "selfish and autocratic powers" during World War 1, a war seen by many as very much in line with the American Civil War. And again a moral fervour underpinned American actions during the struggle against Nazism and in the subsequent Cold War with the Soviet Union.

To think that Obama will behave differently, maintains Kagan, is to ignore American history and to misunderstand fundamentally America's understanding of itself.

Kagan is not unaware of a counter-tradition within American foreign policy discourse and knows that voices have consistently spoken out against the limitless use of American power. …

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