President Obama's address at the United Nations today was a stirring defense of universal moral values and international law — one that felt weirdly at odds with his actual policies. For example, at one point Obama said, "all of us — big nations and small — must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms." But it was hard to see how the American targeted-killing campaign, as well as the recent escalation in Syria, fit in.
In a weird way, this sour note is what made Obama's speech so important: it was perhaps the clearest articulation yet of what he actually believes and how he sees the world, and yet it also showed how his policies do not line up with those beliefs. The UN address — purportedly written by the president himself — laid out Obama's fundamental worldview in especially clear terms. He's an inveterate optimist, deeply believing that we've built a world with a bright future. But he's also willing to take aggressive, even cynical actions to secure that future. That's why his rhetoric and policy so often feel at odds.
Obama's fundamental worldview: we're headed for a better future
The headlines have been pretty grim this year — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)'s mass slaughter and beheadings, Russia's invasion(s) of Ukraine, the terrifyingly rapid spread of Ebola, and the deep-seated American racism on display in Ferguson, Missouri. So for all that, the basic cheeriness of Obama's message at the UN might seem a bit jarring.
"I often tell young people in the United States that this is the best time in human history to be born," the president said, despite all of these troubles. As it happens, the best evidence we have says he's right. Around the world, people are living longer and freer lives now than they ever have. Disease and poverty are in decline. Wars are less common, and they kill fewer people even when they do happen.
But why is everything looking so (relatively) sunny? Here we get to the core of Obama's speech: the world is improving because we have decided to improve it. Organizations like the UN and NATO channel collective resources into solving problems like war, disease, and poverty — pushing towards a better future.
The central thrust of Obama's speech, then, is that these global institutions must be defended and expanded if our current golden age is to be preserved. This line, fairly early in the speech, is the Rosetta Stone for Obama's vision: "If we lift our eyes beyond our borders — if we think globally and act cooperatively — we can shape the course of this century as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age."
Even the world's most challenging collective action problem, climate change, can be approached in this way. "America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions," he said, "but we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power."
Obama's most basic belief is that the international order is working. But that doesn't mean its survival is guaranteed.
Obama's fundamental policy: destroy the threats to this system
Sandwiched between Obama's optimistic opening and closing remarks, however, were long disquisitions on two pressing policy problems: Ukraine and ISIS. It might seem jarring that a speech about hope turned so quickly to war. But as upbeat as Obama might sound, his foreign policy has more often than not taken some pretty dark turns when it comes to questions of war and peace.
In Obama's mind, this is totally consistent. He sees the United States and its military as the protectors of the international system — and justified in acting, even unilaterally, to protect it. This passage is absolutely crucial to understanding what he's getting at:
I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done. We are heirs to a proud legacy of freedom, and we are prepared to do what is necessary to secure that legacy for generations to come. Join us in this common mission, for today's children and tomorrow's.
Obama defines America's own mission — its "proud legacy of freedom" — as being essentially identical with the quest for global freedom. "Joining America" means joining in the mission of improving the world. Russia and ISIS, by extension, are defined as outside of the global community.
That's because, for Obama, they threaten the very foundations on which international progress rests. "Russia's actions in Ukraine challenge this post-war order," he said. They embody "a vision of the world in which might makes right — a world in which one nation's borders can be redrawn by another." They're the fundamental antithesis of Obama's cooperative, egalitarian vision of how the world works.
Ditto ISIS. "Humanity's future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion," he said. So, "first, the terrorist group known as [ISIS] must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed."
Because Obama also has a somewhat skeptical view of what American military force alone can accomplish, among other reasons, he hasn't answered either Russia or ISIS with full-scale war. But he has taken actions that, in the context of his otherwise quite restrained foreign policy, are big: slapping the strictest sanctions on Russia since the Cold War, and launching a concerted air campaign to root ISIS out of its sanctuaries in Iraq and Syria.
When you view Obama's foreign policy through the lens of defending the global order, it starts to make a lot more sense. Take, for example, his measured China policy and "reset" with Russia early in his Presidency. Obama wants to welcome powerful nations into the international fold, and get them cooperating through organizations like the UN rather than trying to topple or skirt the current order. China looks to be playing ball. Russia isn't so much, and Obama's policy changed accordingly (arguably too little and too late, but changed nonetheless).
Ditto his counterterrorism policy. There's a very strong case that Obama's targeted killing campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan violates international law, and is ethically dubious in any case. But Obama believes that defeating al-Qaeda is, ultimately, necessary to protect the United States and defend the global order from a violent group fundamentally opposed to it. In short, you have to violate international law in order to save it.
There is a lot to criticize in this worldview, as well as Obama's means of implementing it. But to criticize Obama's foreign policy, we must first understand it. And, good or bad, Obama's UN speech was revelatory: It finally explains why he talks like a liberal but acts like a realist. Obama is using realist policies to build a liberal order. It's a theory that sounds idealistic and patriotic when laid out in a UN address, but in practice it looks pretty damn grimy.