Obama’s foreign policy in light of The American Ascendancy

post to UNC Press Blog, 8 May 2009

The appearance of The American Ascendancy in a paper edition coincides with Obama’s first hundred days in the White House. This happy conjuncture offers a chance for an appraisal of presidential performance in light of the themes sketched out in a present-minded history. How do those themes apply? What insights do they yield?

Let’s start with the Obama record to date. The new president has shifted away from the stance of his predecessor on two notable foreign policy fronts. He has recast the “war against terrorism” into a more focused campaign and toned down the policy rhetoric. This reorientation is evident in the steady liquidation of the Iraq occupation, the denunciation of torture along with the closing of Guantanamo prison, and the direct engagement with Muslim publics. Obama has also shown a pronounced sensitivity to the U.S. stake in a globalized world with all the attendant responsibilities. This change in outlook is already having an impact on a wide range of international and transnational issues, ranging from trade and investment to migration, energy and global warming, nuclear proliferation, and, most recently, disease.

The long view suggests that there are a couple of deep-seated explanations for this shift. Part of it is generational. A Cold War mindset dominated the thinking of Bush’s senior advisers — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell. They had cut their policy teeth in the worldwide struggle against communism, and they functioned within a Republican Party gripped by the triumphalist narrative of Reagan bringing down the Soviet Union. For Obama and those advising him (including a large contingent from the Clinton years), the Cold War was not an intimate and powerful part of their experience. What has loomed large for them are the globalization trends that became so much the talk of the 1990s.

The Bush-Obama policy difference can also be explained in terms of a provincial outlook giving way to one marked by more cosmopolitan impulses. Bush and those closest to him were culturally insular middle Americans. Their world view melded a long-standing regional proclivity for what is popularly called isolationism with the Wilsonian internationalism that gained dominance during the Cold War. The Obama administration — and above all the president himself — embodies a cosmopolitan background and outlook that has been as important a strand in post-1945 America as the provincial one. Millions of Americans over the last half-century have broadened their horizons by vacationing, studying, fighting, and doing business abroad, while millions of foreigners have come into this country through a door opened by the 1965 immigration reform. Reflections of a rising cosmopolitanism in U.S. society are evident in sites as diverse as the classroom, popular media, and restaurant menus. Globalization is more than talk and is as much culture as commerce. The mounting consequences can be seen in the Obama sensibility.

The history that provides a way to evaluate the current shifts in policy also prompts some worries about the future. The record of the last century suggests two danger areas that could seriously disrupt or divert Obama’s presidency.

One has to do with a distinctly imperial engagement in the greater Middle East. Policymakers, the policy establishment, and the country as a whole refuse to see this engagement for what it is. No surprise here. From the conquest of the Philippines to the present, Americans have been in deep denial about their role as fervent imperialists engaged in serial domination of other countries. Now, as earlier, we manage to evade the imperial situation that we are in and the sacrifices and risks that it entails by verbal slight of hand. We distinguish between formal and informal control. One is empire, so the rationalization goes, and the other merely self-interested or neighborly assistance (sometimes called “nation building”). The history of other empires argues strongly that this distinction is false; empires exercise their control over other territories and people by informal mechanisms as well as direct rule. The real test is whether the survival of a U.S.-aligned government hinges on Washington’s support. If that backing is withdrawn, how long is the client likely to survive? If the answer is not long, then the relationship is imperial even if it is informal.

While trying to wind down one imperial project in Iraq, Obama is deepening the U.S. commitment to another — shaping the future of Afghanistan, in which the Karzai government is unambiguously the U.S. client. Typical of imperial enterprises, this one is not only proving far more troublesome than anticipated but it is also having destabilizing regional ramifications. The intense pressure now applied on Pakistan invites worrisome comparisons with the way the U.S. Vietnam commitment spilled over into Cambodia and resulted in a spectacular human disaster.

The other long-term problem Obama faces is finding a sustainable popular base for U.S. policy. This task is critical if major international initiatives are to win democratic acceptance and long-term legitimacy. Genuine public support depends on a sense of national identity that is congruent with what Washington seeks to do in the world. Obama’s major foreign policy speeches to date vaguely invoke “values” that we share, but he has sidestepped the question of exactly what those values are. And even once those values are defined and articulated, will the policy establishment — not to mention ordinary Americans — embrace them?

The pattern of the past suggests Obama is dealing with a public apathetic and even averse to ambitious foreign policy goals. Popular consumer preferences generally (and especially in hard economic times) are likely to trump any broad-based global policy if it proves costly or requires sacrifice. This consumer society has demonstrated an indifference to the material and psychic rewards of empire and uplift, has rejected military service as a duty, has shown impatience with foreign aid, and has tended to see the broader world in ahistorical and culturally flat terms conducive to xenophobic views.

Since taking control of foreign policy, Obama has conveyed the impression of an able technocrat applying his considerable intelligence and energy to undoing the damage inflicted over the last eight years. But in the long run, a technocratic approach may not be enough to restore the basis of U.S. international standing and clout developed in detail in The American Ascendancy. Repairing the deep cracks in the economic foundation, returning to a more prudent kind of leadership, and regaining a durable and broad-based consensus about the United States’s role in the world would seem essential to stemming decline and averting the nightmare of a sharp downward spiral of U.S. reputation and efficacy. On-the-job education may in time equip Obama to address these momentous and enormously difficult challenges confronting the country.

But this possibility assumes that he is in the White House long enough to translate what he has learned into a fresh, coherent, sustainable policy suited to the massive problems before him. We also have to assume that he is not ambushed by an international crisis of the sort that has diverted the attention of some of his predecessors, draining their political capital and leaving them officially wounded and personally exhausted.

The historian can identify the risks but must, like everyone else, anxiously watch the Obama rescue operation unfold, savoring what could be one of the great dramas in the history of U.S. foreign relations.

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