30 August 2015

The best defense of Obama’s foreign policy you will read this year

Gideon Rose's defense of Obama's foreign policy is excellent -- and clarifies why it's so hard to defend.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs is out and has quite the cover:

It’s worth perusing, but I would strongly recommend you start with Gideon Rose’s essay, “What Obama Gets Right,” His thesis paragraph:

The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery. The president is variously painted as a softheaded idealist, a cold-blooded realist, or a naive incompetent. But he is actually best understood as an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament—somebody who felt that after a period of reckless overexpansion and belligerent unilateralism, 
the country’s long-term foreign policy goals could best be furthered by short-term retrenchment. In this, he was almost certainly correct, and with the necessary backpedaling having been accomplished, Washington can turn its attention to figuring out how to 
get the liberal order moving forward once again.

Read the whole thing. As someone who has also written about Obama’s foreign policy for Foreign Affairs, this sounds pretty much spot-on to me. It simultaneously explains the strength of Obama’s foreign policy approach and why it generates so little love with the public.

The strength, as Rose observes, is that Obama has a clear prioritization of what is vital to American interests and what is not so vital. He has dealt with the vital stuff — the maintenance of the core of the liberal international order — pretty well. He has dealt with the peripheral stuff mostly by not devoting resources to it.

The weakness is that Obama has done well enough at husbanding American power and influence for critics to complain that he hasn’t used it — without considering the possibility that had Obama not husbanded it, there would be less power to exercise. This sort of foreign policy doctrine just isn’t terribly popular, particularly during campaign season, for reasons that Zach Beauchamp offered Tuesday about why so many candidates sound so stupid about China:

Presidential candidates are just not really allowed to acknowledge the limits of American power. They are expected to act as if they could fix every problem, everywhere. So that is why they feel compelled to act as if China’s internal economic issues are something America could fix or even prevent, if only the right person sat in the White House….

This overestimation of American power affects every element of the campaign foreign policy discussion, and explains why our campaign discourse often sounds so disconnected from reality. Presidents are expected to have easy-sounding solutions to just about any problem that crops up, and thus to assert that the White House can fix even things that are clearly outside of our control. The idea that a presidential candidate could come out and admit, “You know what, this is just outside of America’s control,” is politically unacceptable.

So the next time a candidate says something ridiculous about how he’s going to make the world better in three easy steps, feel free to roll your eyes — but bear in mind that they’re all doing this, at least in part, because it’s what a lot of voters want to hear.

To Foreign Affairs’ credit, it also ran Bret Stephens’ rebuttal to Rose’s essay, which starts with a complaint:

When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?

Rose devotes much of his article to rehearsing a litany of the Bush administration’s sins in an effort to persuade readers that Obama inherited a uniquely bad set of cards when he came to the White House—a “mess,” as the president liked to say—and must therefore be judged accordingly. But this is doubtful as a matter of history and past its sell-by date as a form of apology.

I think this requires some willful amnesia about just how bad things were in the fall of 2008. More importantly, however, be sure to bookmark it in case a Republican wins in 2016 and complains about Obama’s awful legacy for the next four to eight years.

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