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Obama FPA common Republican criticism of Barack Obama is that he has been a weak foreign policy president who has little regard for American ideals. Obama ‘has responded with weakness to some of the gravest threats to our national security this country has faced’, charged the 2012 Republican platform. Mitt Romney accused Obama of starting his presidency with ‘an apology tour’. Republican rising star Marco Rubio says Obama wants ‘to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America’.

Yet, an examination of the history of US foreign policy and the ideas which influenced it shows that far from being a radical departure from the American norm, Obama’s worldview fits with a historical tradition.

In fact, he sounds much like an early statesman.

Stefan Halper, professor of International Relations at Cambridge and a former adviser to several presidents, argues that US foreign relations have historically been influenced by what he terms ‘Big Ideas.’ Their starting point is the belief in American exceptionalism, the umbrella concept from which all other ideas flow – ranging from the early 19th century Monroe Doctrine to the Bush Doctrine and democracy promotion.

Historians Walter McDougall and Walter Russell Mead have discussed some of the most influential big ideas which have shaped the history of US foreign policy.

The thesis of McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State (written before the second Bush presidency), is that two major themes have shaped the historical development of US foreign policy. In the late 18th and 19th centuries (the Old Testament period of US foreign relations as McDougall terms it), US statesmen crafted strategies designed to secure the fledgling American republic from the intrigues of international politics and the threats of other nations. This was to allow for the experiment in American liberty to flourish: Safeguarding American exceptionalism at home was the ultimate goal. The foreign policies of unilateralism (not being drawn into entangling alliances with other states), the Monroe Doctrine (keeping European powers out of the western hemisphere) and Manifest Destiny (expanding America’s frontier to the Pacific to both pre-empt European conquest of western lands and provide economic opportunities for settlers) provided the framework to achieve this. Just like Old Testament Israel, the US would be a light to the world by its example rather than making converts of other nations to American values. The 20th century opened the New Testament era of US foreign relations which, as McDougall’s Biblical metaphor suggests, involved the US actively shaping the global environment.

Progressive imperialism was an assertion of America’s new found geopolitical power at the turn of this century. Wilsonianism chiefly sought to invest US power in multilateral fora like the League of Nations and UN to maintain world peace but was accompanied by a support for self-determination and democracy as well. Containment was employed to defeat then deter global adversaries like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Finally, Global Meliorism is the US commitment to make the world a better place through supporting human rights, promoting democracy and combating poverty. This tradition had its roots in the Progressive Imperialist era; but, McDougall argues, reached its apogee in the Vietnam War.

Walter Russell Mead, meanwhile, has synthesised these traditions in Special Providence in which he identifies four US statesmen whose worldview has influenced the conduct of US foreign policy. Hamiltonians believe a strong national government and strong military should pursue a realist foreign policy designed to buttress US power and commerce. Jeffersonians eschew burdensome global commitments in favour of concentrating on domestic policies. They believe, as McDougall’s Old Testament theme outlines, that the best way of spreading American values abroad is by practising them faithfully at home. Jacksonians take a populist view of US foreign policy; they support unilateral military action to pursue American enemies and defend American honour, but are suspicious about global meliorative measures like overseas aid and global governance structures. Wilsonians, according to Mead, place democracy promotion and human rights as core elements in US grand strategy. Wilsonianism is actually a more complex concept. Cambridge historian and Wilson expert, John Thompson, explains how Wilsonianism is actually a conflicted hybrid of a collective security structure in which democracies and autocracies alike co-operate on one hand and a championing of self-determination and democracy on the other. However, this second stand of Wilsonianism is what has proved more potent in US foreign policy discourse.

So where does Obama fit into this historical framework of US grand strategy?

At heart, Obama is a Jeffersonian. His words and policies echo McDougall’s comment that ‘American Exceptionalism as originally conceived was to be a measure of all that we are, not what we do far away.’

Announcing his presidential campaign in 2007, Obama spoke about ‘building that more perfect union’ through reforming healthcare and education, combating poverty and caring for the environment. Accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, Obama said, ‘I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom’.

As President, Obama has turned these ideas into the theme, ‘Nation building at home’, a concept he referred to multiple times in the 2012 election cycle. The US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan allows it, Obama argues, to invest more resources in re-building the US economy and society. Announcing a reduction in US forces in Afghanistan in 2011, Obama said:

‘Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. It is time to focus on nation-building here at home.’

Mead recognises that Obama has a strong Jeffersonian streak but he also argued (after Obama’s first year in office) that he possessed a dose of Wilsonianism as well. As his presidency has unfolded, it becomes harder to discern this trait. When the Arab Spring erupted, Obama was slow to support the protesters in Egypt. He only intervened in Libya after Britain and France had pursued this initiative. And he has kept the US away from Syria. When the Green Revolution occurred in Iran in 2009, the Obama administration largely stood by. Indeed, Obama’s Iran policy is largely consonant with the Hamiltonian tradition of pursuing policy objectives through a mixture of military deterence, economic pressure and diplomacy.

But perhaps the most interesting feature of Obama’s foreign policy is his inner Andrew Jackson. As a presidential candidate and then as president, Obama may have talked about reducing the US’s overseas commitments to focus on domestic priorities. But he has still acted tough in combatting core security threats to the US. Arguing that the Iraq War was a distraction from the terrorist threat to the US, Obama promised more troops and resources to pursue Al-Qaeda and made clear ‘we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights’. In killing Bin Laden and ramping up the use of drone strikes to dismantle terrorist networks in Afghanistan, Obama has done just that. And in these aspects, Obama has pursued a more vigorous unilateralism than even George W Bush ever did.

So, like Jefferson, Obama is trying to build a stronger and better America at home which will lead the world through its example. But he is prepared to take Jacksonian measures against threats to the US’s safety.

Those statesmen of McDougall’s Old Testament of US foreign relations would recognise some of their characteristics in Obama.



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  1. Alan Sked
    August 16, 2013 at 1:56 pm — Reply

    An excellent summary of key interpretations of US policy. You might, however, have thrown in Gaddis’s little book of lectures on pre-emption. (I have forgotten the title off-hand.) These were given in the light of George W.’ s security policy and laid the principle at the door of John Quincy Adams when Secretary of State and Florida was up for the taking. Polk’s Mexican War came next. So pre-emption was part of Manifest Destiny but later also occurred during imperialist and Wilsonian phases. Obama, however, cannot be accused of that.
    The real trouble with modern Republicans is that they don’t know their own history — or anyone else’s for that matter!
    Well done.

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