The Three Layers of Obama’s Foreign Policy

In preparation for a France 24 panel discussion program yesterday — which unfortunately hasn’t been put online yet (Note: Part I now available here, Part II here) — I tried to dial in a bit more closely this idea of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy so far representing a great deal of continuity with the final two years of the Bush administration. And what I came up with, and had the pleasure of discussing with some very insightful fellow panelists, was not so much an either/or comparison between the two, but rather a multi-layered model of Obama’s foreign policy.

The surface layer is the much-vaunted Communicator-in-Chief who, through his extraordinary oratorical skills and personal history, has very distinctly changed the tone of American diplomacy and reversed negative global perceptions of the United States. As we agreed yesterday, this layer has had an immediate impact, in terms of global opinion, but also a long-term impact, because Obama directs it so often at the world’s younger generation (the insistence on speeches at universities, for instance).

Beneath that surface layer, there is a more concrete policy layer. This is where there is a good deal of continuity with George W. Bush’s “third term,” for the reasons I discussed previously. This is a slower, less immediate track, with a short- to medium-term horizon.

Beneath that, however, is an even deeper, third layer, which I described yesterday as the “genetic code” of Obama’s foreign policy, and functions as the long-term conceptual foundation from which it logically flows. For me, Hillary Clinton’s speech to the CFR is the clearest expression of this vision. It involves both institutional transformation in terms of U.S. diplomacy, but also in terms of the global governance architecture. For me, it boils down to replacing the declinists’ “multi-polar” world (terminology I’ve been guilty of using) with what Clinton dubbed the “multi-partner” world. Thomas P.M. Barnett examined why this is so significant in his recent WPR column.

As I said last night, Obama is essentially trying to reduce American ownership of the many crises plaguing the global commons by getting the “rising rest” to buy in and shoulder their fair share of the responsibility for addresing them. The counterparty to that, of course, is spreading globalized privileges and benefits more fairly as well. This is the 30- to 50-year long-term horizon that Obama has fixed, to complement the communication outreach he has been conducting to the younger generation — i.e., the world’s future leaders. It’s neither an easy task nor a sure thing. But I’m convinced it is the wisest choice before us.

As Barnett pointed out, Obama is trying to shift the criteria by which American power and influence is judged to less of a zero-sum calculation. The question is no longer, Did America get what it wants? but rather, Did the world get what it needs? The irony is that, at the same time that he’s trying to change the metrics, Obama continues to be judged on a host of issues — Russia, Israel, Iran, North Korea — by whether or not he got his way.

Perhaps the most clear reflection of a successful Obama foreign policy will be when we begin to systematically look first to regional powers for leadership on regional crises, with U.S. influence functioning as a backstop and guarantor — not due to American decline or weakness, but do to a healthy, functioning global governance architecture that better distributes responsibilities and privilege.