In President Obama's interview with Matt Yglesias on foreign policy, he did something interesting when pressed on how he squares support for human rights with a foreign policy that has included a number of alliances with dictators. Obama said that the US could only do so much, and that sometimes he has to "recognize the world as it is" and make practical tradeoffs. And, he said, "The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty."
On the surface, it seemed like a dodge, an argument that the US doesn't have to worry too much about promoting democracy and human rights, which will arise naturally. But Obama returned to this point at the very end of the interview, and said something that's crucial to understanding his worldview and the role he sees American foreign policy playing in the world:
The overall trajectory, the overall goal, is a world in which America continues to lead, that we're pushing in the direction of more security, more international norms and rules, more human rights, more free speech, less religious intolerance.
Obama's point here is that the arc of history bends naturally toward democracy and human rights, and that the best thing the US can do is not to solve every crisis individually — which can sometimes make things worse — but rather to help bend that arc in the right direction globally.
The world is improving
The world is, in the long view, getting much better for human beings: people are healthier, freer, and safer than they've ever been, and those trends are holding. The best thing the United States can do for the world, Obama thinks, is strengthen the forces that drive this progress.
In this long view of foreign policy, the best weapon in the war for human rights and democracy isn't the US military or economic sanctions; it's the forces of human progress themselves.
That the world is getting much better is, at this point, an undeniable fact. People live longer and healthier lives than they ever have. Deaths from war are at an all-time low. After the Cold War ended, democracy spread rapidly, and is now the dominant form of government worldwide.
But Obama also has a theory of why humanity has gotten better. Modern creations like the global economy, a US-led global network of alliances, and international institutions like the UN, in this thinking, all work together to, in the aggregate, reduce suffering and promote freedom.
How US foreign policy can accelerate the forces of history
Obama lays this out in one paragraph, right at the beginning of the interview. It's the golden ticket to understanding everything he says later on:
I think it is realistic for us to want to use diplomacy for setting up a rules-based system wherever we can, understanding that it's not always going to work. If we have arms treaties in place, it doesn't mean that you don't have a stray like North Korea that may try to do its own thing. But you've reduced the number of problems that you have and the security and defense challenges that you face if you can create those norms. And one of the great things about American foreign policy in the post-World War II era was that we did a pretty good job with that. It wasn't perfect, but the UN, the IMF, and a whole host of treaties and rules and norms that were established really helped to stabilize the world in ways that it wouldn't otherwise be.
There are two things to understand how boring-sounding international institutions can help accelerate the forces of history like this. First, institutions provide material things — medicine, financial assistance, economic growth — that make people's lives longer and richer. Second, they deter and co-opt bad actors, and encourage what you might call good international behavior.
The American-led alliance system, for example, deters aggression in Europe and East Asia; Russia's bad behavior in eastern Europe likely would have been a lot worse if NATO didn't exist to deter it, for example, or if the EU didn't exist to organize sanctions. More broadly, the ever-expanding webs of international trade ties and political organizations such as the EU make war costly and cooperation with the global community more desirable. By making wars more costly, institutions help protect the spread of democracy, which in turn further reduces the likelihood of war because democracies tend not to fight each other.
The United States is far from the only player in these international institutions by their very nature, but as the single most powerful and most important member, the US has been crucial to bringing other countries on board, and helping to enforce and maintain that liberal international system.
Of course, you can't credit international institutions alone for the spread of prosperity and democracy: these are huge, complicated historical phenomena with lots of causes. But Obama is quite right to say that the design of the post-World War II international order, and its expansion after the end of the Cold War, have helped protect and encourage the long-term historical trends.
Obama's faith in history shapes his approach to human rights
That's fine for the long view, but Obama also has to manage foreign policy now, day-to-day. And, on that view, it can look like he's significantly less active on global human rights. Obama hasn't seriously challenged Chinese authoritarianism or Saudi theocracy. Iran and Russia pose major threats to stability in Europe and the Middle East. And North Korea is still North Korea.
In the Vox interview, Obama's direct response to this line of criticism is pretty weak: the Internet will fix it. "I am a firm believer that particularly in this modern internet age, the capacity of the old-style authoritarian government to sustain itself and to thrive just is going to continue to weaken," he said.
Still, his longer-view, implicit argument is a great deal stronger: the best way to deal with authoritarianism in the long run is to build up the global institutions that have accelerated positive trends worldwide — and to prevent other countries from weakening those institutions and trends.
China is a good example of this. As a rising power that has been at times hostile to Western power, it was widely expected to challenge the US-dominated global order — potentially catastrophically — and in some cases it has. But, since 2008, the country has generally worked within and even endorsed that international system. This was mostly out of self-interest, but the Obama administration has worked to make sure that China's self-interest and that of the international system lined up. The result has been China buying into those positive trends of the status quo, rather than overturning them.
For example, China helped the United States and global economic institutions rescue the global economy after 2008 by refraining from turning to trade protectionism. According to Tufts Fletcher School Professor Dan Drezner, that's evidence that "China is not proposing a serious challenge to what the liberal international order looks like." China benefits from a fairly open international trading regime and would suffer if security competition with the United States ramped up.
Roping China into these systems demonstrates Obama's strategy in action. Throughout the interview, he mentions the need to get China on board with helping maintain global institutions: "you've got to step up and help us underwrite these global rules that in fact help to facilitate your rise," he says, addressing China's leaders.
Obama has attempted to integrate other bad actors into the global system to make them less likely to cause trouble. The opening to Cuba is the clearest example, but so too are his overtures to Iran on nukes and the original (if ill-fated) Russia reset. "We can't guarantee that [Iran makes] a rational decision [on nukes] any more than we can guarantee Russia and Mr. Putin make rational decisions about something like Ukraine," he said. "But we've also got to see whether things like diplomacy, things like economic sanctions, things like international pressure and international norms, will in fact make a difference."
And while these bad actors are co-opted or contained, by sanctions or international isolation, the rest of the world will continue to improve, bringing more states into the global system and depriving its enemies of potential allies. That'll make it harder for these states to sustain aggressive foreign policies — and even brutal repression at home — in the face of long-run international pressure.
The Obama Undoctrine
This long-run vision is, in many wells, quite compelling. But it doesn't do a whole lot for protestors in Hong Kong, Saudi women demanding the right to drive, or Ukrainians gunned down by Russian troops in Donbas. What about abuses that are happening now?
That's where Obama's recognition of America's policy limits kick in. Yglesias calls this Obama's Undoctrine: avoid costly and counterproductive mistakes, particularly military ones. In the area of human rights, that means avoiding ostentatious pressure that might backfire.
For instance, Obama avoided openly embracing Iran's green protest movement in 2009, and he's kept support for the Syrian rebels to a relative minimum. That's because, in a lot of these cases, Obama thinks high-profile American statements or actions can backfire.
Instead, Obama argues, we have to take human rights wins where can get them. Not every issue is amenable to American pressure or direct action. "Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there's going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you'll just modestly make things a little better," he says.
This may not always be a satisfying approach to spreading human rights — long-views rarely are — but it has the virtue of being a smart one.