Obama's Foreign Policy

By Nau, Henry R. | Policy Review, April-May 2010 | Go to article overview

Obama's Foreign Policy


Nau, Henry R., Policy Review


AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY swings like a pendulum. Under President George W. BUSH, U.S. foreign policy promoted a democracy agenda, used force readily to buttress and at times even displace diplomacy, championed free markets, and risked if not relished unilateralism. Under President Barrack Obama, U.S. foreign policy has swung decisively in the opposite direction. Now, U.S. security interests matter more than democracy, force is a last resort, substantial regulations are needed to end the booms and busts of global capitalism, and multilateralism is the sine qua non of U.S. diplomacy.

After more than a year, it is not too early to evaluate the pendulum swings in American foreign policy and ask whether or not Obama is likely to stop the pendulum this time around.

Successful American presidents have stopped the pendulum to achieve novel and lasting contributions to American security and ideals. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman ended pendulum swings between ambitious internationalism under Woodrow Wilson and isolationist nationalism under Harding and Coolidge. Roosevelt blended internationalist and nationalist concepts to commit the United States to multilateral participation in the United Nations while reserving sovereign veto rights for the United States and other great powers on the UN Security Council. When the UN system failed, Truman adapted Roosevelt's formula to regional security and created the Western institutions of NATO, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the European Community, and Bretton Woods that defended and rebuilt postwar Europe and Japan.

Ronald Reagan stopped Cold War pendulum swings between containment and detente. He rejected both the balance of power antics of Richard Nixon and human rights initiatives of Jimmy Carter. Like Roosevelt and Truman he combined realism and idealism to confront and reassure the Soviet Union at the same time. Reagan's military and economic buildups upped the ante in a competition the Soviets could not win while his diplomacy of expanding freedom and reducing reliance on offensive nuclear weapons offered a cooperative alternative the Soviet Union and its satellites could not resist. The effect of Reagan's strategy was to narrow Soviet economic and military options and encourage Soviet domestic reforms. In that sense Reagan helped bring reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev to power in Moscow. He and Gorbachev then ended not only the Cold War but also the Soviet Union. As John Lewis Gaddis points out in Strategies of Containment, "no administration prior to Reagan had deliberately sought to exploit those tensions [in the Soviet Union] with a view to destabilizing the Kremlin leadership and accelerating the decline of the regime it ran."

Since Reagan, American presidents have been less successful at stopping the pendulum. George H.W. Bush in the first Persian Gulf War, and Bill Clinton in Somalia, swung American policy decisively toward the UN and assertive multilateralism. Then, after the UN flopped in Bosnia and Kosovo, George W. Bush pushed the pendulum in the opposite direction. In response to 9/11, he eschewed UN multilateralism altogether and disdained NATO help in invading Afghanistan and Iraq. He made a virtue of unilateralism and lost worldwide credibility. All three presidents suffered reversals, tacking back and forth between engagement and withdrawal without a clear sense of where the pendulum stops.

Will Obama experience the same fate? The chances are good that he will. He has swung the pendulum decisively against George W. Bush. After more than a year, he continues to blame Bush shamelessly for every problem he faces. This reactive tendency is not just partisan; it is part of a broader intellectual and management style. As a self-proclaimed pragmatist, Obama takes on problems as he inherits them. He reacts to what history serves up and sees the world as a complex system in which everything is interconnected. Problems have to be addressed comprehensively, or, like squeezing a balloon, progress in one area will only distort progress in others. …

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