Two Ways of Judging Obama's Foreign Policy

Evaluations of the president's record may depend upon your diagnosis of big changes in the global order.

By Nathan Pippenger

For a concise, judicious look at the Obama administration’s foreign policy, it will be hard to improve on Gideon Rose’s new essay in Foreign Affairs—and particularly his likening of presidents to middle relief pitchers. From a baseball perspective, Obama’s foreign policy record looks pretty good: “Having inherited two wars and a global economic crisis from the George W. Bush administration—the foreign policy equivalent of runners on base with no outs—Obama has extricated the country from some old problems, avoided getting trapped in some new ones, and made some solid pickups on the side.”

This judgment, of course, doesn’t imply that Rose thinks Obama has done a perfect job. But he has successfully advanced what Rose identifies as the core goal of U.S. foreign policy: to “consolidate, protect, and extend the liberal international order that the United States helped create after World War II.” Obama has partially restored this order, which was badly damaged by the Bush administration’s reckless unilateralism, through a more restrained approach—one that distinguishes sharply between core and peripheral interests, and tries to avoid unforced errors by generally declining to take many risks on behalf of the latter.

This core-periphery distinction will undoubtedly fail to satisfy every observer (human rights activists, for one, have often felt shortchanged by this White House). But in its patient incrementalism, it’s a key element of a foreign policy rooted in the idea of the liberal international order, which—importantly—Rose does not seem to think has fundamentally changed in recent years. This faith in continuity generates one intriguing argument: the end of the Cold War did not change the world as dramatically as many had expected because the liberal international order predated the Soviet Union, and so was not a product of U.S.-Russia tensions. In fact, it was precisely the USSR’s “unwillingness to take part in the order” that caused the Cold War—not the other way around. For that reason, the Cold War’s end was not also the end of the liberal international order: it persists, expanding and growing but still traceable to its roots in the 1940s.

Because Rose takes such a long view of U.S. foreign policy, he sees decisions which were savaged by Obama’s critics—like his restrained response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine—as level-headed actions taken for the ultimate good of the order. Rose notes that like Hungary after 1956, Czechoslovakia after 1968, and Poland after 1981, Ukraine will have to suffer Russian interference without much help from the U.S.; yet “like those other countries have, Ukraine will probably join the liberal order eventually, when circumstances permit.” Similarly, on Obama’s approach to Syria and ISIS, Rose remarks: “If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.” Time and again, Obama has chosen slow, uncertain engagement over confrontation; Rose sees these choices as a cumulative effort to expand and strengthen the order, rather than repeating the mistakes of the Bush administration. On Asia, then, he predicts that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “will not only deepen the liberal order in general but also bolster and lock in strong relationships with the countries involved,” and “will remain open to Chinese participation whenever China is prepared to meet the criteria for entry.” These cautious openings reflect the president’s laudable confidence “that in the long run, open societies will beat closed ones—so that countries such as Russia, China, and Iran will see their positions weaken rather than strengthen eventually, if only the fort can be held.”

There’s a response to this argument, but it’s not the one Foreign Affairs included in its issue. Rose’s piece is paired with a rejoinder from the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, who opens by testily asking, “When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?” To pose this question is to ignore a key implication of Rose’s “middle relief pitcher” analogy and mistakenly imagine that foreign policy can ever start again at Year Zero.

A better place to seek an alternative view is this 2012 piece by Michael Ignatieff. Critiquing the response of Western countries to the Syrian civil war, Ignatieff challenges a key assumption in Rose’s piece: does the liberal international order, as we have known it since the 1940s, still structure global politics?

The strong suggestion of Ignatieff’s analysis is that the order is breaking down—and with it, presumably, many of our criteria for judging the foreign policy decisions of U.S. presidents. Instead of a longstanding and regularly-expanding liberal order, Ignatieff refers pessimistically to “a loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies” collectively unprepared to face “something new in the annals of political science”—Russian and Chinese states that “mix the market economy and the police state.” Gone is Rose’s implicit confidence that economic liberalization can be linked to good international behavior, especially via American prodding. Also gone is the assumption that the decisions of China and Russia—say, to support Bashar al-Assad—can be understood through the terms of the liberal international order (as Ignatieff writes, “through the prism of international peace and security”). Instead, Ignatieff argues, these countries view Assad’s relationship to Syria by looking nervously over their own shoulders at Chechnya and Tibet, and so their support of Assad responds to the brutal, and importantly different, logic of maintaining domestic and regional power. And against Rose’s supposition that the economic fruits of the liberal order might help convince China to “play by the rules,” Ignatieff dismisses as a bygone illusion the idea that Russia and China might become more cooperative “because they sought integration into the global economy.”

Obama’s steps towards repairing the wreckage left behind by the Bush administration reflect a certain view of the U.S.’s historical role in global politics, one broadly shared by policymakers in both parties since the 1940s. If that view is right, and its vision of the global order is not anachronistic, then Rose’s defense is convincing. But on another view, cracks are emerging in the liberal international order. It would be premature to say that everything has changed, but if a long-term, economically viable illiberal counterbalance is really emergent, some of Obama’s apparently prudent steps may turn out to have been risky gambles. I’m not convinced that this is really the case, and predictions of such a deep shift may well turn out to be overblown—but it’s a serious idea, and (unlike complaints about Bush-blaming) it clarifies the terms of a better debate.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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