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The best articulation yet of how President Obama sees the world

President Obama meets with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009.
Pete Souza/White House via Getty

On Thursday morning, the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg published a 20,000-word essay on President Obama's foreign policy struggles, successes, and vision, and within about an hour — less time than you would think it takes to read the article itself — discussion in the Washington-based foreign policy community had devolved into the umpteenth round of an important but narrower debate: Was the president right or wrong to decline a military intervention in Syria?

It's a worthwhile debate, but one that has already been litigated in hundreds of op-eds. And the Atlantic piece explores — in perhaps greater depth than anything that has previously been published — a larger question, one that speaks to Syria but also to the much wider range of global challenges Obama has taken on during his seven years in power, and the lessons that his successor should and should not take from the Obama era: How does he see the world and America's proper role in it?

Goldberg, midway through the novella-length piece, offers a crucial answer to this question that, I think, explains much of how Obama sees the world and why he's approached it the way he has:

He has a tragic realist’s understanding of sin, cowardice, and corruption, and a Hobbesian appreciation of how fear shapes human behavior. And yet he consistently, and with apparent sincerity, professes optimism that the world is bending toward justice. He is, in a way, a Hobbesian optimist.

"Hobbesian optimist," though it might not immediately seem it, is, to me, the best articulation yet of how Obama sees the world. It's a characterization, as Goldberg portrays it, that squares with my own impressions of the president's worldview, based in part on (admittedly far fewer) discussions with the president and members of his administration.

But this being Vox rather than the Atlantic (though, as a former employee of the latter, I do love a good 17th-century philosophy reference), I might rephrase it a little more like this:

  1. Obama, an optimist, believes that long-term historical trends innately favor American interests and values, and so his role is to encourage and manage that trend.
  2. Obama, a modest pragmatist, believes that some forces, particularly in the near term, are beyond American control, and that recognizing this is crucial to avoiding costly overreach that would risk undermining the more positive long-term trends.
  3. Obama, a curmudgeon, believes the Washington foreign policy establishment gets those two points backward, pushing the US toward doomed missions to fix unfixable near-term problems, while ignoring more important long-term opportunities, and that this difference of opinion explains much of the criticism he's faced.

If you'll indulge a bit of old-school, blog-style aggregation (a practice I'm happy to see my peers at the New York Times embrace), I've gathered some quotes from the Atlantic piece that I think will show you what I mean.

1) Obama as optimist: The arc of history bends in America's favor

Goldberg, during one of his interviews with Obama, actually asked him, in a discussion on ISIS, about "the Hobbesian notion that people organize themselves into collectives to stave off their supreme fear, which is death." Thankfully, the conversation did not dwell on philosophical principles, but it did prompt Obama to repeat a line he has said often — that for all the world's problems, he remains fundamentally optimistic:

"Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil," he said. "I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic."

"I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference."

Problems had emerged, Obama argued, where that progress had been "hugely uneven":

"And what has been clear throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is that the progress we make in social order and taming our baser impulses and steadying our fears can be reversed very quickly. Social order starts breaking down if people are under profound stress. Then the default position is tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown."

This spoke to how Obama sees challenges as well as opportunities: as a matter of encouraging that global progress toward peace and prosperity, while also acknowledging how dangerous it can be when that progress stalls or reverses. But it sees the latter as the exception rather than the norm.

This has been a theme of Obama's rhetoric during his second term. In August 2014, amid the degeneration of Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, he gave a speech at a fundraiser event in upstate New York, at which he sounded downright optimistic.

He'd 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'd said. "And I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago, or 30 years ago."

Nearly two years later, Obama is sounding a bit more chastened, but that core optimism is still there.

Obama and Putin toast at the United Nations in 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

It comes through in his description of adversaries as on a doomed and self-defeating quest to challenge American preeminence. He told Goldberg of Vladimir Putin's Russia, "They are overextended. They’re bleeding. And their economy has contracted for three years in a row, drastically."

It comes through in his discussions of terrorism, which seek to place it in a context in which Americans might come to understand it as not as existentially threatening as it might initially seem:

Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. Several years ago, he expressed to me his admiration for Israelis’ "resilience" in the face of constant terrorism, and it is clear that he would like to see resilience replace panic in American society. Nevertheless, his advisers are fighting a constant rearguard action to keep Obama from placing terrorism in what he considers its "proper" perspective, out of concern that he will seem insensitive to the fears of the American people.

And it comes through in his view of America's global role, which he sees as largely positive:

"For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world," he said. "If you compare us to previous superpowers, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest, and have been interested in establishing norms that benefit everyone. If it is possible to do good at a bearable cost, to save lives, we will do it."

...and it's a role Obama also sees as necessary:

"The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results," he said. "That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate."

On this point, the Atlantic piece dwells at length on Obama's recent visit to Southeast Asia, a part of the world that the president clearly sees as both very important to the world and naturally inclined toward American interests and values. Obama, Goldberg writes, "is fixated on turning America’s attention to Asia. For Obama, Asia represents the future." And on Asia, Obama seems pretty optimistic:

I noted that the 200 or so young Southeast Asians in the room earlier that day—including citizens of Communist-ruled countries—seemed to love America. "They do," Obama said. "In Vietnam right now, America polls at 80 percent."

The point to all this is that, in Obama's view, the arc of history does bend toward American values and interests, and in a way that doesn't just serve but actually invites continued American preeminence. But there is, in his view, a caveat to that.

2) Obama as modest pragmatist: Much is beyond American control

Whether you see it as modesty or defeatism, and whether you pathologize it as a wise lesson from or an overreaction to America's disastrous invasion of Iraq, there is a very clear preoccupation, in Obama's thinking, with limitations. And there is a belief that should America ignore those limitations, it risks undermining the long-term trends that otherwise bend in its favor.

Here's Goldberg:

Over the course of our conversations, I came to see Obama as a president who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events, even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic foreign-policy achievements. [...]

These [achievements] he accomplished despite his growing sense that larger forces—the riptide of tribal feeling in a world that should have already shed its atavism; the resilience of small men who rule large countries in ways contrary to their own best interests; the persistence of fear as a governing human emotion—frequently conspire against the best of America’s intentions.

"I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything," Obama told Goldberg. "Almost every great world power has succumbed [to overextension]. What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that."

raqqa fighters anti-isis
Anti-ISIS fighters in the countryside near Raqqa. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

"The rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed — not on his watch, and not for a generation to come," Goldberg writes.

This is a point I have heard repeatedly from administration officials: that the US can and must take action against ISIS, but it should also remember that the group springs from problems in the Middle East that will take many years to solve and that America cannot fix unilaterally. It's something you hear even from those who wish Obama had taken more forceful action in Syria: a recognition that some problems are beyond fixing.

This is easy enough to recognize on ISIS, which after all draws, in part, from problems that the US already spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives trying to address in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's difficult to argue with a straight face that American action can fully resolve those problems, especially in the near term. And surely we have learned that trying to fix the Middle East with military force often not only fails but makes things worse.

But Obama's belief in limitations extends beyond the collapse of Iraq and Syria to the rest of the world, and to challenges where the conventional wisdom is less chastened. For example, on Russia's invasions of Ukraine, Obama sees long-term trends that cut against Russia's ability to meddle in Europe, but nonetheless sees factors that also give Russia undeniable influence there:

Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there. "The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do," he said.

3) Obama as curmudgeon: resisting entrenched pressure to overreact

On Ukraine, as on Syria and Iraq, Obama expresses this modesty by a belief that America is ultimately better off recognizing and adhering to its limitations; that part of his responsibility as president is to resist the pressure to overextend and thus, in his view, undercut the long-term trends that favor American interests.

That pressure, from America's allies and from its Washington-based foreign policy establishment, clearly troubles Obama — and he seems to see resisting it as an important foreign policy mission in itself.

He seems to see the foreign policy establishment as having a worldview precisely the opposite of his own: that it is overwhelmingly focused on near-term challenges, that it is fundamentally fearful and pessimistic about American global preeminence, and that this leads the establishment to desire policies that are overreactive and ultimately self-destructive.

This comes through especially in Obama's characterization of his decision, in 2013, to pull back from his earlier threats to launch military strikes in Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. This is a long passage but worth reading in full (my emphasis added):

"I’m very proud of this moment," he told me. "The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make."

This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the "Washington playbook."

"Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power," he said. "That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply."

More broadly, Obama sees the foreign policy establishment as pulling him away from long-term and more important opportunities such as "pivoting" America to Asia, and toward near-term crises such as terrorism:

The president also gets frustrated that terrorism keeps swamping his larger agenda, particularly as it relates to rebalancing America’s global priorities. For years, the "pivot to Asia" has been a paramount priority of his. America’s economic future lies in Asia, he believes, and the challenge posed by China’s rise requires constant attention.

There is also an impulse to what Goldberg calls Obama's "spockian" belief that coolheadedness and long-term thinking must overcome panic and short-term thinking. And in that, he clearly sees himself as constantly fighting a Washington establishment that is far more preoccupied, he believes, with the latter.

Obama's worldview: bending, but not reversing, the arc of history

Obama's foreign policy is often, and with reason, defined by the action he will not take: intervention in Syria, for example. But Goldberg points out that "Obama is not risk-averse," giving as an example the nuclear deal with Iran. "He has bet global security and his own legacy that one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terrorism will adhere to an agreement to curtail its nuclear program."

khamenei sentences
Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran, Iran, on July 8, 2014. (Leader.ir - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

One might point as well to Obama's successful outreaches to Cuba, Vietnam, and Myanmar — as well as to his less successful, first-term outreaches to Syria and Russia. These were not risks that put American troops in harm's way, but they were risks nonetheless.

And while Obama is correctly seen as more willing to take action when that action is diplomatic rather than military, or when it is multilateral rather than unilateral, Goldberg points out that Obama has also "become the most successful terrorist-hunter in the history of the presidency," and that he unilaterally sent troops into Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden.

Something that seems to unite where Obama is willing to act is when those actions can bend the arc of history — a favored phrase of his — further in a direction it was already pointing. He believes that deep historical trends point toward continued American centrality in the world, and thus encourage hostile nations to drop their antagonism and work with the US. And he believes history does not favor unpopular dictatorships or overextending regional powers. So in his view, it makes sense to cultivate and encourage those preexisting forces.

The opposite perhaps applies as well: that Obama is hesitant or resistant to act when he believes that action would require reversing those sorts of sweeping historical forces. This helps to explain his modesty on America's ability to resolve the long-mounting disintegration of the Middle East, or to reverse Russia's centuries-old reach in Ukraine.

You can see both of these beliefs coming together, for example, in Obama's understanding of Putin and what motivates him, as he puts it in this quote to Goldberg:

"He’s constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important."

This speaks both to Obama's optimism — it's in Putin's own interest to ultimately bend to the American-led world order, rather than try to defy it — as well as his modesty (or, if you prefer, defeatism) about the US's ability to force that realization on Putin.

But, crucially, Obama believes that in order to bend that arc of history in the proper direction, we also have to avoid the temptation — or, one might say, the hubris — to believe that the United States can reverse that arc entirely, which would both necessarily fail and risk sabotaging the historical forces that otherwise work in our favor.

Whether this worldview is correct or incorrect is an important question. But it is worth, at the outset, at least understanding that often-oversimplified worldview, its ambitions, and its proscriptions for whoever happens to follow Obama in the Oval Office.