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Obama's Conception of America's Global Role: Plus ça Change . . . ?

Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009

In the January/February issue of the Atlantic, that publication's polymathic literary editor (and former foreign policy analyst at RAND) Benjamin Schwarz takes on what he calls the "dangerous sentiments" about America's virtually unlimited role in the world that have been held by all recent presidents, regardless of party, including, if one is to judge by his rhetoric and that of his advisers, President-elect Obama:

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.

Schwarz points out the gulf between many Obama supporters' (audacious?) hopes for a less "imperial" America, and the exceptionalist rhetoric of Obama and his advisers, "which could be fairly described as standard liberal internationalist."

Examining the National Intelligence Council's November 2008 "Global Trends 2025" report (for more on what the report said, see our own Richard Weitz's examination), Schwarz also points out the gulf between the world that America's best intelligence prognosticators believe is almost inevitably coming into being and the world that this bipartisan U.S. policy consensus, aimed at the maintenance of a far-reaching (and unsustainably expensive) U.S hegemony, seems intent on preserving. Schwarz writes:

If the NIC is correct, this president, elected on a promise of change, will be presiding over the country as it begins to come to terms with the most significant transformation in international politics since the Second World War (and that includes the Cold War). Among the other momentous tasks that confront him, he must help create a new American stance toward the world. Maybe now isn't the time to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. And why insist that the United States cling to a prerogative that history is about to snatch away?

Finally, Schwarz puts on his book editor hat and recommends seven books -- "alll out of fashion, many out of print" -- that "readers looking for genuine 'change' in U.S. foreign policy should consult." Among Schwarz's recommendations: George F. Kennan's "Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy"; and William Appleman Williams' "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy ."

As an insightful realist critique of U.S. foreign policy, the piece is worth reading in full.