Review: Bending History

bending-history-obama-foreign-policyBarack Obama spent much time on the campaign trail proposing a dramatic vision to change not only the United States for the better, but also the world.

The candidate outlined a new, multilateral global order with America still leading, particularly regarding hard power, but sharing more burdens with others. There was a strong “anything but Bush” flavor in many of Obama’s campaign-trail foreign policies, such as his opposition to the Iraq war, his willingness to pragmatically negotiate with dictators, and his emphasis on a multilateral dimension to American foreign policy. He wanted—at least rhetorically—to bend the arc of history towards justice, freedom, progress, and prosperity.

Has he fulfilled his vision during his first three years in the Oval Office? That is the question addressed by Bending History, a new book that offers a timely and insightful analysis of Obama’s foreign policy performance and what he could do if he wins a second term.

Vision and Reality

According to the authors, Obama should be seen as a “progressive pragmatic” or a “reluctant realist.” Obama has recognized that America’s future will be inextricably tied up with Asia, the most crucial region in the world for American prosperity in the long run. With U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and (one hopes) in the process of being withdrawn from Afghanistan, the president called for a “strategic pivot to Asia” last November, a move not only to assert the U.S. role as a Pacific power but also to boost U.S. trade in the region. In his vision for a multi-polar world with the emerging powers sharing more responsibilities, Obama has been trying to get China and India on board to manage the “global commons” through combating climate change and promoting trade and development. Kenneth Lieberthal, the main writer for the Asia section, believes that Obama has pragmatically modified his strategy to maintain at least a functional U.S.-China relationship.

In the Middle East, Martin Indyk and Michael O’Hanlon argue that Obama has strived to balance national interests with American values. Obama’s purported desire to promote political freedom in Egypt—the most significant country in the Middle East—overrode the usual U.S. interest in preserving Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. In the case of Bahrain, however, protecting the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s access to the Persian Gulf took precedence over the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis. Saudi Arabia made the difference in the treatment between giant Egypt and tiny Bahrain, as the oil-rich Saudi Arabia extended its protective umbrella over the Sunni Bahraini monarchy. With the economic recovery sluggish in the United States and Obama’s reelection prospects hinging upon job creation, the president simply could not countenance pushback from Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere, Obama decided pragmatically to negotiate with heads of the so-called rogue states, dispensing with the Bush administration’s “axis-of-evil” rhetoric—with mixed results. The authors seem to support Obama’s “strategic patience” with North Korea, a potentially controversial assessment. Some pundits believe that “strategic patience” is simply willful ignorance—it buys United States time, but may cause many missed opportunities to resolve perennial security threats. It would be helpful if the authors integrated a cost-benefit analysis of engaging rogue states into their overall discussion of vision versus pragmatism.

While giving a relatively positive rating to Obama’s dealings with rogue states to date, the authors suggest that it is important to forge clearer agreement across the White House, State Department, Defense Department, and other relevant agencies to work accordingly with Congress to prevent the North Korea issue from becoming a political football in the 2012 election.

Although national interests have been fairly well protected, the authors believe that Obama’s first three years in the Oval Office are defined by a considerable gap between his vision and his record. Despite limited success, the president has not yet bent history in any major way, especially when measured against his own standards.

One’s Own Affairs

Importantly, the authors argue that robust and strategic foreign policy cannot be achieved without having one’s domestic affairs in order. Sadly, according to the authors, America has not done what it should to sustain its future global primacy. The country has been disinvesting in infrastructure and education, walking away from a serious program for clean energy, failing to address social divisions, and making merely partial fixes to the financial system that produced the crisis of 2008. Whoever occupies the Oval Office come 2013, Obama’s foreign policy successes will matter little if the economy fails to sustain American power.

The authors conclude that Obama’s foreign policy to date has been more pragmatic than visionary. It suggests no clear road map for the future, no particularly compelling overall strategy for how the president would advance American interests and bend history in a second term. Obama’s accomplishments should be better understood as effective damage control than historic breakthroughs.

Overall the book’s analysis is compelling, although more attention might have been paid to the president’s own role as a political leader and a strategic thinker. But all things considered, Bending Historydoes a superb job of detailing what happened during the first three years of Obama’s presidency. It provides a timely and insightful analysis worth reading for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy.

Shiran Shen is an avid observer of U.S. foreign policy, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore College with a major in political science in May 2012. You can follow her on Twitter @ShiranShen.