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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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He also cites the setting of a date to begin withdrawal and “the president’s focus on a mission commensurate with our resources” as other examples of the president limiting the scope of what he intends to accomplish there. Still Mr. Fontaine, who was Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s chief foreign-policy adviser, speaks of Afghanistan and Iran as “inherited wars” – so perhaps not the best place to look for an Obama blueprint.

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But he sees the same “narrowing” of goals elsewhere in the president’s diplomacy.

“Look at the trip to China, where human rights took a back seat and the agenda suddenly looked less full than with Bush,” he says. “It’s another example of narrowly concentrating with steely-eyed focus on core national interests.”

Others counter that Obama’s foreign-policy approach is not so much about narrowing goals as it is about redefining American power for the 21st century.

“In some ways, we have moved back under Obama to a more traditional American internationalism of the kind practiced by George H.W. Bush,” says Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter to President Clinton and Madeleine Albright, who is now executive director of the National Security Network in Washington. “But there is also a 21st-century difference that accounts for so much of what [Obama] is doing.” That “difference” includes a diffusion of global power among a longer list of players – countries like China, India, and Brazil.

But it also derives from what Ms. Hurlburt calls a “sense of eight years of squandering our military power and our smart power, and then an economic crisis that has placed additional limits on us.” The result, she says, is that “Obama has to take this diffusion of power into account even as he acts to
repair the damage done to America’s standing and ability to persuade in the world.”

Comparisons of Obama’s foreign policy to that of the elder Bush’s have mushroomed. This is especially true after the president announced an Afghanistan policy with limited and specific objectives (reminiscent of a Gulf War that stopped short of taking out Saddam Hussein) and built around a substantial international effort.

But it is Obama himself who first invited the comparisons with his stated admiration for the former president’s “wise” handling of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War.

“The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, of, in some ways, Ronald Reagan,” candidate Obama declared in Pennsylvania before winning the Democratic nomination.