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Monday, 1 February 2010

Obama's Foreign Policy

Obama one year on: America was never likely to change its foreign policy

With two major, and increasingly unpopular, wars and the global collapse of financial markets America’s international standing was at an all time low. The newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama faced an unenviable task - and no doubt braced himself for a turbulent time, as did the American people. It’s hardly surprising that his clarion call of “Change We Can Believe In” during the presidential election campaign hit home. The premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama sums up the widespread, perhaps desperate, hopes of those calling for a multilateral US foreign policy. But one year later, US foreign policy scholars on left and right agree that, in reality, little has fundamentally changed. Actually, since the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour in 1941, America has been set on a globalist, American preponderance, course from which it has hardly strayed. It was never likely that any president could change this in any substantial way, even if they genuinely wanted to.

If Obama was serious about change, he would not have appointed officials implicated in the policies of the past or in the mindsets of the US foreign policy Establishment which broadly supported Bush’s policies. But leading militarists close to Bush, such as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and close John McCain ally General James Jones were given the nod. Pro-war Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, became Secretary of State and Vice President, respectively. Admiral Michael Mullen was retained from Bush as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. The list is endless: Obama appointed conservatives such as Michael McFaul and John Brennan, a controversial supporter during the Bush administration of “enhanced interrogation methods”, torture in all but name, to the Office of National Counter-terrorism.

Not surprising then that one year into his presidency, Obama is firmly supportive of Bush’s Iraq policy and has also followed Bush into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, now defined as the real frontline of the global war on terror. With US troop levels at 100,000 (up from 34,000 when Bush left office), this is now Obama’s war. He had other options, took weeks to decide upon his preferred policy, but chose military escalation. The main problem with Bush, from Obama’s viewpoint, was that he brought American power into disrepute and made US national interests unrealisable. The resurgence of the Vietnam ‘syndrome’, which severely limited American military interventions overseas, and which liberals thought had been buried by the ‘good’ wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, was re-emerging as America’s foreign wars failed to end in spectacular victories. Obama’s mission is, through changes in rhetoric and style, to achieve those ‘undisputed’ national interests. His appointments are from among those who thought they could do it better than Bush.

Change, therefore, of a meaningful kind, was always unlikely. In fact, the deepest underlying source of continuity between administrations of both main political parties is the persisting influence of the east coast foreign policy Establishment in the United States, forged since Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 during the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This Establishment is composed of Wall Street bankers and lawyers, many Ivy League university professors, executives of the largest industrial corporations, the major philanthropic foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie, Republican and Democratic party insiders and key think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings. It is, of course, very close to the US military establishment and, therefore, strongly resembles the ‘military-industrial complex’ of which President Eisenhower – a fully paid-up member - warned Americans about in his farewell address in 1961.

So Pearl Harbor, among other catalytic events such as the Chinese revolution of 1949, outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the Cuban revolution of 1959, the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, and indeed 9-11, galvanised the foreign policy Establishment and has remained, within fairly narrow boundaries, the dominant, ‘hardwired’ mindset. Pearl Harbour effectively ended ‘isolationism’ as a significant force in American foreign policy.

In reality, the differences between the leading elements of both the US main political parties revolve around details, rhetoric and means, not policy ends or, indeed, interpretations of American national interests: both are inextricably attached to American global hegemony, preponderance or ‘leadership’. President Obama, like Bush, believes America is destined to lead the world, to police it, and that American values are ripe for export. America’s inherent and self-evident virtue and moral stature demand the nation takes upon itself the burden of global responsibility, with or without allies, using varying combinations of ‘hard’, ‘soft’ and ‘smart’ power. Those hard-wired attitudes, however subtly held and expressed by the current commander-in-chief – and appointments based on them to high office in his administration - largely explain Obama’s foreign and national security policies and why they so closely resemble those of his deeply flawed and unpopular predecessor in the White House.


  1. Sadly accurate analysis - if you appoint conservatives in key positions
    then you will inevitably have continuity in US policy.Not much
    'alternative' thinking in Washington or abroad and so probably massive
    surge and attempt at rapprochement with moderate Taliban.Caught between
    the rock and the hard place!
    Anyway enjoyed the blog

  2. Not many alternatives to be had perhaps. Check out the analysis of Obama's foreign policy in this report from LSE IDEAS