As Barack Obama returns from Europe on Tuesday, he has in bright, bold strokes revealed his signature on the world stage: He is Obama the rationalist.
A diverse set of Obama decisions in recent days have a common theme: A leader who sees himself building a more orderly, humane world by vanquishing outdated thinking and corrupting ideology.
With a rapid series of major announcements and rhetorical gestures, the new president has done more than turn from Bush-era policies. He has shined a vivid light on his philosophical outlook on the world—and how starkly he differs from his predecessor on basic beliefs about power, diplomacy and even human nature.
When it comes to nuclear proliferation, Barack Obama believes in controlling and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons treaties and international accords — replacing his predecessor’s skepticism about the relevance of arms control.
When it comes to defense budgets, Obama believes in scrapping weapons that were first dreamed up a generation ago — rejecting Bush’s belief that expensive but politically popular hardware like the F-22 fighter still have a place in the post-Cold War world.
When it comes to Cuba, Obama believes in opening the windows by allowing family travel and financial interaction — a reversal of five decades' worth of policy from Democratic and Republican presidents focused on isolating the island dictatorship.
All these ideas represent mainstream thinking within Democratic foreign policy circles. None of Obama’s announcements come as a particular surprise, having been promised or foreshadowed by his 2008 campaign. But the steps are cumulatively striking — especially when taken in such rapid succession — showing Obama’s willingness to quickly walk across onetime political red lines. And they eliminate any doubt that a sharply different philosophy now guides Washington’s approach to the world.
Obama’s moves have launched a debate. Conservatives are calling Obama naïve, arguing that his belief in rationalism and community is hardly realistic in a world driven by murderous hatreds and all manner of nations angling remorselessly for military and economic advantage.
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It may be the sharpest philosophical turn in foreign policy since the Carter administration gave way to the Reagan administration 28 years ago.
Not all of this was obvious even a couple of weeks ago.
The new president’s plan for Iraq, after all, is close enough to George W. Bush’s that it drew praise from John McCain. His plan for Afghanistan calls for continuing the war with a new surge of military force.
What’s now clear is that even when Bush and Obama shared objectives — such as blocking Iran’s pursuit of nuclear bombs — they are pursuing them with a different style that flows from a different worldview.
An administration that believed in the primacy of force has been replaced by one that believes in the primacy of dialogue. A president who believed his main job in the world was to assert American interests and values, even if unilaterally, has been succeeded by one who believes his main job is to gently coax and nourish communities of interest in which other nations will regard the United States as a friend.
Obama himself articulated the difference at a town hall meeting on Tuesday in Istanbul.
“First, I believe we can have a dialogue that’s open, honest and vibrant,” Obama told the Turks. “I want you to know that I’m personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement. We can’t afford to talk past one another, to focus only our differences or to let the walls of mistrust go up around us. Instead, we have to listen carefully to each other. We have to focus on places where we can find common ground, respect each other’s views — even when we disagree. And if we do so, I believe we can bridge some of our differences and divisions we’ve had in the past."
A wide variety of Democratic foreign policy voices, as well as some prominent Republicans, praised Obama’s trip and recent announcements for bringing a new spirit of pragmatism to foreign policy. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisers, hailed Obama for following a “policy of constructive realism.”
Even Robert Kagan, a former foreign policy adviser to McCain and a hawk on the Iraq war, praised the new president’s tone: “There’s no question that Barack Obama is knocking the sharp edges off anti-Americanism around the world.”
Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, praised Obama for putting results over doctrine: “He’s an ambitious pragmatist. It has not been an ideological 50 days. He’s grappling with these problems one at a time.”
In fact, the dividing line between Bush and Obama may be less ideology than human nature — whether people, and countries, are more likely moved by force or by persuasion.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, former vice president Dick Cheney warned about what he said he feared was Obama’s naïve approach to the threat of terrorism and the harsh steps on interrogation, surveillance and detainment needed to stop it. Protecting the country’s security is “a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” Cheney said. He added: “The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama administration believes.”
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich ridiculed Obama's "fantasy foreign policy,” telling “Fox News Sunday” that Obama’s plan for a global summit on nuclear security is a “wonderful fantasy idea” but that Russia and other potential participants can’t be trusted.
The skepticism hasn’t been entirely partisan. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl also gave a harsh review of the opening swing of Obama’s trip, with the headline, “Obama, Going Along to Get Along.” Diehl concluded with the provocative question: “Is the new president shrewd and pragmatic about using his power at home and abroad — or too passive, even weak?”
None of that dissuades Obama. On his European trip, the president again and again asserted his faith in the power of openness and good will. “I think the most important thing to start with is dialogue,” the president said in Prague. “When you have a chance to meet people from other cultures and other countries, and you listen to them and you find out that, even though you may speak a different language or you may have a different religious faith, it turns out that you care about your family, you have your same hopes about being able to have a career that is useful to the society, you hope that you can raise a family of your own, and that your children will be healthy and have a good education — that all those things that human beings all around the world share are more important than the things that are different.”
What has been surprising about Obama’s whirlwind global tour is his ability to captivate even some former political adversaries with such rhetoric — in part because the underlying goals of American foreign policy remain largely consistent, even as the approach to them has been different.
“I supported McCain, but I’m not troubled by what I’ve seen from Obama,” said Kagan. “I have very little to fault with what he’s done so far.” To Kagan, Obama’s approach offers a new chance to achieve many of the same goals held by the Bush administration, including on Iran, Russia and Afghanistan. “If you’re looking for a paradigm shift, I don’t really see it,” said Kagan. “It’s a classic American approach.”
A former Clinton administration Cabinet secretary sees similarities going back even further. “This is pretty consistent with what Bill Clinton was trying to do,” said former Clinton Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen. “He’s saying, ‘Let’s look at the world as it is.’”
Cohen adds that Obama has one tool that Bush and even Clinton did not have: staggering global popularity. “Internationally, Obama has unprecedented, incredible support,” said Cohen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s seizing on that moment.”