Barack W. Obama?

James Joyner’s got a provocative piece at the National Interest arguing that so far, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy reflects continuity with George W. Bush’s so-called “third term” (i.e., 2006-2008):

There are strong signals that a real break will come on some secondaryissues. Obama is much less enthusiastic about missile defense, morelikely to show tough love to Israel and less apt to fervently pursueour half-century-old idiocy in Cuba. But on all the major issues, themovement has been cosmetic.

Now, I’d argue that some of the secondary issues are not so secondary (Israel, for instance). I’d also argue that some of the secondary issues are intended to impact primary issues. Movement on missile defense could help repair relations with Russia, and the changed tone on Cuba could help us reassert out leadership in Latin America.

But the rest of the list that Joyner compiles makes for a pretty compelling case for continuity, even if there has been a significant shift in tone. The reason, Joyner argues, is that, despite the change in leadership, America’s interests remain constant, as do those of other countries.

If there’s one thing he doesn’t acknowledge, however, it’s the significance of narrative arc. Maybe it’s the playwright in me speaking here, but there’s an enormous difference between a first act and a third act. So not only is it perfectly understandable that Obama’s first act picks up where Bush’s third left off, it also does not rule out the possibility that the plot might thicken in the future. (Although Joyner also points out that, for reasons having to do with the U.S. electoral calendar, time is running out for any radical shifts.)

The article also made me think of the paradoxical nature of the “honeymoon” period. The popularity that Obama — even more than most newly elected leaders — enjoyed created “coattail” incentives for cooperation. But it also created the same sort of disincentives that a deflationary market creates for consumers. Obama’s popularity levels have nowhere to go but down, which means that partners, rivals and adversaries all stand to get more in return for cooperation by waiting out the honeymoon period. Since most of the deals Obama was looking to secure involved varying amounts of concession from the other side of the negotiating table, it’s not surprising that there’s been quite a bit of stalling.

With that in mind, too, and knowing that any eventual deals will require some concessions on the U.S. side also, it makes sense for Obama to start off with the last offer on the table (i.e., Bush’s third term) before bargaining downward.

Finally, I’d add that while formulating foreign policy is obviously important, responding to foreign affairs often takes precedence. And while the counterfactuals are impossible to know for sure, judging from the comments by former Bush administration officials on incidents like the Iranian elections, the North Korean nuclear test, and the Honduras constitutional crisis (to name just a few), the real difference between the administrations of Obama and Bush is reflected in the latter.

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