The World According to Obama

Commentary | June 10, 2010

Andrew Nagorski wrote this piece for Newsweek Polska.

Every American president is expected to roll out a “National Security Strategy” at least once, describing his overarching vision that is supposed to provide a framework for day-to-day decisions.  During the presidency of George W. Bush, two were published—in 2002 and 2006. Just recently, Barack Obama produced his first one. With that as background, take this quick quiz—and no cheating by looking past the questions to the answers.

Guess which statements are from the 2006 Bush National Security Strategy and which are from the 2010 Obama version:

  • “The proliferation of nuclear weapons poses the greatest threat to our national security.”
  • “Going forward, there should be no doubt: the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security.”
  • “The times require an ambitious national security strategy, yet one recognizing the limits to what even a nation as powerful as the United States can achieve by itself.”
  • “The United States is waging a global campaign against al-Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates.”
  • “While actively seeking Russia’s cooperation to act as a responsible partner in Europe and Asia, we will support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors.”

Once you’ve made your choices, check out the answers in the footnote. While the two documents highlight many of the differences between Bush’s and Obama’s approach to key national security issues, there is a reason why it’s easy to guess wrong on some of these.  Despite their sharp disagreements, both leaders share some of the same assumptions about the threats the United States faces and the continuing need for the country to play a strong leadership role in ensuring global security—but in cooperation with allies and other partners.

At a time when the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico appears to symbolize the inability of the Obama administration to influence events, when Iran and North Korea continue to defiantly expand their nuclear programs, and when tensions in the Middle East are escalating again, talk of the primacy of American power can seem presumptuous, if not tone deaf. Yet top American policy makers continue to take their country’s leading role for granted. And despite their frequent misgivings about U.S. policies, others continue to do so as well.

Lecturing a visiting American delegation in Beijing last month, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei of the People's Liberation Army called the United States a “hegemon” who is trying to encircle China. In a back-handed way, these and similar denunciations elsewhere only confirm the notion that no one else can aspire to play the same kind of dominant role in the global arena—for better or for worse.

Which is why it’s worth focusing a spotlight on the evolution in American thinking that the new National Security Strategy represents. It’s not as big a change as many expected, but it represents a significant shift in emphasis and rhetoric in a number of areas. Among them:

  • While Bush’s 2006 version talks about the need for economic development around the world, stressing the role of free markets and free trade as the engines of growth, Obama’s 2010 version starts with the premise that the United States needs to get its own economic house in order. “At the center of our efforts is a commitment to renew our economy, which serves as the wellsprings of American power.” Bush would not have quarreled with that notion, but before the 2008 economic crisis, the vulnerabilities of the American economy—as well as the global economy—weren’t nearly as evident as they are now. Which is why this is the strongest message now.
  • “We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida and its affiliates,” Obama’s version proclaims. But it seeks to distance itself from Bush’s “War on Terror” by emphasizing that it is not a war against a tactic or Islam as a religion, rather a war against a specific network. Bush, too, insisted he wasn’t at war against Islam, but his version declared: “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century.”
  • Both versions point out that America cannot meet the global challenges alone, but Obama’s puts more emphasis on “collective action” and talks about engaging with not only Russia and China but also rising powers like India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. While it also stresses the vital role of NATO and other traditional alliances, there’s more of a sense of a fluid new constellation of countries to deal with, along with new groupings like the G20 nations.
  • The Obama version talks about the need to promote “universal values” such as freedom of speech and religion and insists that the United States will do a better job of upholding those values at home.  At the same time, the Obama team clearly wants to make a break with what it characterizes as “an endless campaign to impose our own values” abroad. Bush’s 2006 version declared unabashedly: “Championing freedom advances our interests because the survival of liberty as home increasingly depends on the success of liberty abroad.”
  • Accordingly, the passages in the Obama version puts the most stress on the need for cooperative efforts on common problems, in most cases avoiding direct challenges to existing governments. While calling for increased cooperation with Russia, the Bush report cited the “diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions in that country.”  Obama’s report mentions American support for the territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, but doesn’t directly criticize the Kremlin’s domestic policies. Bush’s report also took on several other countries by name such as Venezuela, which isn’t mentioned in the Obama version. Bush’s report bluntly states:  “In Venezuela, a demagogue awash in oil money is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region.”

There are plenty of other areas where the respective wordings illustrate differences in emphasis, but even on something like the need to diversify sources of energy there are a lot of common themes. All of which argues for putting these two documents in historical context, with both of them fitting into an alternating pattern of American leadership styles.

Broadly speaking, the world agonizes about American leadership for two reasons: either it is seen as too belligerent and aggressive, or as too weak and passive. In recent times, George W. Bush was seen as the exemplar of the aggressive approach, and Jimmy Carter as the exemplar of self-doubt and weakness. The Iraq war cemented Bush’s reputation on that score, and the Iranian hostage crisis and the botched attempt to free the 52 Americans held captive in the Tehran embassy for 444 days did the same for Carter.

Arguably, both labels are unfair—at least up to a point. Bush wasn’t as much of a belligerent unilateralist as his caricature makes him out to be. In dealing with Iran, for example, he was happy to have the European partners take the lead in trying to negotiate a deal to contain its nuclear program—an effort that, like the subsequent one under the Obama administration, has visibly failed. But many members of Bush team like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were openly dismissive of allies and foes alike.

Carter initially did push a strong international agenda, particularly on human rights. And after he was famously caught off-guard by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he took a much tougher stance towards Moscow as it began threatening Poland during the rise of Solidarity. He also boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Yet he was tagged as a vacillating president, inconsistent in his use of America’s political and military might, made to look helpless in the face of Iran’s revolutionary guards while agonizing about his country’s spiritual “malaise” and the perils of the nuclear age.

The reality is that any president is vulnerable to criticism and instant labeling, whichever way he leans. But it is possible to change initial perceptions. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration faced the weakness criticism for initially failing to respond to the massacres in Rwanda and the crisis in the Balkans. But by eventually taking the lead on Bosnia and Kosovo, when Europeans failed to do so, it dramatically changed its image.

Right now, the most common criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, both at home and abroad, is that he is too eager to engage former enemies and not sufficiently attentive to traditional allies—or assertive enough about America’s aims. In trying to compensate for Bush’s perceived brash unilateralism, he is hesitant to promote human rights and democracy or to criticize corrupt, dictatorial regimes. As with the case of Bush and Carter, this may be an oversimplification, but Obama needs to be cognizant of those perceptions in order to undo them over time. That’s why his National Security Strategy’s less-than -convincing pronouncements on such issues are a bit of a missed opportunity.

But those strategy documents don’t tell anything like the whole story. The real key is the implementation. So far, for example, Obama hasn’t demonstrated that he has a convincing plan to curtail the escalating federal budget deficit, which is crucial to the long-term health of the American economy. On the other hand, his more muted talk on terrorism hasn’t prevented him from launching an intense campaign of deadly drone attacks on Al-Qa’ida’s leadership.

The most important message of both the 2006 and 2010 documents is that America still sees itself as the leading power in the world. Looking at the world today, there’s still no alternative superpower. Not the European Union, which is caught up in the euro crisis and, for all its accomplishments, hasn’t lived up to its broader political ambitions. Not Russia, which has been unable to arrest its rapid demographic decline or to build the kind of healthy politics, civil society and rule of law that are prerequisites for true modernization. Not China, which, despite its impressive economic boom and growing political clout, is still more of a regional than a world power.  

Yes, the world still looks to America and America still looks to the world. But America’s influence can also continue to wane if its leadership isn’t up to the current challenges—no matter what the National Security Strategy says.

The answers: 1) Bush; 2) Obama; 3) Bush; 4) Obama; 5) Obama.