Posted by: cousindampier | 11 December 2009

Foreign Policy, Ideas, and Self-Interest

Just finished reading Fareed Zakaria, ‘Obama the Realist‘. I like the following paragraph:

“In 1943 the columnist Walter Lippmann defined foreign policy as “bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power.” Only then could the United States achieve strategic stability abroad and domestic support at home. Consciously or not, President Obama was channeling Lippmann when he said, “As president I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests.” In his speech he quoted only one person, a president of the opposite party, Dwight Eisenhower, who said of national-security challenges, “Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” Obama added that “over the past several years, we have lost that balance.” He is hoping to restore some equilibrium to American foreign policy.”

I think it was Thomas Barnett who made a convincing point about Obama being much more of a conservative in his foreign policy than Bush or McCain – both of whom spoke about ideas, and the spreading of democracy. Those inherently are liberal, sounding rather like Wilson, while Obama is conservative in his desire to match interests and means.

As Americans, we like to dream big. Dreaming big does not mean it is always ethical – Manifest Destiny is a good example – but the ideas of democracy, equality, and liberty are held dear, even if our history is pictured with actions and events which run counter to these ideas. We look at the world through that prism though – why don’t those people want to be like us? – because democracy is so equal. It is a foundation of what most Americans would consider their culture.*

Because of that, we like big plans, like spreading democracy. (Unless it requires a lot of effort. Then we are not as keen on it.) Obama certainly says that spreading democracy is his goal, but nonetheless, the spread and implementation of an idea is much more difficult than the spread and implementation of self-interest. There are those two streams of thought – realism and idealism, they are commonly called, but the spread of self-interest and the spread of ideas are better and less tainted words.

You can sell ideas based on self-interest, but the reverse is much harder to achieve. Bush wanted to transform the MidEast based on American self-interest, which was a key misstep. Where American self-interest and foreign self-interest align is where the seeds for ideas can be planted, and this meld is where Obama focuses on.

American foreign policy is not all about Afghanistan. The large amount of resources devoted there make it a large part, but there is much more behind that stage.

*or at least used to. With all the tea party nonsense and Palin-mania, I might be misreading American culture in a large and terrible way.



  1. Good post. I agree with your characterization of Obama as a pragmatist. I’ve read or listened to enough of his speeches now to see that he cloaks some pragmatic and hard-edged foreign policy positions in the language of lofty ideas. The 10 Dec Nobel lecture is the most recent instance of this.

    What I like about Obama is that he has the intellectual grunt to get the idea that stuff like nuclear proliferation, climate change and economic / environmental security are not for leftists and hippies. They’re a crucial part of the international security agenda, and need to be addressed creatively and cooperatively.

    • I think so. There is an interesting article in the economist about the ‘Obama Doctrine’ or, at least, if he is creating one. If he is, I think it’s initial stage is both going ’round to the world and re-establishing friendlier relations, but also re-establishing expectations here in the States about what our relationship with the world is.

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