Seen through the prism of a presidential-election campaign, the world appears in broad strokes and primary colors, its contours lacking complexity or nuance. In that viewfinder, there is black and white, friend and foe, and the president of the United States has the power to realign the international landscape to his liking. The campaign prism, it turns out, is not only an imperfect lens for navigating the shoals of geopolitics but also a poor predictor of the path a president will ultimately travel.
Consider how the unexpected Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 have largely overtaken Barack Obama’s carefully crafted outreach to the Muslim world. Or that as a candidate, George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy and criticized nation-building by U.S. military forces, then as president unilaterally toppled regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and launched the two largest nation-building operations of modern times. Bill Clinton, after arguing that it’s “the economy, stupid” and pulling bloodied U.S. forces out of Somalia in 1994, was later drawn into the conflict in the Balkans. Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office rejecting détente with the Soviet Union’s “evil empire” and ended
up proposing a world without nuclear weapons to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Antiwar candidate Jimmy Carter was undone by a botched military operation in the sands of Iran in 1979. Strident anticommunist Richard Nixon embarked on a landmark journey to China in 1972 to shake hands with Chairman Mao.
The picture that emerges from a campaign prism reveals more about a candidate’s instincts and worldview than about the actual world writ large, and that is probably the point. On Inauguration Day, no president can fathom what dynamic and swirling events will shape the four years to come. Few crises are beyond the interests of the “indispensable nation” that others still look to for leadership in collectively countering global threats, whether from terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic contagion, or a host of other scourges. At best, a rigorous campaign suggests the lodestar that a president will follow in charting an inherently unpredictable course.
Before entering the Oval Office, Obama had developed an ambitious foreign-policy vision for difficult times: He would refurbish America’s tattered image abroad, wind down two wars, reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons, engage adversaries and potential adversaries such as China and Iran, and make peace in the Middle East.
But first, he had to contain the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. “By his own account, the 44th president of the United States sought nothing less than to bend history’s arc in the direction of justice and a more peaceful, stable global order,” write Brookings Institution scholars Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon in Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. “The image of a new global architecture and a transformed world was crucial to his ultimate success as a candidate. Just how well it would set him up to assume the reins of power once elected was, however, a different matter.”
The Obama administration’s blueprint for that transformation was the 2010 national-security strategy, which looked toward a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were no longer dragging down the economy and casting a militaristic shadow over U.S. foreign policy. The strategy describes an era of increased globalization and a more transnational world in which all countries are interconnected, with a greater dispersal of power and increasingly collective responses to global problems.
“Russia is ... our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors.” —Mitt Romney
Guided by that vision, the administration sought to reclaim the moral high ground by banning what it considered excessive counterterrorism practices; reforming venerable international institutions, such as the United Nations and the Group of Eight major economies to meet fast-evolving challenges; and continuing to underwrite global security through engagement with allies and adversaries alike. The guiding vision was a revitalized international architecture that would reflect such values as democracy and free markets, and would benefit nations that play by the rules. Outlier regimes that rejected the compact, including Iran and North Korea, would face sanctions and isolation from the global commons.
In implementing that strategy with specific policies, Obama achieved signature successes and suffered significant setbacks. The administration banned Bush-era “enhanced-interrogation” techniques that many observers equate with torture, but bipartisan majorities in Congress blocked the White House from closing the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Obama also looked beyond the traditional and exclusive G-8 club of the world’s larger economies to address the financial crisis, turning more frequently to a nascent G-20 coalition that included fast-growing economies in Brazil, China, India, and elsewhere.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.