Barack Obama on Diplomacy

The rise in popular support for Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy reflects the growing skepticism among Democratic and independent voters regarding both the Bush administration’s and the Democratic Party establishment’s foreign policies. Indeed, on issues ranging from Iraq to nuclear weapons to global warming to foreign aid, as well as his general preference for diplomacy over militarism, Obama has also staked out positions considerably more progressive than the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

In my previous FPIF commentary, Barack Obama on the Middle East, I analyzed both the enlightened and disturbing aspects of Obama’s positions regarding Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine and related Middle East issues. This article examines Obama’s overall foreign policy positions which, while containing many positive attributes that are bolstering the presidential candidate’s popularity, also reveal that he’s far less progressive than many of his enthusiastic supporters tend to believe. It therefore remains an open question as to whether these positions really represent the kind of sweeping changes his campaign has promised an Obama presidency would bring.

Obama’s Advisers

Obama’s foreign policy advisers run the gamut from mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations to outspokenly liberal academics and activists. On the one hand, those from the Democratic foreign policy establishment tend to be associated with its more enlightened wing. On the other hand, even those among the liberal activists seem to be more inclined to criticize the U.S. government for failing to take a firmer stand against the crimes of others than acknowledge the crimes, past and present, for which the United States bears responsibility. While maintaining a strong stated commitment to international humanitarian law and a belief in the responsibility of the international community to respond to crises such as Darfur, there’s little open recognition of U.S. culpability in humanitarian crises elsewhere or any real critique of empire.

Still, there’s a marked contrast between the team for foreign policy experts assembled around Obama and those of his principal rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. In contrast with Clinton’s foreign policy advisers – most of whom strongly supported the invasion of Iraq – virtually all of Obama’s advisers opposed the war from the beginning. The Nation magazine noted that members of Obama’s foreign policy team, who also tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, are “more likely to stress ‘soft power’ issues like human rights, global development and the dangers of failed states.” As a result, “Obama may be more open to challenging old Washington assumptions and crafting new approaches.”

Human Rights

Unlike his other rivals for the Democratic Party’s nomination, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Obama has refused to unconditionally endorse U.S. ratification of the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. He has stated his openness, however, to ratification after addressing what he claims are inadequate safeguards protecting members of the U.S. armed forces.

Unlike the Bush administration, which has focused its rhetoric on human rights and democracy solely at countries opposed by the U.S. government, Obama has taken a broader perspective, demonstrating a willingness to criticize the policies of autocratic allied regimes as well. For example, Obama has argued that the United States should “make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

Recognizing that, despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration has “done little to advance democracy around the world,” Obama has promised to “focus on achieving concrete outcomes that will advance democracy.” While calling for increased U.S. government financial support for independent institutions supporting pro-democracy movements abroad, he recognizes that “direct financial assistance from the U.S. government will not always be welcome or beneficial.” He has also called for increased support – through foreign aid, debt relief, technical assistance and investment – for countries undergoing post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions.

Despite all this, he has fallen short of promising to end security assistance to repressive regimes.

Though unwilling to impose sanctions against most right-wing dictatorships, Obama apparently has fewer problems with supporting strict economic sanctions against left-wing dictatorships, joining the other major presidential contenders in refusing to call for an end to most U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. Unlike Senator Clinton, however, Obama has called for lifting the ban on family travel and on remittances.

Nuclear Weapons

In a break with the other leading presidential contenders, Obama supports the United States’ commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate nuclear stockpiles. However, although the United States possesses by far the largest number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems on earth, Obama hasn’t indicated support for any unilateral American initiatives to move the process forward, such as cuts in weapons or delivery systems where the United States has a qualitative advantage.

Though he has called for a “worldwide ban on weapons to interfere with satellites and a ban on testing anti-satellite weapons,” he has not endorsed a ban on nuclear weapons in space as called for by virtually the entire international community. And, though critical of the enormous wastes incurred from Bush’s missile defense program, he has announced his support for the continued development of missile defense capabilities.

On a positive note, Obama has pledged to work vigorously to better secure the world’s nuclear weapons materials, work with Russia to take both countries’ nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to negotiate with Russia and other nuclear powers for a dramatic reduction in nuclear stockpiles. He is also on record strongly opposing the Bush administration’s efforts to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and supporting ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT.)

Use of Force

Obama has harshly criticized the Bush administration’s unilateralism and militarism and promises to be far more cautious regarding sending Americans off to war. Yet he leaves loopholes big enough to drive a tank through. Rather than categorically declaring he would use military force only as a last resort, he insists that “no president should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally if necessary,” not only “to protect ourselves . . . when we are attacked,” but also to protect what he refers to as “our vital interests” when the president believes they are “imminently threatened.” And, rather than calling on the United States to strictly abide by the United Nations Charter and other international treaty obligations regarding the use of military force, he simply says “we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others.”

At the same time, Obama has demonstrated enough of an awareness of history to indicate that he would be less likely to repeat some of the mistakes of the past, telling The New York Times, “For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn’t, not by failing to use force.”

Obama strongly supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Despite recent pleas by the democratically elected Afghan president Harmid Karzai that the ongoing U.S. bombing and the over-emphasis on aggressive counterinsurgency operations was harming efforts to deal with the resurgence of violence by the Taliban and other radical groups, Obama has promised to send at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. He has also threatened bombings and incursions into Pakistan to root out al-Qaeda cells.

Though critical of the billions of dollars wasted annually on anachronistic Cold War-era military procurement projects, Obama calls for increasing America’s already-bloated military budget. Even though U.S military spending already totals more than all the military budgets of all the other countries in the world combined, Obama insists that Bush’s military spending spree of recent years has somehow not been enough.

Indeed, Obama has promised to enlarge the size of the uniformed armed forces by more than 92,000 troops. Given that the United States – surrounded by two oceans and two weak friendly neighbors – is essentially safe from any potential conventional attack, this position inevitably raises the question of what he intends to do with that expanded military capability.

Broadened Concepts of Security

Despite these disturbing indications of his readiness to use military force, Obama appears to recognize U.S. national security interests in much broader terms than virtually any major presidential contender past or present. He has called for a much greater emphasis on preventative diplomacy as well as the creation of a civilian corps that can “participate in post-conflict, humanitarian and stabilization efforts around the globe.”

He appears to more fully recognize the complexities of challenges faced in today’s world and carries a refreshingly less state-centric approach than most leaders of either party, both in terms of emerging threats as well as in terms of potential good. He argues that “while America and our friends and allies can help developing countries build more secure and prosperous societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.”

Obama has recognized the pernicious influence of corporate interests in promoting dangerous foreign policies, illustrated in his criticism of “the arms merchants in our own country” for “feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe” and his call on the United States to “wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.”

In addition to calling on the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, Obama has called for a series of policy initiatives “to bring developing countries into the global effort to develop alternative sources of energy and prepare for the ravages of a changing climate,” including “funding to leverage the investment and venture capital needed to expand the developing world’s renewable energy portfolio.” Despite his emphasis on climate change as a national security issue, however, many environmentalists find that his proposals do not go nearly far enough.

Though Obama has indicated a willingness to take international law and the United Nations more seriously than the current administration, he still appears to accept the same double standards regarding to whom such international legal standards apply. For example, while he has called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at Iran and Syria, he has not called for the strict enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions targeted at U.S. allies like Israel and Morocco.

On a positive note, despite strong criticism from Republicans and from Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama has promised to talk with foreign leaders of governments labeled by the United States as “rogue states,” rejecting the current thinking dominant in Washington that isolating and threatening foreign governments is somehow more effective than talking with them over issues of mutual concern.


Obama has called for making “the critical investments needed to fight global poverty” by doubling foreign non-military assistance and has pledged that his administration would work to “build the capacity of weak states to confront the common, transnational challenges we face including terrorism, conflict, climate change, proliferation and epidemic disease.” In the Senate, Obama co-sponsored legislation in support of the United Nations millennium development goals over the Bush administration’s objections. He has called for the establishment of a $2 billion Global Education Fund to develop primary education in impoverished regions and for increased funding to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Significantly, Obama has called for 100% debt cancellation for the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries. He has promised to press the World Bank to provide poor countries with grants rather than loans and to enact reforms that ensure that “countries have the resources they need to respond to the external shocks that threaten to derail economic progress.” He has also pledged to lead a multilateral effort to address the issue of “odious debts” created by previous corrupt non-elected governments and to seek out ways in which “loan sanctions” could be enacted to create disincentives to discourage private creditors from lending money to repressive, authoritarian regimes.

At the same time, while making vague calls “modernization and reform,” he has failed to critique the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Forum.

Global Leadership

Obama has rejected calls from both the left and the right, smitten by the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, for the United States to disengage from playing a leading role in international affairs. He has warned against isolationism and the country turning inward and has called for the United States to reassert its global leadership, albeit tempered by a skeptical view towards unilateralism and an emphasis on partnership with other nations.

With a Kenyan father and having spent much of his childhood in Indonesia, Obama understands the non-Western world unlike any president to date. Combined with his mixed racial heritage, spending his formative adolescence in Hawaii (a state where people of color are a clear majority) and having worked as a community organizer in impoverished African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, he would be able to show the world a new face of America and thereby do much to heal the U.S. image. At the same time, his emphasis on America’s global leadership – including the assumption that the world would be willing to follow if only the United States had a decent and responsible administration – may prove naïve. Even during the the1990s, resentment at the United States – particularly towards American unilateralism and the ways the Clinton administration was taking unfair advantage of the country’s new status as the world’s sole superpower – was at an all-time high.

Whether for good or ill, Obama would likely be very much an activist president on foreign policy. His outlook is reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s grandiose view of U.S. global leadership, emphasizing threats abroad and the power of American ideals as imperatives for the United States to exercise a predominant role. For example, he has promised to that to “renew American leadership in the world, I will strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity. Our global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against; it must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for. We have a significant stake in ensuring that those who live in fear and want today can live with dignity and opportunity tomorrow.”

A Mixed Prognosis

Despite his rather limited experience in national office, Obama appears to be one of the smartest, most visionary and most knowledgeable members of the U.S. Senate on foreign policy. As a result, he would be more likely to take creative and independent initiatives and less reliant on the traditional foreign policy establishment than any modern president of ether party.

As many of the examples above illustrate, however, that doesn’t mean he’ll always be right. A combination of his limited vision and the constraints imposed upon any president by the imperatives of powerful economic and strategic interests make it doubtful that Obama will be able to move the country significantly forward in ways that will address the most important challenges facing the country and the world today on his own. However, there are indications that he could be more open to a more progressive foreign policy if the growing social movements in this country for peace and justice are able to mobilize effectively and provide the necessary counter-pressures. Obama’s strong showing thus far in the race for the Democratic nomination is a direct result of such movements. If he wins the presidency, he would be obliged to listen to those who would play such an important role in bringing him to the White House.

In summary, we must neither be naïve about Barack Obama’s limitations nor cynical about his potential.

There are genuine reasons for hope regarding certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the event of an Obama administration. If he secures the Democratic Party’s nomination, therefore, these more enlightened positions will subject him to organized attacks from the right-wing that will likely be even worse than those unleashed against the less progressive John Kerry four years earlier. As a result, Obama will need to be vigorously defended.

At the same time, he must also continue to be challenged by those who support a more progressive foreign policy. Ultimately, the directions that we as an informed electorate give the new president matter far more than who wins the election.