clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The stubborn optimism of Obama's foreign policy worldview

President Obama in 2012
President Obama in 2012

President Obama, speaking at a fundraiser event in upstate New York in Friday, sounded downright optimistic about this moment in American foreign policy.

He declared that the US was safer than ever, dismissed the threat of Russian aggression, downplayed the chaos in the Middle East as not particularly new, and argued that US global leadership was still solidly secure. "Our values, our leadership, our military power but also our diplomatic power, the power of our culture is one that means we will get through these challenging times just like we have in the past," he said. "And I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago."

This may be the closest that Obama, in his second term, has come to a foreign policy doctrine: everything will work out in the end, and America needs to resist the impulse to overreact to today's crises abroad. This confidence is alarming to US foreign policy elites — in part because it is so different from the reactive, crisis-to-crisis leadership that Americans are used to. It flows out of Obama's commitment to restraint; to avoiding the disastrous overreach of not just George W. Bush, but of an entire string of Cold War presidents who mired the US in one conflict after another.

But this long-term vision, for all its merits, leaves Obama indecisive or adrift on short-term problems, which are left to fester. Since the first major foreign policy decision of his presidency — whether to increase or decrease the military presence in Afghanistan — he has oscillated from one policy to another, pressured by advisors and cabinet secretaries who have wildly different goals and strategies. He has the academic's gift for seeing the big picture —but it comes at the cost of managing the day-to-day.

What Obama's foreign policy optimism gets right

Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at a 2012 summit in Mexico (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages)

In the broad view of history, Obama is more right than you may think. The world is, in fact, safer than ever for Americans. The United States's position as the world's sole superpower is secure. And the threats against the US and the US-led global order may be worsening, but they are still nowhere near as dangerous as the threats of the 20th century.

Obama's optimism is not about the fate of American foreign policy this month or this year; it's about this century. And in that long-term view he is absolutely correct to be optimistic. America is and will continue to be both safe and dominant, as will the model of liberal democracy it represents. Its economy is the world's largest even at a time of recession and its military is the world's strongest even during a time of cuts.

The rest of the world has grown so reliant on American dominance that even former enemies or states that would otherwise be hostile — Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iraq — habitually look to the US for guidance, and complain when they don't get enough American input. That is a stunning development after a 20th century in which American leadership was actively resisted around so much of the world.

The world, as scary and dangerous as it can be, is safer than ever for Americans and for the United States. As Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen argued in an excellent 2012 piece for Foreign Affairs, the threats of the 21st century simply come nowhere close to the threats of the 20th. After decades of legitimately existential threats — the rise of fascism and then communism, the nuclear dangers of the Cold War, the cancerous extremism that seized not just bands of armed madmen but entire governments and societies — there is simply nothing so dangerous left. Americans today are as likely to be killed by terrorism, perhaps the scariest threat of the 21st century, as they are by their own furniture.

It's not just the US. Nearly every long-term metric of human welfare shows that things are getting better: war is rapidly declining, so are disease and starvation, standards of living are rising, and nearly everywhere people are living longer and healthier and wealthier lives. One major exception is democracy, which after centuries of growth around the world has stalled in its spread and even receded a bit in recent years, but otherwise the global trend is toward liberal democracy and free trade — an arc that bends toward American dominance.

What Obama's worldview leaves out

Egyptian supporters of coup leader Abdel Fatah el-Sisi carry banners against Obama (Ester Meerman / Contributor)

Still, this does not obviate the very valid criticisms of Obama's foreign policy drift. Long-term optimism is not going to save Iraqis and Syrians facing acts of genocide by ISIS, nor will it stabilize those countries, nor protect against the rising tide of anti-American jihadism in the region. Worse, that optimism may also lead Obama to understate the still-volatile nature of the world today and rationalize a disengagement that is exacerbating today's threats.

Take one of Obama's major foreign policy failures, not so much in terms of scale but in self-inflicted damage: Egypt. In 2013, as Egypt's first-ever democratically elected government turned increasingly authoritarian, the Obama administration could not decide whether it should continue to support that government or turn against the Islamist president. As the Egyptian military prepared to stage a coup, the US sent disastrously mixed messages; not only did the coup go forward, destroying one of the hardest-won gains of the Arab Spring, but the US alienated the military regime in the process, leaving it with little leverage.

Worse, the US could not decide how severely to punish the coup regime, or whether to even denounce it at all; they condemned it one day and praised it the next. They spent months denying a coup had happened, then responded by withdrawing some military aid. Egypt now has a military dictator who openly reviles the US; Obama could not decide whether he wanted to support democracy there or maintain a useful if authoritarian ally, so now the US has neither. That failure, a direct result of disengagement and indecisiveness, will persist after he leaves office.

Obama has been similarly wishy-washy on Syria. He did not support the rebels early in the conflict, when it might have made a difference, but now that it is too late to matter he has tilted toward arming the rebels more fully. In Iraq, he favored withdrawing from the country's political and security challenges when they were non-urgent but also less daunting to address, and now that they are harder and more pressing he is finally coming around.

Obama's foreign policy optimism during a time of global disintegration captures every worry that foreign policy hands have had about his second term: That he is unconcerned, perhaps even blithe, about rising threats and deteriorating status quos. That he has, as he's himself admitted with regards to the rise of ISIS, no plan for addressing these challenges nor prospects of getting one. That even when he does as have a plan, such as for countering Russia's invasion of Ukraine, that plan is so cautious and risk-averse as to make little substantial difference.

It's little wonder that the foreign policy elite in Washington — Republican and Democratic — is increasingly decrying Obama's "drift of disengagement in world affairs," as long-time Obama supporter and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it.

The professor as foreign policy president

President Obama (Alex Wong/Getty)

A better case study of Obama's doctrine of long-term optimism, though, might be Ukraine. Here's what he said about Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine in his Friday comments:

Russia looks pretty aggressive right now -- but Russia's economy is going nowhere. Here's a quick test for you: Are there long lines of people trying to emigrate into Russia? I don't think so.

This would seem to be Obama at his most dangerously disengaged. Russia's economy is in fact going nowhere, thanks in large part to US-brokered economic sanctions, but that economic downslide is doing exactly zero to turn back the Russian tanks that are rolling into Ukraine. It is doing zero to stop Putin from his ongoing invasion of Europe. Yet every time Obama is questioned about his plan for Russia he replies with this shrug of an answer about Russia's long-term economic prospects.

This is a strategy that essentially abandons eastern Ukraine — and any other non-NATO eastern European country that Putin might choose to invade — to Russian aggression. Still, in the very long view, it is essentially correct: Russia's foreign policy is dangerous today, but in the long-term it is self-defeating. On the scale of years or decades, Putin will leave Russia weaker, less powerful, and less of a threat; the US-led Western order will eventually prevail. "Eventually" does nothing to address Russian aggression now, but it will turn it back some day.

But Obama's job is not to be an academic studying long-term trends in American foreign policy. His job is to make decisions — hard decisions — every single day for eight extremely difficult years. Parsing the arc of foreign-policy history has not given him the answers for the problems of this moment. He is steering a race car as if it were a cruise ship, and while history will likely thank him for keeping US foreign policy pointed in the right direction, it may not so easily forgive him for the damage taken along the way.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.