Leviathan Adrift: U.S. Foreign Policy under Barack Obama

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Image shows Obama in front of a collage of the US flag made up of newspaper stories about him.The old adage that a political speech is only saying something of substance if it can be inverted and still said plausibly is a helpful one to apply to President Barack Obama’s West Point speech on foreign policy in May.

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Billed as a stirring defence of his six year old record on global affairs and a compelling vision of the next two, Mr Obama’s speech was neither of these things. US foreign policy was a case of “might doing right”, he told graduates of the military academy. Their job would be “not only to protect our country but to do what is right and just”. Affirming a belief in US exceptionalism, he argued that “what makes us exceptional is not flouting international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions…America must always lead on the world stage. [The military will] always be the backbone of that leadership [but] cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance.”

Image shows Obama greeting a sea of cadets in West Point.
Obama greeting cadets in West Point.

A large part of this is platitudinous – presidents are unlikely to argue that their country’s military represents “might doing wrong” with a missing “to neglect the defence of our country and do what is wicked and unfair”. The rest is based on a historical misunderstanding – American foreign policy has never been based on international consensus or international law, on the few occasions where sheer force of US disapproval have been sufficient to change the course of history (the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis), this has owed nothing to the force of US moral stature and everything to its armed prowess and ability to maim. Where pious expressions of American sentiment and approbation are sent without military support, they are actively dangerous to her allies (for instance, the British and French before both world wars). Moreover, the influence of American disapproval has always been limited to Europe. In Asia, the Middle East, Africa, implementing American ideas has always been reliant on deploying American soldiers. The US wants to lead a world that doesn’t have any great desire to be led – and when that is the case, the influencing power must rely on the meaningful threat of military force to push through its will. It is increasingly unwilling and unable to use this military power and its voice in international affairs has become quieter as a result. This is despite enormous advantages over its opponents in weaponry, money and manpower. How is it that we have reached this dismal state of affairs?

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."Domestic divisions

The first place we should look for answers is within American society itself rather than in the heart of its president. Democracies very seldom get leaders other than the ones they deserve. That President Obama appears to be more Vacillator-in-Chief than Commander-in-Chief, internally torn between a half-articulated vision of international affairs that relies on reasonableness and the power of persuasion, and between the desire to do something in circumstances where America’s moral leadership can only be enforced by brute power, is symptomatic of the internal culture of his country.

Image shows a homeless person asleep next to a stretch limo.
There are deep divisions in US society.

The phrase ‘culture wars’ is over-used, but it does accurately describe America’s incredible internal contradictions. You have a country at once so religious, so pure that it represents the last remaining stronghold of political Christianity, a country where the church of a presidential candidate is as important as his policy statements and where an intimate, unabashed personal acquaintance with the Gospels is common to a degree that it has not been in Europe for a century. At the same time it is the centre of the world’s pornography industry, its secularists are more aggressive in their denigration of the old truths than even Britain and it has a deep strain of constitutional secularism that rivals the French. Everywhere you look, these contradictions abound – at once in places the USA has the strictest abortion laws this side of Ireland; in others, you have doctors praised for ending the life of late-term babies. The incredible political freedoms the USA grants its citizens, as well as a mental rigour common to that great country whereby citizens follow their convictions to the necessary extreme, rather than seeking to compromise like Europeans, has led to two great warring blocks – an army of Christian traditionalists and an army of atheist liberals who hate the restrictions of Christian moral teaching. How can a nation on this model project its force around the globe? It can’t. Force requires conviction – your force matters not just for what you do, but for what you don’t do, the subtle changes in the behaviour of rivals for global power who deviate in the way they act because they know what your response will be and how it will hurt them. If the nation is internally divided against itself, it cannot act with consistency; it will struggle to define a genuine national interest short of self-defence from invasion; in short, it cannot have influence because its inconsistency itself acts to prevent those around it adapting to its wishes.

Personality politics

In an environment that is this fractured, this divided, America looks to its executive. A sufficiently large personality, a President able to heal and soothe, might just be able to overcome the culture gap and forge something coherent in the field of foreign affairs. Sadly, this is not Mr Obama’s lot and never has been – as I have already written, his presidency and its failures can only really be understood through the divisiveness of the conceptions attached to it. Always a partisan figure, the aspirations which the press and the public held for his presidency were never unifying. Such a figure was always likely to be unable to produce a foreign policy that served the needs of all America.

Image shows Clinton and Lavrov holding the plastic reset button.
The cringeworthy reset button presented to the Russian Foreign Minister.

So it has proved. The rap sheet is long and what is included is a matter of partisanship in and of itself (Benghazi, for instance, is seen as near criminal negligence from conservatives, undersold as a little local difficulty by liberals). What we can certainly include is: the failure of the Russian ‘reset’ (which embarrassingly saw Hilary Clinton presenting a large red plastic reset button to a Russian functionary) as President Vladimir Putin runs wild in the old USSR, the alienation and abandonment of powerful and loyal allies from Britain to Israel, the confusion and mess of Syria, which involved drawing and re-drawing countless ignored red lines, failure to safeguard Iraq, and muddle in Afghanistan and Iran. The only constant is inconsistency, the sense of policy-making on the hoof, the inability of the US to flex its muscles as no sooner has it started to lift, the weight is dropped and attention wanders elsewhere. Churchill’s characterisation of Baldwin’s foreign policy in 1936 rings true: he “decided only to be undecided, resolved to irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

Image shows Bismarck at the Congress of Berlin, 13 July 1878, painted by Anton von Werner.
Bismarck’s inconsistency had a clear end-goal.

Inconsistency in foreign policy is not new; indeed it has been employed by some of the most gifted statesmen throughout history, men of the calibre of Bismarck and Metternich. However, their inconsistency was possible because it operated within the framework provided by having a clear and consistent end-goal in the national interest. Mr Obama’s politics do not even have this – there can be no more definition of the US national interest because at heart he believes national interests can and should be subservient to international interests; that international cooperation offers a higher pay-off than America acting in its own interests; that climate change and not jihad is the world’s preeminent threat. This lumbering indecisiveness is held us as intellectually and morally worthy by the President’s cheerleaders. Foreign Policy magazine argued in their analysis of his speech that “Obama’s view of the world – visionless, minimalist, and focused far more on the middle class than the Middle East – is well-suited to the times and, in certain respects, quite productive.” It is difficult to see how it is productive – the “middle class focus” implies that Mr Obama is prioritising domestic popularity. If so, he is wildly unsuccessful, being the least popular President for 70 years in a new poll. If a lack of vision and the absence, sorry “minimalism”, of policies was virtuous, the world would be a safer place, which it demonstrably isn’t. The only Western superpower is asleep, its leader is uninterested in global power politics and his domestic situation makes it impossible for him to act effectively even if he wanted to. Into the cold void created by American withdrawal and weakness are filtering the wicked spirits that will guide global affairs for the next two years.

Opportunity knocks

Image shows bombing during the Second World War.
Europe’s past has made it wary of armed conflict.

Here is something seldom noted in relation to world affairs: American global leadership is by far and away the most positive development for those of us who live in the West and wish to see a continuation both of our way of life and our material prosperity. Every alternative is suboptimal – Europe is a demilitarised state in political and economic chaos whose guiding lights are moral nihilism and post-colonial terror of global leadership. China’s economic prosperity is and will be based on the economic failure of the West, its over-consumption and inability to produce. Africa is a century away from giving median citizens the standard of living the Victorians enjoyed. Political Islam is inherently opposed to the freedoms that make Western life possible. There is no alternative: the Western world needs US leadership and faces an existential crisis without it. There is a sense that other would-be global hegemons have a window of opportunity under this presidency to push forward with plans which are both nakedly against the US national interest and high risk in the sense that any organised, sustained, non-verbal US response would cause them instantly to collapse. To be Russia doing what they are in Ukraine, China doing what it does in the South China Sea, Sunni jihadists strangling Shiite Iraq, you have to be very, very sure that you are dealing with a USA that is the shadow of its old self. All three of these have taken a calculated gamble and won. The world, as a result, is less stable, less free. Western values have less purchase in those areas of the globe where they are most badly needed. That is the legacy of Mr Obama’s foreign policy – and it is not clever, it is not strategic and it is not moral. Strategic is one of those words tossed around with little understanding of what it really means. It sounds serious, it sounds good in speeches, and it conjures an image of a policy maker facing a world so complex, so dynamic that you wouldn’t understand it. It is in fact a word which is both useful and important. A strategic approach is one that defines a clear goal and establishes clear steps to get there. US foreign policy as currently constituted is anti-strategic – there is no goal, and the steps being taken are not linked and are often outright contradictory.

Image shows US army officers walking through a memorial garden to fallen US troops.
The consequences of US foreign policy failure could be tragic.

Should this matter to Americans? Is it not the case that the rest of the world needs them more than they need it? There is some truth in this, but it is not the whole picture. America’s enemies will seek to prosper at its expense – a stronger China will enrich itself on American dollars that would otherwise circulate in the global economy, a resurgent al-Qaeda will at some point come again for American citizens in American cities, a power-mad Russian administration will at some point force America to choose between its NATO commitments and its commitment to the quiet life and will extract a terrible toll if the choice is the former. These are practical realities that all US citizens should think about. But there’s something more, something more ephemeral. There’s the argument about the soul of the nation. The USA is a great country; its greatness comes from the pugnacious, unbowed and unabashed nature of the American spirit. That spirit is changing now, into something more weary, withdrawn, cautious and scared. That’s a horrible legacy for the Obama presidency, but it’s an even worse one for America.


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Image credits: banner; West Point; homeless person with limo; reset; Bismarck; WW2; memorial.