Obama's Vacuous Foreign Policy

Barack Obama was given an opportunity to spell out his foreign policy in the pages of the most recent (July/August) issue of Foreign Affairs. It is a highly respected publication, read world-wide as a sort of voice of the American foreign policy establishment, leading Democrats included. Because the publication has allotted space for other presidential candidates to map out their foreign policies in upcoming issues, it is unlikely that Obama will have another chance to engage this particular forum before the election. So, what does the Senator have to offer?

Obama's favorite term, repeated ad nauseum, ad infinitum, is vision. What we need, the Senator writes, is "vision." We need a "visionary leadership" and "a new vision of leadership." This is, of course, all too true but also tells us very little as to which vision of foreign policy this new leader would ask us to follow. Obama, like most political candidates without a clear agenda, still manages to be quite clear as to what we are not to do. We should not retreat into Fortress America. We should not get out of Iraq in an "irresponsible" way. And we cannot stop fighting terrorism. So far so good. So far so little.

Before I continue I should note that I am not a Trojan Horse for some other candidate; my aim is not to promote any other candidate via my criticism of Obama. Indeed, if elections were held tomorrow I might vote for Senator Obama. I still hold that he would do best to unfurl a richer fabric of foreign policy than what he has revealed so far.

Much of the rest of Obama's Foreign Affairs piece deals with the tools of foreign policy, and not with the substance. We should work with our partners, restore trust in America, be true to our values, deepen our knowledge of the Muslim world, and so on. These are all sound points, but the Senator leaves it quite unclear as to what purpose we are to apply these tools.

The Neo-Cons had a substantive foreign policy vision. They argued that the post Cold War world is democratizing; that the US should use its force to accelerate and expand this trend by imposing regime changes; and that such democratization will ensure peace for us all as democracies do not fight one another. I am not saying that this thesis was the reason Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. I am saying that the Neo-Cons, whatever their true motives, had a picture one could flesh out and relate to-or in my case, oppose. The point is that Neo-Cons' picture had a content one could employ to assess specific foreign policy measures.

The liberals also had a substantive foreign policy vision. They professed the notion that if we helped the people of the world to grow economically, improved public health, improved the education of their children and provided them with a good life, then they would cease hating us and, therefore, would cease attacking us. This is the sort of world Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz still pursue.

Now read Obama. He calls for the United States to provide "global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity." These lines are about as vacuous as they come. Such far-from-inspirational prose ("grounded leadership," "share a common security") does not set Obama aside from most if not all other candidates. They lack a substantive vision that one can get one's hands around and draw on to guide a foreign policy.

People who will turn to the article in July-August issue of Foreign Affairs will find, among all these oratory lines, a considerable number of specific points about what is to be done to the National Guard, Russia, the NPT, Nigeria, the UN and many others. This is exactly the kind of random shopping list approach to foreign policy platforms that Democrats are so proficient at cobbling together. There are a lot of good thoughts, but they are not connected to make a picture. Taken together, these specific points fall short of providing exactly what Obama calls for: a new vision. Such a vision need not consist of lofty goals or wonkish specs, but must provide a worldview as to how we are going to enhance our security and that of others, for all of us.