Scoring Obama's Foreign Policy: A Progressive Pragmatist Tries to Bend History

By Indyk, Martin S.; Lieberthal, Kenneth G. et al. | Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Scoring Obama's Foreign Policy: A Progressive Pragmatist Tries to Bend History


Indyk, Martin S., Lieberthal, Kenneth G., O'Hanlon, Michael E., Foreign Affairs


As November's U.S. presidential election approaches, foreign policy and national security issues are rising in importance. President Barack Obama is running on a platform of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while demonstrating toughness against al Qaeda. His Republican opponents charge him with presiding over the United States' decline and demonstrating fecklessness on Iran. The true story is somewhat more complicated than either side admits.

When Obama was sworn into o/ce in January 2009, he had already developed an activist vision of his foreign policy destiny. He would refurbish the United States' image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; "reset" relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; elicit Chinese cooperation on regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East. By his own account, Obama sought nothing less than to bend history's arc in the direction of justice and a more peaceful, stable world.

There was inevitable tension between Obama's soaring rhetoric and desire for fundamental change, on the one hand, and his instinct for governing pragmatically, on the other. The history of the Obama administration's foreign policy has thus been one of attempts to reconcile the president's lofty vision with his innate realism and political caution. In o/ce, Obama has been a progressive where possible but a pragmatist when necessary. And given the domestic and global situations he has faced, pragmatism has dominated.

This balancing act has pleased few and provided fodder for Obama's critics. His compromises have been interpreted as signs of weakness, and his inability to produce clean outcomes in short order taken as an indication of incompetence. His efforts to engage competing powers have seemed at times to come at the cost of ignoring traditional allies. Above all, his approach has caused some to question whether he has a strategy at all or merely responds to events.

Such a portrayal, however, misses the point. Obama is neither an out-of-his-depth naif nor a reactive realist. He has been trying to shape a new liberal global order with the United States still in the lead but sharing more responsibilities and burdens with others where possible or necessary. Surrounding himself with experienced cabinet members who are not personally close to him, along with junior advisers who are close but not experienced, Obama has kept the conceptualization, articulation, and sometimes even implementation of his foreign policy in his own hands. Intelligent, self-confident, ambitious, and aloof, he is more directly responsible for his record than most of his predecessors have been.

He has racked up some notable successes, including significantly weakening al Qaeda, effectively managing relations with China, rebuilding the United States' international reputation, resetting the relationship with Russia and ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New start), achieving a un Security Council resolution imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, completing overdue but welcome free-trade accords, and withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

There have also been some notable setbacks, including no progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, very little to show on combating climate change, the United States' continued low standing in the Muslim world, deepening frictions in U.S.-Pakistani relations, a Mexico awash in drugs and violence, an Iran still bent on acquiring the means to produce and deliver nuclear weapons, and a North Korea still developing its nuclear arsenal.

The Obama approach has been relatively nonideological in practice but informed by a realistic overarching sense of the United States' role in the world in the twenty-first century. The tone has been neither that of American triumphalism and exceptionalism nor one of American decline. On balance, this approach has been effective, conveying a degree of openness to the views of other leaders and the interests of other nations while still projecting confidence and leadership. …

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