Actions, Not Words, Will Clarify Obama’s Foreign Policy

David Brooks’ piece on Barack Obama’s “Christian Realism” is pretty good, but it mostly reminded me that I think one of the worst habits of American journalism is to look at foreign policy through a lens of high-order abstractions. “Realism” has a really clear meaning in an academic context, and there are substantial bodies of non-realist academic thought it contends with. In the context of practical policymaking, however, it’s not totally clear what it means. And it’s certainly not clear what it means in the context of speeches about foreign policy given by practical politicians.

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You’re never going to hear an American president say “our values and our interests are sharply divergent, and I choose to do the wrong thing in order to make Americans richer.” But you’re also never going to hear an American president say “our values and our interests are sharply divergent, and I choose to impoverish Americans because it’s the right thing to do.” And in general, actual post-WWII presidents operate within pretty narrow bounds of an overall strategic concept. Nevertheless, disagreements within this narrow band matter a lot. Tons of people—possibly hundreds of thousands—died because George W Bush invaded Iraq.

Anyways, Brooks at the end of his column writes that Obama’s “doctrine is becoming clear. The Oslo speech was the most profound of his presidency, and maybe his life.” I think that’s really wrong. The speech was fine, but you learn about Obama’s foreign policy from watching what he actually does. From 30,000 feet up everything looks the same.

So what can we really say about Obama’s foreign policy?

I think the first thing we can say is that he doesn’t like to get into fights with the national security bureaucracy. At times when his campaign promises have clashed with what intelligence professionals want to do, the tendency has been for the promises to give way. When the instincts of a lot of important people in the administration seem to have been to shy away from General McChrystal’s troop request, the president ultimately gave in. And the administration’s early emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and nuclear arms control are both the kinds of things that foreign service officers think are important. The Obama team seems to think that Asia is very new and exciting and important and that Europe is not so interesting or important. Obama is more of a nationalist than, say, I am but he doesn’t use aggressive nationalism as part of his political strategy. And Obama, as seen in the Chavez handshake and the restrained talk about human rights in China, doesn’t like to pick fights.

Last, you’ve seen an effort to lower the temperature around fighting al-Qaeda. There’s less talk of a broad ideological struggle, there’s more emphasis on concretely killing or capturing specific individuals, less talk of a “war on terror,” and less of an effort to thematically link all the administration’s priorities to this goal.

But for all that, this has really been a year without a major international crisis. Russia hasn’t invaded any foreign countries. No terrorist attacks have struck the United States. The handling of the coup in Ecuador was, I think, quite deft but this was hardly a major event in the scheme of things. The major international issues of the Obama years have all regarded international economic policy or international climate negotiations rather than core traditional foreign policy issues. Consequently, it’s a bit hard to sharply define what Obama and his team are all about.