Obama’s Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change

The administration of the current U.S. President faces an immense criticism from Obama’s opponents. In the midst of the heated debates, one should decide whether Barack Obama’s foreign policy is a continuity of the traditional agenda or a new stage in the history of the American diplomacy. The growing bulk of evidence, including historical data, official declarations and documents, and expert opinions, reveal some critical changes in the U.S. performance on the world stage. Nevertheless, a critical evaluation of the consequences allows one to indicate adverse effects of Obama’s international activity on the overall perception of the country by the global community.



Continuous debates between proponents of the U.S. isolationism and supporters of the large-scale involvement in the world affairs seem to be an outstanding feature of the modern country’s foreign policy. In terms of history, a profound change in the American foreign policy occurred after the World War II because of the victorious postwar euphoria and realization of the U.S. enormous potential to unite and lead the world democracies to the victory over the communist Soviet Union. The U.S. strive for the supreme leadership resulted in a rapid militarization of the economy and frequent interferences in the local conflicts worldwide. Both phenomena were justified by a strong conviction of the country’s moral duty to spread the democratic values all over the globe. However, in the course of history, the USA appeared twice to be involved in the wars that did not bring any gains to it, but resulted in a lasting drain of the economic and military resources. The U.S. participation in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, in the 1960s and 2003 respectively, brought a sober realization of the existing limits of the American ability to perform the policing function on the world stage. Moreover, the failure to end the Iraq war with a desirable victory, among some other international issues, has been determining the U.S. foreign policy during the presidency of Barack Obama. Along with the Arab uprisings and nuclear disarmament, the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan present a great challenge for the Obama administration. The scholars’ opinions regarding the style, methods, and consequences of the President’s foreign policy of limited involvement vary from the modest critique to the outspoken condemnation. Although, Obama’s strategy presupposes tremendous changes in the U.S. performance on the world stage, they significantly contribute to the deterioration of the American image and overall ability to maintain the present level of influence on the world affairs. The diminishing role of the USA in the world politics is a result of the naïve worldview and overcautious attitude of President Obama to handling critical situations.

Historical Background

The most significant event in the history of the U.S. foreign policy occurred after the World War II and resulted in the enhanced militarization of the U.S. economy and the emergence of a widespread belief that the USA may play a leading role in the world affairs. According to the professor of the Columbian University, George C. Herring, the major shift in the American foreign policy became possible due to a set of post-war trends. Among the domestic factors, one may consider a relatively low damage from the war devastation and prosperous economy. On the international stage, the USA encountered an unprecedented situation of the post-war power redistribution, technological enhancement, and economic stagnation in Europe. The exposure to new threats and the fear of another Pearl Harbor tragedy pushed the United States toward grasping a unique opportunity to become a leader of the world community. Thus, the U.S. leaders sought to define a new course of action.

The revolution in the American foreign policy coincided with the beginning of the Cold War, a 55-year period of the ideological confrontation between the USA and democratic states of the Western Europe, on the one side, and the block of the communist states and its leader, the USSR, on the other side. Intending to launch a full-scale support for democratic countries around the world, the USA has considerably enlarged its arsenal of diplomatic tools. On March 12, 1947, the U.S. President Harry Truman defined one of them that was a financial support to “those countries in Europe, whose peoples are struggling against great difficulties to maintain their freedoms and their independence while they repair the damages of war”. The proclaimed concept of “a leading part in establishing the United Nations” and “an investment in world freedom and world peace”, known as the Truman Doctrine, became a guiding leitmotiv of the U.S. foreign policy. In reality, the financial tool turned to be a rather effective method of spreading the country’s influence over the Western states through the implementation of the Marshall Aid. Moreover, consumed by the anti-Soviet rhetoric and the fear of communism expansion, the U.S. government concentrated on the achievement of military superiority and gaining the  during the next 60 years, even after the Cold War. According to an Associate Professorsupport of the closest allies. The mentioned intentions became the main U.S. objectives for the nearest future; they were formulated in the notorious 1950 National Security Council Report, NSC 68. The practical implementation of NSC 68 resulted in a number of decisive steps. Firstly, the U.S. defense budget of 1953 reached $53 billion; it was four times more than in 1949. Secondly, in April 1949, the USA became one of the founder members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a non-governmental military alliance, a mechanism of the mutual defense for the USA and the Western Europe as well as the American outpost in Europe. The beginning of the Cold War marked the evolution of the U.S. foreign policy; it aimed at defining the precise goals and obtaining economic and military means for upholding the leading position of the USA.

The United States continued to resort to the economic and military levels during the next 60 years, even after the Cold War. According to an Associate Professor at George Mason University, Colin Dueck, the combination of the mentioned tools gave birth to the strategy of containment, a course of action aimed at limiting the expansionist ambitions of the given opponent by means of the military deterrence, as well as economic and diplomatic pressure. The concept of containment presupposes a limited implementation of a wide set of different strategies. Examples of the regime change or rollback are George W. Bush’s invasion of Panama in 1989 and Dwight Eisenhower’s coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. Nixon’s policy of détente that included the strategy of the Open Doors for China and the 1975 Helsinki Accords was a classic instance of using the strategy of integration. In addition, the United States used the bargaining approach that “involves the mutual exchange of interests and concessions, through negotiation, compromise, promises, and sometimes threats” . For the following 60 years, the USA has actively applied the hybrid strategy that essentially represented the mixture of a regime change, integration, and bargaining in different regions and at different scope. Eventually, the Cold War allowed the USA to devise the own set of diplomatic tools for managing international relations.

The historical accounts also suggest that the militarization of the U.S. foreign policy remained one of the prominent features of the USA’s approach to the international affairs. An American political expert, Stephen M. Walt, argues that the U.S. President did not hesitate to support the Contras war in Nicaragua and, similarly, was not afraid to occupy Iraq in 2003, causing the death of 100,000 Muslims in the process. A prominent scholar, Zbigniew Brzezinski, points out that the emergence of the USA as the only global leader on the international stage after the USSR’s defeat in the Cold War fueled the sense of the American exceptionalism and encouraged the U.S. unilateral engagement in the local conflicts across the world. In the midst of victorious enthusiasm, the Bush administration pursued the goal of upholding the American global leadership in solving the conflict in the Persian Gulf in 1991. With a great “resolve and efficacy,” the U.S. President Bill Clinton acted in relation to the Balkan crisis by sanctioning the brief but intense NATO air campaign against the Serbian forces in Yugoslavia in 1995. George Bush’s war on terror and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, turned to be a geopolitical catastrophe for the USA as soon as the euphoria of the victory had passed. Resembling the world reaction to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the Iraq invasion has caused a growing opposition and undermined the U.S. leading position; moreover, hundreds of Americans and Muslims died in the war. The American experience on the world stage proves that one may hardly transcend the history as the USA may never enjoy the world supremacy that it gained after 1945. Thus, Americans and the world community anticipated coming changes due to the election of the first Afro-American U.S. president in 2008 considering it a promising sign of the future accomplishments.

The Mainstream Position of the U.S. Government

In 2009, the 44th U.S. President Barack Obama took the presidential office, possessing a clear vision of the U.S. future and being aware of the coming challenges. Numerous speeches and the 2010 National Security Strategy contain the key points of Obama’s foreign policy agenda. A careful analysis of the mentioned sources allows determining the main objectives of the President’s intentions, such as the preservation of peace, global cooperation, and nonproliferation of the nuclear weapons.

Peacekeeping became one of the most important goals of the U.S. foreign policy. In his 2009 inauguration speech, Obama sincerely declared that the USA would persistently support every nation that “seeks a future of peace and dignity”. The President’s pledge was a worldwide call and invitation for uniting and achieving a global harmony. Moreover, one may easily detect the novelty in the President’s pursue of the worldwide peace. During his visit to Cairo in June 2009, Barack Obama proudly announced the U.S. intention to reconcile with the Muslim world, “seeking a new beginning” in their relations. The U.S. leader shortly summarized the history of the relationship between the Muslims and the West during the age of colonialism, the Cold War, and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. To convey the sincerity of his intentions, Obama effectively laid stress on the mutual past and common interests, based on the “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”. Understandably, the promise of friendship preceded the outlining of the American objectives regarding the main Middle East conflicts. To prevent the spread of the violent extremism, the country’s leader assured the world community that the USA would launch a gradual withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Iraq and provide financial help to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, Obama declared his support for the two-state strategy aimed at solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was crucial because of the long-term suffering of both sides. One may admit that the peacekeeping intentions of the today’s American President are rather comprehensive and far-reaching.

President Obama repeatedly suggested the strengthening of the international collaboration through relying on the bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Traditionally, the USA intends to enhance the relation with the partners in Europe, Asia, the Western hemisphere, and the Middle East. During the visit to Berlin, Obama acknowledged that the alliance between the USA and Europe is “the foundation of global security” and “the engine of the global economy”. The U.S. President pointed out a great set of international issue that his country planned to resolve through the shared effort with partners: the war in Afghanistan, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and combating the AIDs epidemics. Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2009, Obama made similar remarks in relation to the peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the encouragement of multilateral peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors: Lebanon and Syria. In addition, the U.S. President announced the intention to expand the American engagement in the Asian affairs in order “to advance security, prosperity and human dignity across the Asia Pacific”mainly through building strong and productive relations with Australia, the South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China. The U.S. leader took a rather strong position of pursuing the global cooperation while upholding old alliances and spreading the American influence across the world.

On numerous occasions, Barack Obama underlined the necessity to tackle the spread of the weapons of mass destruction. The President declared that the USA would put significant efforts for building “a world without nuclear weapons”, appealing to Russia and other nuclear states to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Moreover, Washington promises to achieve the denuclearization of the North Korea and prevention of the Iranian nuclear program, to secure the nuclear materials and turn such projects as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into the international programs, and encourage the peaceful use of the nuclear energy. Overall, Obama’s foreign policy agenda deals with virtually all today’s international issues, revealing the U.S. desire to engage in the world affairs and enjoy the support of the American partners.

Critical Interpretations

Critical reviews of Obama’s foreign policy greatly differ in terms of the tone and depth. However, a great number of growing evaluations focuses on the distinctive features of Obama’s vision, methods, and consequences of the President’s performance on the world stage. Dueck refers to Obama’s agenda as “broadly liberal and progressive” one. However, the U.S. President is strongly convinced that the source of the American power lies within its borders. In other words, Obama seeks to secure the economic prosperity of the USA, “which serves as the wellspring of American power”, through the enhancement of the domestic economic recovery from the long-term recession. Obama is hardly the first American president who gives the highest priority to the internal affairs, but he is certainly the first one to concentrate on securing the domestic legacy during the second term of the presidency. While pursuing the strategy of disentanglement, Obama repeatedly declared “a new era of engagement with the world” that presupposed sharing the responsibilities for shaping the world peace. The concept of the limited engagement, known as the Obama Doctrine, became the cornerstone of the President’s foreign policy in times when the country endured the burden of two long and costly wars in the Middle East. The genuine desire to free the USA from the long-term responsibility led to the announcement of the gradual withdrawal of the U.S. forces and admission of the absence of any intentions to establish the American military outpost in Iraq. Obama persistently tries to reduce the cost of the U.S. involvement in the world affairs.

The comprehensive agenda of Barack Obama endured the fair share of criticism. Roger Cohen mildly refers to the President’s worldview as an attempt to recognize the transformation of the U.S. role from the determinant into the dominant one due to the emergence of the new equally powerful actors on the world stage. The experts of the European Union Institute for Security Studies admit that Obama’s strategy of the cooperative realism is a considerable derivation from the unilateral style of the Bush administration. It essentially represents the result of the careful assessment of the U.S. limited power to confront both obvious and hidden challenges single-handedly. Dueck attributes distinctive convictions of the U.S. President to his personal experience and political views, formed during his progressing up the career ladder. According to Obama’s own admission, Muslim ancestors, several years of work in the Chicago Muslim communities cultivated a strong sense of tolerance in the mind of the future president. As an experienced politician, Obama strongly opposed  the Iraq invasion in 2002. The U.S. leader vigorously condemns “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics” in relation to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. However, the prominent neoconservative American commentator, Dinesh D’Souza, criticizes Obama’s vision of the American future. The author of The Roots of Obama’s Rage suggests that the U.S. President holds an anti-colonial view and considers the USA “the invader, occupier and terrorizer of the world”. Therefore, international initiatives of the Obama administration may disconnect the USA from its allies and diminish its role in the world affairs.

To achieve the declared goals, the American President applied a wide set of strategies that certainly resemble the experience of his predecessors, but significantly differ in magnitude. A profound analysis of his performance on the world stage, conducted by the European Union Institute for Security Studies, reveals that the Obama administration resorts to the use of the soft power, striving to achieve the set goals by the non-military means. Among the instruments of the soft power, Obama endeavors “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies” by applying the concept of the deep military and economic integration. In other cases, he suggests the bargaining method. While advocating the idea of “a world without the nuclear weapon”, Obama offers a complete disarmament of the nuclear states and the prevention of the further acquisition of the nuclear weapon by other states. The proposed two-state solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict represents the mixture of the mentioned strategies, including the participation of the world community and promotion of the Palestinian and Israeli interests. The U.S. policy in relation to the Americas is a classic example of the accommodation concept since Obama sought to reaffirm the U.S. leadership in the Western hemisphere by declaring the era of “an equal partnership” between the USA and its closest neighbors. Obama’s China strategy include a far more complicated set of instruments: integration, accommodation, and implicit containment. The mentioned combination was a result of the Chinese suspicious perception of Obama’s East Asian policy and his attempt to challenge the Chinese success in dominating the economic and political institutions in the Pacific region by encouraging the trade partnership and joint membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative with China and securing the U.S. military presence in Australia. Obama applied the same hybrid strategy in relation to Iran, promoting the diplomatic solution for closing the Iranian nuclear program, imposing multilateral economic sanctions and, finally, resorting to the cyber sabotage. In rare cases, Obama had to use the limited military interventions as a tool for the regime change, considering it a final alternative for the toppling the Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 and the core of al-Qaeda. As one may notice the U.S. President’s diplomatic style strongly emphasizes the use of the conventional non-military practices, keeping the military engagement at the minimum.

The result of Obama’s diplomatic activity became a subject wide criticism due to the overcautious approach of the U.S. leader in handling the diplomatic crisis. Many experts claim that Obama inclines to exaggerate the limits of the U.S. power and underestimate the country’s potential to maintain the determinant role in the world affairs. In other instances, the critics blame Obama for creating the apologetic image of the USA, the country that deeply regrets pursuing its imperialistic ambitions in the past and offering a sincere invitation to reconcile. Although Obama’s foreign policy has earned some concessions for negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba and the liquidation of Osama bin Laden, the President’s policy in other regions was not beneficial. The author of Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, David E. Sanger, argues that the amateur approach of the Obama administration to analyzing the situation in the Arab world prevented the USA from predicting the parade of revolutions in the Arab states, virtually leaving the U.S. leadership unprepared to take action. Obama’s hesitant efforts to resolve the bloodshed in Egypt by exploiting personal ties with president Mubarak and offering a substantial economic support afterward clearly reflected the U.S. intention to promote democracy, but to cease being a “democracy’s venture capitalist”. Only the brutality of Qaddafi and the never ending horrors of the civil war in Syria pushed Obama to sanction the limited military intervention in order to improve the situation in the country”. In the end, the President’s hesitation considerable damaged the reputation of the USA, suggesting the disloyalty in relation to its partners. The U.S. international initiatives in the Pacific region proved to be equally unproductive. According to Sander, the Chinese authorities completely disregarded Obama’s call for the joint search for eradicating the nuclear threat from the North Korea and bluntly warned the U.S. government to avoid interfering with the Chinese interests. In addition, Roger Cohen warns that the USA appeared to be in a more dangerous situation than a few years ago as Obama’s unpreparedness led to the disconnection with the European allies, uncontrolled situation with Russia, and deteriorating conflicts in the Middle East. The presented evidence and expert opinions allow concluding that Obama’s foreign policy resulted in numerous negative consequences for the American image and prestige.

Drawing the historical parallels allows illustrating the clear picture of Barack Obama’s derivation from the unilateral leadership on the world stage. While using numerous combinations of the soft power instruments, the U.S. President strives to balance the American foreign policy with the superior necessity to build a strong internal economic foundation for the U.S. prosperity and reduce the costs of the international engagement. The Obama Doctrine of retrenchment and accommodation presupposes the extended reliance on the shared responsibilities of the world community in tackling the global issues of violent extremism and nonproliferation. However, despite the novelty and progressiveness of the declared intentions, the overly amateur, cautious, and hesitant approach of Barack Obama in facing the critical situations resulted in the undermined reputation of the USA and harsh criticism from Obama’s opponents.

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