It won’t help him win many votes this year, but it should be noted that Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy president. He, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of his team have created a style of policy making that is flexible, incremental and well adapted to the specific circumstances of this moment. Following a foreign policy hedgehog, Obama’s been a pretty effective fox.
Some eras call for bold doctrines, new global architecture and “Present at the Creation” moments. This is not one of those eras. Today, the world is like a cocktail party at which everybody is suffering from indigestion or some other internal ailment. People are interacting with each other, but they’re mostly focused on the godawful stuff going on inside. Europe has the euro mess. The Middle East has the Arab Spring. The U.S. has the economic stagnation and the debt. The Chinese have their perpetual growth and stability issues.
It’s not multi-polarity; it’s multi-problemarity. As a result, this is more of an age of anxiety than of straight-up conflict. Leaders are looking around warily at who might make their problems better and who might make them worse. There are fewer close alliances and fewer sworn enemies. There are more circumstances in which nations are ambiguously attached.
In this environment, you don’t need big, bold visionaries. You need leaders who will pay minute attention to the unique details and fleeting properties of each region’s specific circumstances. You need people who can improvise, shift and play it by ear. Obama, Clinton and the rest are well suited to these sorts of tasks.
Obama has shown a good ability to combine a realist, power-politics mind-set with a warm appreciation of democracy and human rights. Early in his term, he responded poorly to the street marches in Tehran. But his administration has embraced a freedom agenda more aggressively since then, responding fairly well to the Arab Spring, rejecting those who wanted to stand by the collapsing dictatorships and using American power in a mostly successful humanitarian intervention in Libya.
Obama has also shown an impressive ability to learn along the way. He came into office trying to dialogue with dictators in Iran and North Korea. When that didn’t work, he learned his lesson and has been much more confrontational since. Early in his term, he tried nation-building in Afghanistan. When that, unfortunately, didn’t work, he scaled back that effort.
Obama has managed ambiguity well. This is most important in the case of China. When the Chinese military was overly aggressive, he stood up to China and reasserted America’s permanent presence in the Pacific. At the same time, it’s misleading to say there is a single China policy. There are myriad China policies on myriad fronts, some of which are confrontational and some of which are collaborative.
Obama has also dealt with uncertainty pretty well. No one knows what will happen if Israel or the U.S. strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities. Confronted with that shroud of ignorance, Obama has properly pushed back the moment of decision-making for as long as possible, just in case anything positive turns up. This has meant performing a delicate dance — pressing Israelis to push back their timetable while, at the same time, embracing their goals. The period of delay may be ending, but it’s been useful so far.
Obama has also managed the tension between multilateral and unilateral action. No one can say he is hesitant to work with coalitions. Look at the Libyan action, or the Iranian sanctions. But when it comes to decimating Al Qaeda, the U.S. has been quite willing to go it alone, continuing and expanding many policies of George W. Bush.
There have been failures on Obama’s watch, of course. Some of these flow from executive hubris. Obama believed that he could help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He proceeded clumsily, pushed everybody into a corner and now peace is farther away than ever.
Some failures flow from excessive politicization. An inexcusable blunder by Obama was to announce the withdrawal date from Afghanistan at the same time he announced the surge into Afghanistan. That may have kept the Democratic base happy, but it sent thousands of soldiers and Marines on a mission that was doomed to fail.
Over all, though, the record is impressive. Obama has moved more aggressively both to defeat enemies and to champion democracy. He has demonstrated that talk of American decline is hooey. The U.S. is still responsible for maintaining global order, for keeping people, goods and ideas moving freely.
And, partly as a result of his efforts, the world of foreign affairs is relatively uncontentious right now. Foreign policy is not a hot campaign issue. Mitt Romney is having a great deal of trouble identifying profound disagreements. If that’s not a sign of success, I don’t know what is.