Years before he was a national figure, Barack Obama delivered a speech at a rally against the proposed invasion of Iraq that became integral to his underdog primary campaign in 2008. "I don't oppose all wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war." And yet an actual presidential foreign policy is far more complex than a single speech. The world is vast, and modern technology has rendered war less a binary choice than a broad spectrum of possible uses of force. When Obama sat down with Vox in late January 2015, we asked him not about the crises of the day but about the big ideas that shape his thinking on America's relationship to the world outside our borders.
This is a really sort of big-picture question, but over the years, I've heard a number of different members of your team refer to your kind of philosophy in foreign affairs as "realism." 1 Is that a term you would use?
You know, traditionally, a lot of American foreign policy has been divided into the realist camp and the idealist camp. And so if you're an idealist, you're like Woodrow Wilson, and you're out there with the League of Nations and imagining everybody holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" and imposing these wonderful rules that everybody's abiding by. And if you're a realist, then you're supporting dictators who happen to be our friends, and you're cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined. And I just don't think that describes what a smart foreign policy should be.
Obama on the goal of his foreign policy
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.
Now, I also think that if we were just resorting to that and we didn't have a realistic view that there are bad people out there who are trying to do us harm — and we've got to have the strongest military in the world, and we occasionally have to twist the arms of countries that wouldn't do what we need them to do if it weren't for the various economic or diplomatic or, in some cases, military leverage that we had — if we didn't have that dose of realism, we wouldn't get anything done, either. So what I do think is accurate in describing my foreign policy is a strong belief that we don't have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century. That we don't have a peer in terms of a state that's going to attack us and bait us. The closest we have, obviously, is Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, but generally speaking they can't project the way we can around the world. China can't, either. We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined. 2
2 Military spending by the US vs. other countries
So the biggest challenge we have right now is disorder. Failed states. Asymmetric threats from terrorist organizations. And what I've been trying to do is to make sure that over the course of the last six years and hopefully the next two, we just have more tools in our toolkit to deal with the actual problems that we have now and that we can project into the future, rather than just constantly relying on the same tools that we used when we were dealing with Germany and Japan in World War II.
And so ending two wars was important, not because I was under any illusions that that would mean we wouldn't have any terrorist threat. 3 It does mean, though, that by not having 180,000 people in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can then more strategically deploy, with a smaller footprint, special forces, trainers, partnering, that allows us to get at the actual problem and then frees us up to be able to send a team to prevent Ebola. To double-down on our investments in things like cybersecurity. To look at the new threats and opportunities that are out there. And that, I think, has been the real challenge over the last six to eight years.
In the Middle East, where we're still very much engaged despite the draw-down from Iraq, the Clinton administration had a policy they called Dual Containment of Iraq and Iran. The Bush administration had an idea about preventative war and about rollback and democracy promotion. Under your administration, the country is still very involved in that region, but I don't think we have as clear a sense of what is the sort of strategic goal of that engagement.
Well, partly it's because of the nature of what's happened in the Middle East. I came in with some very clear theories about what my goals were going to be. We were going to end the war in Iraq. We were going to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, trying diplomacy first. We were going to try to promote increased economic development in the Muslim countries to deal with this demographic bulge that was coming into play. We were going to promote Palestinian and Israeli peace talks. So, there were all kinds of theories.
And then the Arab Spring happened. I don't recall all the wise men in Washington anticipating this. And so this has been this huge, tumultuous change and shift, and so we've had to adapt, even as it's happening in real time, to some huge changes in these societies. But if you look at the basic goals that I've set: making sure that we are maintaining pressure on terrorist organizations so that they have a limited capacity to carry out large-scale attacks on the West. Increasing our partnering and cooperation with countries to deal with that terrorist threat. Continuing to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And using the tool of sanctions to see if we can get a diplomatic breakthrough there. And continuing to try to move the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a better place, while at the same time helping the region as a whole integrate itself more effectively into the world economy so that there's more opportunity. Those basic goals still hold true.
But what people rightly have been concerned about [is] that the forces of disorder — sectarianism, most tragically in Syria, but lingering elements of that in Iraq as well, the incapacity of Israelis and Palestinians to get together, and the continued erosion of basic state functions in places like Yemen, mean that there's more to worry about there than there might have been under the old order. We're kind of going through a passage that is hard and difficult, but we're managing it in a way to make sure that Americans are safe and that our interests are secured. And if we can make progress in restoring a functioning, multi-sectarian Iraqi government, and we're able to get a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, then we have the basis, I think, for a movement towards greater stability.
But this is going to be a generational challenge in the Muslim world and the Middle East that not only the United States but everybody's going to have to deal with. And we're going to have to have some humility in recognizing that we don't have the option of simply invading every country where disorder breaks out. And that to some degree, the people of these countries are going to have to, you know, find their own way. And we can help them but we can't do it for them.
It seems to me, on that point, that members of your administration often seem acutely aware of the idea of limits of American power, maybe to a greater extent than they always feel comfortably articulating publicly. Is it difficult to say, in the political and media system, that there are things that you can't really do?
Well, American leadership, in part, comes out of our can-do spirit. We're the largest, most powerful country on Earth. As I said previously in speeches: when problems happen, they don't call Beijing. They don't call Moscow. They call us. And we embrace that responsibility. The question, I think, is how that leadership is exercised. My administration is very aggressive and internationalist in wading in and taking on and trying to solve problems.
Where the issue of limits comes in is what resources do we devote that are going to be effective in solving the problem. So, in Iraq, when ISIL arises, if you think you have no constraints, no limits, then I have the authority as commander-in-chief to send back 200,000 Americans to re-occupy Iraq. I think that'd be terrible for the country. I don't think it'd be productive for Iraq. What we've learned in Iraq is you can keep a lid on those sectarian issues as long as we've got the greatest military on Earth there on the ground, but as soon as we leave, which at some point we would, we'd have the same problems again. 4 So what I said was Iraqis have to show us that they are prepared to put together a functioning government, that the Shia majority is prepared to reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis, and that they're credibly willing to fight on the ground. And if they do those things, then we can help, and we're going to have a 60-nation coalition to do it. So, if you look at that strategy, yes, it acknowledges limits. It acknowledges that it's a bad idea for us, after 13 years of war, to take over a country again. But that doesn't mean we're not engaged, and it doesn't mean we're not leading.
4 Civilian deaths in Iraq, before and after US departure
Source: The Economist
And so, I think the real challenge for the country not just during my presidency but in future presidencies is recognizing that leading does not always mean occupying. That the temptation to think that there's a quick fix to these problems is usually a temptation to be resisted. And that American leadership means wherever possible leveraging other countries, other resources, where we're the lead partner because we have capabilities that other folks don't have. But that way there's some burden-sharing and there's some ownership for outcomes. And many of these problems don't get solved in a year or two years or three years.
I mean, the Shia-Sunni split in the Middle East right now is one that has been playing itself out over centuries. 5 We have the opportunity, I think, to lessen those tensions and to lift up voices that are less prone to exploit those sectarian divides, but, you know, we're not going to eliminate that stuff overnight.
5 Share of Muslim population that is Shia, by country
Source: Pew Research Center
The trend towards extremism among a small segment of Muslim youth in the region, that's a trend that's been building up over a period time in part because of broader demographic problems and economic problems in the region, partly because of a perverted ideology that's been hypercharged through the internet. It's winning the hearts and minds of that cohort back. 6 That's a multi-year project.
6 Obama's State Department has gone so far as to launch an initiative called "Think Again, Turn Away" that uses YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms to try to convince young people that extremist groups are bad.
And so in the meantime, you take the victories where you can. You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse. And that's in no way a concession to this idea that America is withdrawing or there's not much we can do. It's just a realistic assessment of how the world works.
You seemed to resist the realist label earlier, but when you talked about your goals earlier, you seemed very concerned about disorder, and you didn't mention anything like democracy and human rights. And the countries you mentioned partnering with, it's places like Egypt, where they came to power in a military coup; Saudi Arabia, with public beheadings; Bahrain, where during the Arab Spring they were beating nonviolent demonstrators and repressing that violently. Do you have any concerns about the sort of long-term sustainability of those kind of partnerships?
This is a perfect example, Matt, of where the division between realism and idealism kind of breaks down. I think any realist worth their salt would say that any society that consistently ignores human rights and the dignity of its citizens at some point is going to be unstable and not a great partner. So it's not just the right thing to do; it's also very much in our interest to promote reforms throughout the Middle East. Now, the fact that we have to make real-time decisions about who are we partnering with and how perfectly are they abiding by our ideals, and are there times where we've got to mute some of our criticism to get some stuff done, are there times where we have an opportunity to press forward — that doesn't negate the importance of us speaking out on these issues.
As I said during the State of the Union speech and as I've said in any speech that I've made in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, it just means that we've got to do more than one thing at a time. We need a strong bilateral relationship with China to achieve a bunch of international goals like climate change that are of great national-security importance to us and billions of other people. That doesn't mean it's not smart for us also to speak out about censorship and political prisoners in China. We have to do both those things, and there's going to be some times they come a little more into the fore than in other times. And the same is true in the Middle East and elsewhere. But 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. It's going to continue to crumble that model. My argument to any partner that we have is that you are better off if you've got a strong civil society and you've got democratic legitimacy and you are respectful of human rights. That's how you're going to attract businesses, that's how you're going to have a strong workforce, that's how ultimately you've got a more durable not just economy but also political system.
But in those conversations, I'm also going to acknowledge that for a country that, say, has no experience in democracy or has no functioning civil society or where the most organized factions are intolerant, you know, religious sects, that progress is going to be happening in steps as opposed to in one big leap. And, I think, the goal of any good foreign policy is having a vision and aspirations and ideals, but also recognizing the world as it is, where it is, and figuring out how do you tack to the point where things are better than they were before. That doesn't mean perfect. It just means it's better. The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty. I've said this before and I think some folks in Washington were like, "Oh, he's ignoring the chaos of all the terrible stuff that's happening." Of course, I'm not ignoring it. I'm dealing with it every day. That's what I wake up to each morning. I get a thick book full of death, destruction, strife, and chaos. That's what I take with my morning tea.
Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?
Absolutely. And I don't blame the media for that. What's the famous saying about local newscasts, right? If it bleeds, it leads, right? You show crime stories and you show fires, because that's what folks watch, and it's all about ratings. And, you know, the problems of terrorism and dysfunction and chaos, along with plane crashes and a few other things, that's the equivalent when it comes to covering international affairs. 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. 7 It's not a sexy story. And climate change is one that is happening at such a broad scale and at such a complex system, it's a hard story for the media to tell on a day-to-day basis.
7 The little-noticed "Feed the Future" initiative has reached about 7 million people already, and introduces farmers in poor countries to more advanced technologies and management practices to boost crop production.
Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive. I would argue that our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe.
And despite the incredible valor of our troops — and I'm in awe of them every single day when I work with them — you know, the strategy that was crafted in Washington didn't always match up with the actual threats that were out there. And we need to make sure that we're doing the right things and doing those well so that we can also deal with future threats like cybersecurity or climate change or different parts of the world where there are huge opportunities, but [that] before I came into office, we had neglected for quite some time, Asia Pacific being a perfect example. Or our own backyard, the Western Hemisphere, where there's been real progress in Latin America and we've got the opportunity to strengthen our relationships. But there are also some big problems like Central America where, with a relatively modest investment, we could really be making a difference and making ourselves safer. 8
8 This is not necessarily directly relevant to "our safety," but it's worth noting the horrific conditions documented by NGOs that have looked at the lives of Central Americans sent back to their homes by US officials. Here's what the administration is doing now in Central America.
So there's this idea of a pivot to Asia, and what does that mean to you in specific terms? 9 A transfer of hard military resources, a transfer of time on your agenda in the National Security Council? Is it something you've really managed to pull off or does the Middle East really still have us kind of sucked in?
9 The origins of the "pivot to Asia" term are a bit shrouded, but the strategic concept of focusing more on the Pacific Rim and less on the Middle East dates back to a series of speeches and initiatives starting in the fall of 2011.
I think it means all of the above. Look, Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, the most populous region in the world, and you've got the largest country in the world, China, that has undergone this incredible, dramatic transformation over the several last decades. 10 How well America does, economically, from a security perspective, is going to be linked to our relationship to that region. So we've said, a) we've got to make sure we've got a constructive relationship with China, one that is hardheaded enough to make sure they're not taking advantage of us, but also sends a message to them that we can create a win-win situation as opposed to a pure competition that could be dangerous. And in order to do that, China, you've got to step up and help us underwrite these global rules that in fact help to facilitate your rise. Things like free-trade rules that are fair and maritime rules that don't allow large countries to bully small ones. So that's one big piece of it.
10 Growth in China's Gross Domestic Product
Source: The World Bank
A second big piece of it is making sure that our allies like Japan and South Korea feel confident that we're always going to be there and that our presence is not one that over time wanes, because they're looking at a really big neighbor next door. They want to make sure that if America is their key partner, that America is going to stand with them through thick and thin. Then you've got all these smaller countries, or countries that are developing, and are coming into their own in the South Pacific, in Southeast Asia, and what we see there is this enormous hunger for more engagement with America. They want to do more business with us. They want to have more defense cooperation with us. And what we've been able to do over the last six years is to have systematically built this set of relationships and strengthen trading platforms, strengthen security cooperation — everything from how we deal with disaster relief, so if something like what happened in the Philippines happens in other countries, we can work more robustly, and we're building resilience to how we're dealing with deforestation. All these things are areas where we've made an enormous investment and there have been significant payoffs.
Obama on what most Americans get wrong about foreign aid
You mentioned the Philippines, and earlier the idea that there are big gains potentially to be made by giving some assistance to Central America. Does it really make sense to have so much of America's foreign aid going to a country like Israel that's quite wealthy when there are other democratic allies in other regions in the world that seem maybe more in need of assistance?
Well, our relationship with Israel is in many ways unique. It's our strongest ally in the region. Our people-to-people ties are unmatched. And partly because of world history, the vulnerabilities of a Jewish population in the midst of a really hostile neighborhood create a special obligation for us to help them. I think the more interesting question is if you look at our foreign assistance as a tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity, and you combine our defense budget with our diplomatic budget and our foreign assistance budget, then in that mix there's a lot more that we should be doing when it comes to helping Honduras and Guatemala build an effective criminal-justice system, effective police, and economic development that creates jobs. 11
11 Composition of US federal budget, 2014
So you're saying it would make sense to reallocate those resources?
Well, and part of the challenge here is just public awareness. Time and time again, when they do surveys, and they ask people what proportion of the foreign budget is spent on foreign aid, they'll say, "25 percent." They're pretty sure all their hard-earned money that they pay in taxes is somehow going to other folks. And if we can say, it varies between 1-2 percent depending on how you define it. And if we were to make some strategic investments in countries that really could use our help, we would then not have to deploy our military as often and we would be in a better position to work with other countries to stand down violent extremism. Then I think people could be persuaded by that argument, but we haven't traditionally talked about it in those terms. It's one of the things I'd like to do over the next couple of years: to try to erase this very sharp line between our military efforts in national security and our diplomatic and foreign assistance efforts. Because in this environment today, we've got to think of it all in one piece.
The transformation and growing prosperity in China is really probably the biggest story of the times we're living through. And it's something that it seems to me as something that causes a lot of anxiety to a lot of Americans. You know, we've been having our own economic struggles, but also from a geopolitical standpoint, it's a country with a very different political system, with very different values. Is this something that you think people should regard as alarming?
No, we shouldn't alarm it. In fact, we should welcome China's peaceful rise, partly from just an ethical perspective. To see hundreds of millions of people rise out of dire poverty and be able to feed their children and have a decent home: that's a good thing and we should encourage it. In addition, a China that is disorderly is a big problem because there are a lot of Chinese in the world, and if they're not doing well and they're unstable, that's very dangerous for the region.
Where Americans have a legitimate reason to be concerned is that in part this rise has taken place on the backs of an international system in which China wasn't carrying its own weight or following the rules of the road and we were, and in some cases we got the short end of the stick. 12 This is part of the debate that we're having right now in terms of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal that, you know, we've been negotiating. There are a lot of people who look at the last 20 years and say, "Why would we want another trade deal that hasn't been good for American workers? It allowed outsourcing of American companies locating jobs in low-wage China and then selling it back to Walmart. And, yes, we got cheaper sneakers, but we also lost all our jobs."
12 The most notable example here is probably the longstanding dispute over Chinese currency policy, which, especially in the late-aughts, seemed calculated to undermine American manufacturers by creating an artificially cheap yuan relative to the dollar.
And my argument is two-fold. Number one: precisely because that horse is out of the barn, the issue we're trying to deal with right now is, can we make for a higher bar on labor, on environmental standards, et cetera, in that region and write a set of rules where it's fairer, because right now it's not fair, and if you want to improve it, that means we need a new trading regime. We can't just rely on the old one because the old one isn't working for us.
But the second reason it's important is because the countries we're negotiating with are the same countries that China is trying to negotiate with. And if we don't write the rules out there, China's going to write the rules. And the geopolitical implications of China writing the rules for trade or maritime law or any kind of commercial activity almost inevitably means that we will be cut out or we will be deeply disadvantaged. Our businesses will be disadvantaged, our workers will be disadvantaged. So when I hear, when I talk to labor organizations, I say, right now, we've been hugely disadvantaged. Why would we want to maintain the status quo? If we can organize a new trade deal in which a country like Vietnam for the first time recognizes labor rights and those are enforceable, that's a big deal. It doesn't mean that we're still not going to see wage differentials between us and them, but they're already selling here for the most part. And what we have the opportunity to do is to set long-term trends that keep us in the game in a place that we've got to be.
Why do you think that you haven't been able to persuade your friends in the labor movement of that? They presumably look at these issues pretty closely. They know the interests of their members.
Well, look, the story, the narrative, the experience that people have seen over the last 20 years, that's a real experience, that's not something we deny. That's why during the State of the Union address, I was very explicit. I said, look, not every trade deal has lived up to the hype. And there are real gaps in the current trading regime that mean there are a whole lot of Toyotas sold here and almost no Fords or Chryslers sold in Japan. But what I say to them [is] if, in fact, the current situation disadvantages us, why would we want to stick with the current situation?
Now, sometimes their response will be, well, what you're doing isn't enough; what we need to do is to have union recognition in Vietnam or we need Japan to completely open its markets and not have any barriers whatsoever, and we need that immediately. And I say, well, I can't get that for you. But what I can do is make the current situation better for American workers and American businesses that are trying to export there. I can open up more markets than what we have open right now, so that American farmers can sell their goods there. And, you know, better is better. It's not perfect.
Those experiences that arose over the last 20 years are not easily forgotten, and the burden of proof is on us, then, to be very transparent and explicit in terms of what we're trying to accomplish. It's similar to the challenge we've got on the Iran negotiations.
And maybe I'll close with that point, because that's been an issue of great interest. People are right to be suspicious of Iran. Iran has sponsored state terrorism. It has consistently, at the highest levels, made deplorable anti-Israeli statements. It is repressive to its own people, and there is clear and unavoidable evidence that in the past they have tried to develop a weapons program and have tried to hide it from view. 13 So that's a given. And it's understandable why people are concerned, both here and around the world.
13 Iran has long supported a variety of radical groups around the region, notably including but by no means limited to Hezbollah. The government has brutalized pro-democracy protestors, and a range of leaders have promised to eliminate Israel as a state.
But what I've also said is that the deal that we've struck, this interim deal brought about by the tough sanctions regime that we put together, offers us our best opportunity to solve the problem of a nuclear Iran without resorting to military force. Iran is negotiating seriously for the first time, and they have made, so far, real concessions in the negotiations. We have been able to freeze the program for the first time and, in fact, roll back some elements of its program, like its stockpiles of ultra highly enriched uranium. And so, for us to give an additional two to three months to exhaust all possibilities of a diplomatic resolution when nobody denies — including our intelligence agencies, and Mossad and others — nobody denies that Iran right now really is abiding by the terms of our agreement, so we're not losing ground. They're not surreptitiously developing a weapon while we talk. For us to give two [or] three months to figure that out makes sense.
Now, same thing with respect to trade. You're going to meet some folks who are going to be skeptical, and their impulse is going to be, well, let's pile on some more sanctions, and let's squeeze them a little bit more, and any deal that you're going to strike, they're going to cheat, and we can't trust them, and it's going to be a bad deal — and I get all that. 14 But my message is that we have to test the proposition, and if, in fact, a deal is struck, then it's going to be a deal that everyone around the world is going to be able to look at. And everybody's going to be able to determine, does this in fact prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? And if the answer is yes, then it's a good deal. If the answer is no, then it's not a deal that I'm interested in striking. There may be some technical arguments, in part because there are some who will only be satisfied with the Iranian regime being replaced. They don't even like the idea of Iran having any nuclear technology or nuclear know-how.
14 Obama is referring to a bill introduced into the Senate by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) that would impose new sanctions on Iran, violating the US side of the agreement and likely killing the negotiations.
In your first campaign, there was talk of the idea that you might hold direct negotiations with countries like that.
Well, we have had direct negotiations. That's exactly what we're doing. We're now testing the proposition, and the question then, Matt, is whether or not Iran can say yes to the world community that has determined this is a fair approach that gives Iran the ability to re-enter the international community and verify that it's not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
But this is another example of the overall point that I was making at the start. So it's a good way to summarize: we can't guarantee that the forces inside of Iran take what should be seen as a good deal for Iran. We can't guarantee that they make a rational decision any more than we can guarantee Russia and Mr. Putin make rational decisions about something like Ukraine. We've got to guard against their efforts militarily. Any aggression they may show we've got to meet firmly and forcefully. 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.
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. And sometimes the play you run doesn't work and you've got to have a plan B and a plan C. But 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. And those efforts over time add up, and I'm confident that there's a way for us to maintain our idealism, be hardheaded in assessing what's out there, confronting the dangers that we face without exaggerating them. America, I'm pretty certain, is going to be the indispensable nation for the remainder of this century just like it was the last one. All right. Thanks so much.