How the Kobayashi Maru Explains Obama's Foreign Policy

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story will serve as a Rosetta Stone for scholars and analysts trying to decode President Obama’s foreign policy. I won’t try to summarize it; it deserves to be read in full. But at one point, Jeff writes of Obama: “He is, by nature, Spockian.”

We’ve been publishing this magazine for 158 years, and as best I can tell, it’s the first time that adjective has appeared in our pages—and the first time we’ve compared a sitting president to a pointy-eared Vulcan.

Elsewhere in the piece, Obama quotes from The Godfather: Part III and Dark Knight—but labeling the film-buff-in-chief Spockian reminded me of a scene from J.J. Abrams 2009 remake of Star Trek. A young James T. Kirk is asked to simulate command in a lose-lose situation known as Kobayashi Maru; he hacks the simulator to allow himself to do the impossible, and win. Spock, who programmed the simulation, accuses him of cheating. Kirk counters that the test itself is a cheat, because it can’t be won. “You argument precludes the possibility of a no-win scenario,” Spock says. “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios,” Kirk fires back.

It’s just a scene in a sci-fi flick, of course. But part of what’s made Kirk iconic, I think, is that he embodies a certain American approach to life, and by extension, to foreign affairs. Like Kirk, most Americans don’t believe in no-win scenarios. The can-do spirit, the hacker ethos, the entrepreneurial drive, the belief that with enough perseverance and a little ingenuity every problem can be solved—they’re woven into American identity, and account for much of the nation’s success.

But they’re also, as Spock might put it, highly illogical. They require reasoning on the basis of aspiration, rather than past experience, and persisting in the face of repeated failure.

It’s possible to see America’s 20th-century foreign policy as a tribute to Kirkian optimism: Prevailing in unwinnable conflicts, and turning back unstoppable ideologies. It’s equally possible to read the same record as a validation of Spockian realism: Repeating past mistakes, embroiling the U.S. in unessential fights, miring the nation in irresolvable wars.

However you read that record, though, it’s hard not to see the tension it implies. Obama is, to extend the metaphor, a Spock—trying to govern a nation of Kirks.