Foreign Policy Blogs

Accidental Foreign Policy?

The forthcoming issue of The Atlantic contains a report on Senator Obama's foreign policy by Matthew Yglesias, the magazine's Associate Editor.

The article begins:

“Barack Obama has always been an independent thinker. He of course opposed the war in Iraq, and he's built a team of national-security advisers who disproportionately took the same, then-unpopular antiwar view. But as a presidential candidate articulating what he might do in office, his real break with convention may have begun with a gaffe.”

The gaffe he refers to is Senator Obama's response to the question posed at the YouTube debate on July 23, 2007, about whether he would be willing to meet “without precondition with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.” Yglesias contends that this response broke with the conventions of US foreign policy‚ both those of the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as those the Senator set himself.

But, as Yglesias sees it: “As the campaign stretched on and Clinton sharpened her attacks on Obama's commander-in-chief credentials, he began to counter by questioning her whole approach to foreign policy‚ the establishment approach.

Today, Obama calls not only for direct negotiations with leaders of rogue states, but also for an American commitment to eventual global nuclear disarmament (in part to reinvigorate nonproliferation efforts); a substantial rebalancing of American military priorities toward Afghanistan (and away from Iraq); a softening of the embargo on Cuba; and a widening of the current, single-minded focus on democracy promotion to include other development goals that might more effectively prevent terrorist recruitment. Many think that there's little difference between the Democrats on policy grounds. That may once have been true, but over time‚ and largely in response to Clinton's barbs‚ Obama's foreign-policy approach has evolved into something substantially different from either Clinton's or McCain's…”

I am with him up to here. Then he contends: “Mercifully, Obama's foreign-policy approach is not characterized by “new ideas”‚ there are no genuinely new ideas about how to manage America's place in the world. Nor does it involve any strained attempts to develop a theoretical worldview from which all conclusions must follow (if Obama wins in November, the thrilling debate over what should replace neoconservatism‚ “realistic Wilsonianism”? “ethical realism”?‚ can be tabled).

Instead, the crux of his approach is a certain fearlessness in asking questions, a refusal to dismiss any option as simply taboo. Why not talk to the leaders of Iran and Syria? If we want other countries to follow the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, why shouldn't we be willing to live up to our own treaty commitments? If al-Qaeda is primarily in central Asia, how come America's military and intelligence resources aren't?”

True, there remain few new ideas on how to manage America's place in the world that haven't been thunk yet. But the courage to question the establishment thinking, and certainly during a Presidential campaign certainly is new. While Iglesias and others call it Obama's “gaffe,” I think Obama's “audacity” to question US foreign policy conventions has a lot to do with why so many Americans are choosing to vote for him.

Furthermore, while Obama's ideas may not be new to the foreign policy discourse, there are many foreign policy ideas that an American leader has yet to implement. If we can trust that the new ideas he espouses are not mere campaign rhetoric‚ part of the “change” theme of his campaign‚ than I see there being nothing “accidental” about Senator Obama's foreign policy.



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.