Editor's Choice January/February 2009


A new report from the country’s top intelligence office predicts a fundamental change in America’s foreign policy—but not the change Barack Obama has promised.
Thomas Fuchs

"Change” has been President-elect Barack Obama’s mantra, and for many of his supporters, the most important change his administration promises is a more restrained, less arrogant foreign policy, a global posture that avoids the costs and dangers inherent in playing the world’s policeman. They’re dismayed by the presumptuous and anachronistic attitudes behind the declaration that the president of the United States is the “leader of the free world.” They’re exasperated with the messianic invocation of “America’s larger purpose in the world,” with the smug notion that this country is “called to provide visionary leadership” in “battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” They discern the dangers of declaring with righteous omniscience that America “has a direct national security interest” in seeing its economic and political beliefs take hold in foreign lands. They’re annoyed with the historical myopia that results in an unironic reference to American military “operations to win hearts and minds.” In the claim that “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people,” they hear echoes of the universalist logic that led to the disaster in Vietnam and see a sweeping foreign policy that the rest of the world finds at best meddlesome and at worst menacingly imperialist.

These lofty but potentially dangerous sentiments are entirely consistent with George W. Bush’s assertion in his second Inaugural Address that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands”—an assertion his critics at home and abroad rightly judged as … lofty and potentially dangerous. But the pronouncements quoted above—all of them—are in fact from Barack Obama’s two major foreign-policy statements, both made in 2007.

This isn’t to charge the president-elect with hypocrisy (he has consistently enunciated these views, which could be fairly described as standard liberal internationalist, even if some of his enthusiasts haven’t been particularly alert to them) but to show that the beliefs underlying America’s global role since the end of the Second World War have been remarkably consistent, embraced by both Democratic and Republican administrations. And they lead inevitably to America’s playing the “imperial” role so many of Obama’s supporters decry.

To define, as Obama does, conflict, misrule, nondemocratic states, and noncapitalist economies as threats in themselves; to assert (as did Anthony Lake, Obama’s senior and probably closest foreign-policy adviser, when he served as national-security adviser in the Clinton administration) that in order to maintain its safety, America must enlarge the “world’s free community of market democracies” and counter the “aggression … of states hostile to democracy and markets”; to avow, as did President Clinton in 1993, that the security of the United States demands that its foreign policy “focus on relations within nations, on a nation’s form of governance, on its economic structure”—to embrace all this is to expand lavishly, really to warp, any conventional conception of security and of the national interest. It is to adopt a posture approximating paranoia in an often illiberal and chaotic world.

Certainly, the fundamental “change” Obama glibly promised is warranted, as a report issued by the National Intelligence Council in November, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (from the U.S. Government Printing Office, and available online at www.dni.gov/nic/NIC_2025_project.html), makes clear. Every four years, the NIC—the analysis arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, charged with long-term planning—produces a review of global military, economic, political, and demographic trends. In the past, the result, which forecast more or less more of the same, has been pretty anodyne. But the conclusions here, though somewhat hedged, are shocking. They mean that America will indeed be forced to radically change its foreign policies—and not in the way Obama has promised.

Obama’s formula that American security can’t be separated from the security of people anywhere and everywhere—a proposition identical to Dean Rusk’s reasoning during the Vietnam War that America “can be secure only to the extent that our total environment is secure”—is the antithesis of statecraft, which requires discriminating on the basis of power, interest, and circumstance. It can only multiply security commitments. Rather than accepting conflict between states and among peoples as a permanent feature of the international environment, Obama yokes American safety to the salvation of that environment—which is, to borrow a term his devotees have rightly used to criticize his predecessor’s foreign-policy projects, a truly messianic task.

The idea that America will be safe only when the rest of the world is converted to American ideals breeds a Manichean view of world politics and inevitably creates a barrier to diplomacy. As the political scientist Hans Morgenthau recognized, when states claim that their ideals are universal,

compromise, the virtue of the old diplomacy, becomes the treason of the new; for the mutual accommodation of conflicting claims … amounts to surrender when the moral standards are themselves the stakes of the conflict.
Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

'I'm As Hardcore New York As You Can Possibly Get'

A short documentary about an electric violin player who busks in New York City's subway.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In