Few presidents arrive in office with large plans around foreign affairs. Yet most live to see their reputations defined by it. For Barack Obama, whose time in office coincides with a series of tectonic shifts in global structure—the Arab revolutions, the relative decline of American power, the rise of China—that pattern shows signs of holding. But what kind of foreign policy leader is he? How Obama thinks about America's role in the world turns out to be one of the murkier questions about his presidency.
Obama's views fit neatly into none of the conventional categories like "realist" or "idealist," "interventionist" or "isolationist." At the time he began his presidential campaign, less than four years ago, Obama had no discernible approach to foreign affairs. He had been an Illinois state legislator, a professor of constitutional law, and briefly a U.S. senator who was mainly concerned with issues of social policy. His most notable stance was clear opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which he called a "dumb war" at a 2002 peace rally in Chicago.
At the same time, his personal background pointed to an unusual kind of engagement with the rest of the world. He is not only America's first black president, but one of our first truly multicultural politicians, with an African father, an Asian stepfather, and a childhood spent in Indonesia and the Pacific mixing bowl of Hawaii. As a candidate, Obama displayed a less America-centric view of the world than we are used to in politicians.
As is often the case, his foreign policy emerged in reaction to the biggest mistakes of his predecessor. That meant emphasizing multilateralism and respect for international laws in place of unilateralism and scorn for the United Nations. It proposed engagement with rather than demonization of the regimes George W Bush described as "evil." It focused on Afghanistan as the war we ought to have fought more effectively, over Iraq, the war we oughtn't to have fought at all. The foreign policy thinker most closely associated with his views was the Democratic realist Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Responding to Bush's inept idealism and militarized approach to democracy promotion, Obama initially shied from ideas of humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, or human rights advocacy—what Democrats more typically call for. Instead, he declared his "enormous sympathy" for the foreign policy of George Bush senior. Obama cited the first Bush team's prudent, nontriumphal management of the Soviet empire's collapse as his model. After winning the election, he reached out to Bush senior's foreign policy alter ego, Brent Scowcroft, for advice. As a decision-maker, Obama has lived up to Bush senior's positive example.
If his two national security advisers have seemed less than pivotal figures in his administration, it is because Obama is the kind of commander-in-chief who functions as his own national security director. As both the NATO intervention in Libya and the strike against Bin Laden show, Obama is a strong executive, capable of weighing probabilities and yet acting quickly and decisively. He is far from the lawyerly or wishy-washy figure his opponents have often caricatured.
Obama views himself, as he has often said, as a pragmatist. He has approached international problems on a case-by-case basis and shows little interest in having his name associated with a grand doctrine. This ad-hocracy can, however, produce policy that seems muddled or contradictory. At the time of the green revolution in Iran, Obama held back from criticizing the crackdown because of his eagerness to open a dialogue with the Ahmadinejad regime. When that position was criticized as callous, the president belatedly identified himself with the protesters.