Is Barack Obama's 'global meliorist' foreign policy just another way of overestimating America's ability to remake the world?

Another Kind of Crusader State? Obama as Global Meliorist

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Ever since Judah early last month highlighted this Spencer Ackerman piece on Barack Obama's foreign policy, I have been meaning to get down some thoughts about Obama and the limits of U.S. power.

The almost utopian rhetoric used by Obama's advisers to describe their central foreign policy goal of "dignity promotion" has been bothering me. Here's former Obama adviser Samantha Power, for example, as quoted by Ackerman:

"He goes back to Roosevelt," Power says. "Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us."

George Bush's foreign policy has been too-much influenced by the Wilsonian idea that America can make the world safe for democracy. It often goes unmentioned, however, that self-described liberal internationalists also believe American foreign policy should have a "transformative agenda," as Powers puts it -- whether the goal is liberty, dignity, or development. The problem with Bush's foreign policy, according to the current liberal internationalist critique, has not been its fundamental goals, but the means used to pursue them: military force, unilateralism, etc.

To replace neoconservative democracy promotion by force, Obama seems to be proposing a different kind of crusade. He and his advisers seem to believe that American foreign policy can deliver the human race from indignity and want. Even if their strategy for achieving this goal doesn't rely on military force, such an expansive view of the capabilities of U.S. foreign policy is dangerously unrealistic. It seems particularly overly ambitious in light of the growing evidence about what traditional forms of development aid have actually accomplished. (Not to mention that Obama's agenda seems too hostile to a form of global development and economic uplift that often proves rather more effective than aid: trade.)

In his brilliant book "Promised Land, Crusader State," Walter McDougall outlined a handful of American foreign policy traditions. Obama's foreign policy seems to fit into the tradition that McDougall calls  "global meliorism." Here's an excerpt of a 1997 Foreign Affairs piece by McDougall:

Global Meliorism rests on the conviction that most of the phenomena that threaten U.S. security are products of oppression and poverty, and that a wise foreign policy will attack causes rather than symptoms. Meliorism assumes that the United States possesses the power, prestige, technology, wealth, and altruism needed to reform whole nations, and that the U.S. government, having democratized Germany and Japan, rebuilt Europe, and presided over an unprecedented era of democratization and growth, knows how to uplift the poor and oppressed. Finally, it assumes that Americans want to dedicate their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to that purpose.

None of these postulates is proven; every one may be false. The link between poverty and oppression, war and revolution, seems plausible, but not all beggars become criminals, nor do all authoritarian countries threaten their neighbors. What is more, if democracy merely means elections or majority rule, there is nothing inherently decent about it. Nor can one assume that all nations walk the same road toward democratic politics and prosperity. Even if they do, to act on that assumption is to ape the Bolsheviks, who claimed that scientific law was moving the world toward communism but behaved as though history needed their "help." As for foreign aid, the London School of Economics' recent study of 92 nations found that "no relationship exists between the levels of aid and rates of growth in recipient countries" and that government aid tends to discourage removal of barriers to private investment while "increasing the size of recipient governments and lining the pockets of elites."

The United States ought simply to close its meliorist shop and either abolish its do-gooder agencies or redefine them as tools of the national interest, not of global reform. If nations in Asia, Africa, or the former communist world need capital, let their governments respect property, establish the rule of law, enforce contracts and commercial conventions, and adjust tax rates so as to attract private investors. If they do not want to take those steps, the United States cannot force them or take those steps for them.

McDougall, writing prior to Sept. 11, argued that U.S. foreign policy should "lay aside millenarianism once and for all" and measure modern foreign policy prescriptions against "the yardstick of humility bequeathed by our founders."

The Democrats have, for good reason, gotten good political mileage out of criticizing Bush's foreign policy overreach. An examination of Obama's agenda, however, raises the fear that his administration would simply replace it with a different kind of overreach. Hillary Clinton's foreign policy agenda beyond Iraq remains somewhat ill-defined. Her husband's foreign policy record, however, did not score well on the yardstick of humility. As for John McCain, his frequent invocation of Teddy Roosevelt as a model also provides ample reason for worry.

Given the recent history of U.S. foreign policy, it's depressing that this presidential year has provided so little occasion for a political debate about the limits of American power, and about the case for restraint -- in both the use of military force and in the promotion of a foreign policy aimed at the quick and easy social transformation of the world.