clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Filed under:

Think the world is on fire? Obama’s national security adviser says things are better than ever.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Between ISIS attacks, Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine, and Brexit, it can feel a lot like the world has been falling apart these past few years.

So it’s surprising — and perhaps a little disconcerting — to learn that Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, is actually optimistic about the state of the world right now.

"This is a much more hopeful and positive period in history than we have seen certainly in our lifetimes," she told me in early August when I sat down with her in the White House to talk about the Obama administration’s foreign policy. "I tell my kids this: that they couldn’t be luckier to be living in this world at this time."

It’s easy to dismiss this as simple happy talk from an administration defending its foreign policy record. But this optimistic view is central to how the Obama administration views the world — and is also at the heart of one of the central contradictions of Obama’s foreign policy.

Team Obama sees themselves not just in terms of the crisis of the day but also in terms of a much broader, and more positive, arc of human history. They didn’t create these trends that make this, in their eyes, the best time in human history to be alive, but they see it as their job to safeguard them.

This results in a foreign policy focused — to a degree most people don’t appreciate — on protecting this system from threats. The long view causes them to focus on addressing long-term threats to the system’s stability, like climate change or a nuclear Iran. But the flip side is that they’re more wary about trying to solve immediate crises, like the Syrian civil war.

These crises, while bad, don’t threaten the fundamental system. And ambitious schemes to solve them risk dragging the US into costly and counterproductive quagmires that could draw focus and resources away from graver dangers.

"ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States," Obama once told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. "Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it."

Their approach has had its share of successes, but they’ve never managed to explain it to voters without seeming out of touch — see, for example, Obama’s now-infamous comments labeling ISIS the "JV team" of terrorism. Only two polls of Americans in the past year have given Obama neutral or positive marks on foreign policy — even as his overall approval ratings have risen.

The result is a sharp tension at the heart of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Team Obama tries to take the long view, and occasionally succeeds — see the Paris climate change agreement or the Iran nuclear deal. But the issues that command attention from both the American public and American allies often are more immediate, and require the Obama administration to divert resources toward daily crises that they would prefer to mostly ignore. These issues, like Syria, have come to define Team Obama’s time in office in the public eye.

So you get an administration that wants to pivot to Asia but ends up leading a war on ISIS. An administration that touts the long-term decline in violence but looks feckless when it comes to Syria. An administration that’s surprisingly honest about the limited threat terrorism poses to American lives but ends up focusing on it anyway.

What I wanted to understand in talking to Rice was this: How does the Obama administration think about this contradiction? What don’t they think people get about their view of the world getting better, and how do they manage the tension between what the American people want and what they think America needs?

How the Obama administration sees the world

The basic starting point, according to Rice, is that the world is better than it ever has been — and it’s getting better still:

We are in an era where, as the president has often said, if you didn’t know who you were going to be, or whether you were going to be male or female; white, black, Asian, Native American, Latino, [or] something else; if you didn’t know if you were going to be straight or gay — if you didn’t know anything about who you were going to be and you had to pick a time in which to be born…

You would pick this time. Because the odds of success for any individual are much higher in the aggregate than they’ve ever been.

Rice’s support for this theory was a series of rattled-off metrics.

"More people are free of poverty than ever before, conflict between states is less than ever before, technology is providing extraordinary opportunities for advancement, and health and agriculture and well-being," Rice says. "Compare the era we’re living in today to the losses we suffered in World War II or even in the Vietnam War, or compare the economic challenges we face now to the Great Depression."

Rice is right on the evidence. The number of people living at $1.25 per day or less declined by roughly 1.1 billion people between 1990 and 2015. The number of war deaths per 100,000 people worldwide has increased in the past three years, owing largely to the war in Syria, but is still far lower than it was even 20 years ago. Average global life expectancy worldwide was 48 in 1950; it was 71.4 in 2015.

Obama and his advisers see these improvements as the product of a network of global institutions and dominant ideas — things like the global free trade regime, the United Nations, America’s alliance networks in Europe and East Asia, and the like. They believe this basic international order has worked to make the world a much better place than it’s ever been.

Because Team Obama sees the world’s basic institutions through this very positive lens, they’re focused on protecting them. The most important foreign policy task, for Team Obama, is to make sure the world keeps getting better.

That means, first and foremost, protecting the current system from things that threaten it.

"We can renew the international system that has enabled so much progress, or we can allow ourselves to be pulled back by an undertow of instability," Obama said in a 2014 address to the United Nations. "We can shape the course of this century, as our predecessors shaped the post-World War II age."

Think about the Obama administration’s stated priorities over the years: the pivot to Asia, the push for global climate change agreements, the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Each was designed to address something that could at least theoretically threaten important parts of the system: a conflict-ridden relationship with China, catastrophic climate change, a nuclear Iran.

In those cases, the Obama administration was willing to take risks and spearhead ambitious new policy initiatives, because the tail risk of inaction was extremely high.

The administration is less willing to act, by contrast, when it comes to immediate crises — significant problems that nonetheless don’t pose systemic threats. The Obama administration has been very wary of getting pulled into a major involvement in Syria, for example, or a large-scale troop deployment to fight ISIS.

That’s because they see both US military strength and political influence as key institutions that help make the world better. "For all of our warts, the United States has clearly been a force for good in the world. 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," Obama told Goldberg.

As a result, they’re hesitant of risky schemes that expend both, seeing them as potential quagmires that risk squandering that important influence on secondary concerns.

"For the president, Iraq was the defining issue," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told the New Yorker’s David Remnick. "We spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and had troops there for a decade, and you can’t say it wielded positive influence."

Contrast this with the Bush administration. After 9/11, the administration concluded the world wasn’t actually trending in a better direction. Jihadism threatened civilization itself, and a radical new approach was necessary to address the threat.

That means the Bush administration was willing try out more high-risk policies, like invading Iraq and attempting to transform it into a democracy at gunpoint. The Obama administration, because it thinks things are generally going well, can afford to be a bit more conservative. They don’t need to try to create utopias, because they think we’re on the road to one.

If this outlook reminds you a bit of Francis Fukuyama’s "End of History" thesis — the idea that history is trending, inexorably, toward a kind of liberal democratic utopia — well, that might not be such a shock.

When I asked Rice what she thought of Fukuyama, she had some nice things to say (a rarity in an era when Fukuyama is more mocked for missing the rise of Islamism and the financial crisis than anything else).

"I actually am a fan of Francis Fukuyama," she said. "I am an optimist, and I see our future as bright."

Why people don’t see the same progress Obama does

But the American public doesn’t share the Obama administration’s point of view. They don’t see a world where everything is getting better; they look at terrorist attacks and civil wars and see a world on fire. This makes it very difficult for the administration to foreground its long-term vision and priorities, even at the times when it might want to.

This is a point the president himself acknowledged, somewhat implicitly, in an interview with Vox’s Matt Yglesias last year.

"There's just not going to be a lot of interest in a headline story that we have cut infant mortality by really significant amounts over the last 20 years or that extreme poverty has been slashed or that there's been enormous progress with a program we set up when I first came into office to help poor farmers increase productivity and yields," Obama said.

I asked Rice why she thinks their view of long-term progress doesn’t really resonate with the public. The first thing she said was, more or less, that Americans are kind of ignorant of how much better things have gotten.

"What I would say is, certainly in this country — I won’t speak for the rest of the world — I think there is an absence of historical perspective, which is partly a function of our education and it’s partly a function of our public leaders," she says. "People don’t look back and even say, you know, ‘Remember World War II, and just how incredibly convulsive that period was?’ Or the Great Depression. Or even the 1960s."

The issue, she thinks, isn’t that Americans are dumb; it’s that basic trends in 21st-century media, security, and economics make it very difficult for ordinary Americans to develop this sense of perspective.

Start with media and security. The constant drumbeat of terrorist attacks globally, together with new technology that makes it astonishingly easy for people to follow news anywhere, allows terrible breaking news to drown out less sexy but more significant global trends. That makes people feel scared, not satisfied, with the state of the world.

"These relatively small-scale but horrific and deadly terrorist attacks that have come with a degree of frequency as of late, in the wake of [ISIS’s] rise … understandably have people very uneasy and unnerved," Rice says. "What happens in any corner of the world is on the iPhone of any individual in any other part of the world, so we have much greater awareness of all that is happening in various different places that may be upsetting or disconcerting or downright scary."

Economics plays a similar role. While the world may have gotten better for a lot of people, particularly in the developing world, many Americans just haven’t seen similar gains. Some, particularly those working in sectors like manufacturing, have experienced serious losses.

Rice links these losses to globalization and technological development. "We are dealing with some dislocations that have come from the disparities that have arisen as a result of globalization and in the need to adjust to new patterns of trade and investment to deal with technology," she says.

Once again, she’s not wrong. One widely cited study found that the growth of China’s manufacturing sector cost the US about a million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007. Automation likely played an even bigger role than globalization in destroying blue-collar American jobs.

What’s interesting is that these same factors were responsible for the global progress Rice had just been touting. China’s economic growth, powered by the manufacturing sector, was responsible for a huge amount of the global decline in extreme poverty. Technological advancement has been instrumental in curing diseases and making basic goods available to even the world’s poorest people.

Yet the harms are more salient to a lot of Americans than the benefits. The fact that there’s dramatically less extreme poverty in China doesn’t really register on a daily level. Nobody walks around thinking, "I’m so thankful to NATO for helping prevent World War III." Economic pain among real Americans you know feels a lot more immediate and tangible, even if these harms are outweighed by the aggregate gains.

That makes it very hard for the administration to sell its big-picture vision without seeming like it’s being condescending or missing the point in practice. You can talk all you want about solving climate change or managing China’s rise peacefully — but it’s terrorism, Syria, and the US economy that voters really care about.

How this tension plays out in practice

This conflict, between the administration’s worldview and public perceptions, leads to a deep internal tension in the Obama administration policy.

The Asia pivot, the attempt to refocus US foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward East Asia, is a good example. This fits squarely with the Obama administration’s worldview: The rise of China really is far more important for the stability of global institutions than most anything going on in the Middle East. Yet Obama’s foreign policy was consumed by managing the post–Arab Spring crisis.

This owes, in part, to fears of terrorism — a broader issue that illuminates the basic tension between Team Obama’s aspirations and policy. The Obama administration is in the weird position of investing heavily in fighting a threat that they all but openly acknowledge isn’t that severe — because people think it’s scarier than it is, and the administration can’t persuade them otherwise.

From a world historical view, terrorism barely registers as a problem. In 2015, fewer people were killed by terrorists worldwide than were murdered in the United States alone. Jihadist terrorists, the ones people worry about the most, have demonstrated zero ability to take and hold territory. ISIS has come the closest, but its territorial empire is shrinking and now is widely expected to collapse.

Despite this, the administration has spent tremendous amounts of money — at least $100 billion per year, by one expert estimate — on counterterrorism. This amount of resources in the past eight years is kind of at odds with the Obama administration’s eye toward the things that really matter in the long run.

I asked Rice how she could justify this given that roughly as many Americans are killed per year by their own furniture as they are by terrorists. (This is true; it falls on them by accident.)

In objective terms, Rice admits, the threat to American lives really isn’t that high: "You are correct that the threat to Americans from terrorism is less than the threat to die in car accidents, to die of the flu, or any number of things we could list."

However, she said, terrorism poses a particular threat to the lives of American service members and diplomats, to whom we owe special duties. "When we have embassies around the world, we have American citizens traveling around the world, when we have American servicemen and women deployed around the world, that is part of our way of life and it is part of who we are and who we aim to be as Americans," she says.

Rice’s other argument for aggressively fighting terrorism is more interesting: Terrorism isn’t just a threat because it kills people. Successful attacks bring broader social consequences for American society and the economy.

"The threat, I would argue, has got to be measured not only in the number of lives but in the risk that it poses to our economy, our social cohesion, our international presence, and our leadership," she says. "It’s more than a question of how many lives are taken."

What Rice didn’t say is that these consequences are all the result of irrational overreaction to terrorism — which is the conclusion implied by her own analysis.

If, objectively speaking, terrorism doesn’t kill very many Americans, attacks really shouldn’t have a major effect on the US economy or people’s attitudes toward their fellow Muslim citizens. And yet people panic out of proportion to the body count, prompting market losses, expensive security policies, and a surge in Islamophobia.

While Obama, Rice, and other leading officials talk a lot about the big foreign policy picture, the truth is that no administration can afford to govern solely by looking at the long arc of history.

Rice and Obama are ultimately constrained by the public’s priorities. If people care about terrorism more than they care about China or climate change, then you can’t prioritize China or climate change over terrorism. Battles with jihadist groups will, inevitably, become a more defining element of the administration’s foreign policy (at least in the here and now).

Sometimes, the tension between the Obama worldview and the demands of practical politics ends up making the administration look a little foolish. Syria is, perhaps, the most glaring case in point.

Since the civil war began in 2011, the Obama administration has been deeply wary of getting pulled into an Iraq or Vietnam-style quagmire there. Yet they knew, at the same time, that they couldn’t simply stand by and watch a country collapse

The result was a policy that attempted to influence the course of the conflict without getting deeply involved. The most famous example was Obama’s "red line" for intervention, the use of chemical weapons. Obama was trying to use the threat of American force to head off the actual use of force in Syria.

When Bashar al-Assad brazenly crossed that line, gassing hundreds in the town of Ghouta in August 2013, the Obama administration initially announced a plan to respond with force. But the president ultimately decided against enforcing his own red line, going to Congress to ask for legal authorization (a vote that would likely fail).

His reasoning for the policy shift, as laid out in the Goldberg interview, is perhaps the purest case of his long game worldview trumping calls to manage a short-term crisis. Obama believes, very strongly, that for the United States to preserve its ability to shape the world for the better, it needs to stay out of unnecessary and counterproductive conflicts.

His decision to avoid sliding into Syria, in his mind, isn’t just about one conflict: It was prioritizing the maintenance of a key global institution over trying to ameliorate a crisis, even though it made him look bad.

"I’m very proud of this moment," he told Goldberg. "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 decision seemed incoherent, even weak: Why would Obama go back on his own red line? But in Obama’s mind, this was helping to cement one of his most critical big picture goals: Protecting American influence and power from the impulse to squander it on short-term crises.

This kind of tradeoff, in many ways, will come to define the Obama administration’s legacy. If they are right, and the world’s institutions continue to deliver a progressively better world despite current upheavals, they may well look prescient. But if they are wrong, and these institutions begin to falter, their legacy will look decidedly less positive.

That’s the trouble with the long game: In the short run, you can’t really be sure if it paid off.

World Politics

2023 was the year the US finally destroyed all of its chemical weapons

World Politics

How Armenia and Azerbaijan’s conflict could still destabilize the region

Future Perfect

Europe might abandon its animal welfare revolution

View all stories in World Politics

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.