Obama at one year: new realism in foreign policy
Less ideological than Bush, Barack Obama pursues a more traditional approach to foreign affairs, marked by a narrower definition of US interests.
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“This is a president and foreign-policy team who are very pragmatic, driven by the need to solve problems, and are therefore not out looking for some new template to guide the United States,” says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “The guiding rule of thumb seems to be, ‘What’s the problem, how do we fix it, and who’s going to help us fix it?’ Questions like regime type and ideology are playing a much smaller role than before.”Skip to next paragraph
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Any assessment of Obama's first year in office must deal with the most immediate “before,” which means in this case George W. Bush. His vision for transformation of the Middle East started with “regime change,” to be followed up with an imposed democratization.
While President Bush’s decisionmaking often derived from ideological certitudes and presidential gut feelings, Obama’s is seen as deliberative – some say hyperdeliberative – as exemplified by the 10 national-security team meetings he held over nearly three months before he made his Afghanistan decision.
Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, announced Dec. 1 at West Point before a sea of cadets in dress gray, is one of a few major initiatives that experts have pored over to glean the signposts of this president’s foreign policy. Others include his engagement strategy with adversaries, in particular Iran, and what was widely interpreted as a deferential demeanor during his trip to Asia – most notably toward Beijing.
Like Mr. Kupchan, many analysts are hesitant to proclaim an “Obama doctrine” that would define this president the way preventive war and American unilateralism made up the Bush doctrine. Engagement of America’s adversaries is the shorthand some experts have settled on to describe an Obama doctrine. For others, it’s a whittling down of global aspirations to a core of realistic goals.
But as Obama enters his second year in office, the elements of a defining approach to foreign policy continue to emerge. They include a realistic assessment of available resources when making new commitments, recognition of an accelerating shift in the distribution of global power – most notably in favor of Asia – and a correlative recognition of the limits of American power.
Acknowledgment of those limits has led in turn to a revaluation of the role of other countries in addressing global issues – and Obama priorities – from global warming to nuclear proliferation.
The president’s Afghanistan strategy, with a more limited view of the global war on terrorism, stands out to many analysts as offering some of the best insight into Obama’s foreign-policy vision.
“His approach to international affairs comes out of a more narrowly construed definition of American national interests,” says Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “In his Afghanistan speech, he narrowed the scope of the mission to defeating Al Qaeda, and I don’t think he uttered the word democracy once.”