The World According to Barack Obama

The U.S. president's new National Security Strategy says more about the views of the man in whose name it was written than it does about what America must do next.

I was not as disappointed by the National Security Strategy the White House released last week as were a great many critics on the right and in the center. But I was dismayed to see that the document was larded with quotations from Chairman Obama. The report is obviously intended as a repudiation of George W. Bush's alarmist and bellicose 2002 National Security Strategy, but it was the Bush administration that first adopted this boosterish and hero-worshiping format. ("We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace" -President Bush, West Point. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." -President Obama, Inaugural Address.)

These quadrennial documents now come surrounded with such a dense carapace of hokum that the reader can barely discern an actual meaning. They are, after all, public documents, and therefore occupy the realm of public relations rather than analysis. Compare either Bush 2002 or Obama 2010 to NSC-68, written in 1950 by a team of State and Defense department officials working under the Cold War intellectual Paul Nitze (and kept secret for the next 25 years). NSC-68 advanced a specific geopolitical claim: Given Soviet ambitions for world domination, "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere." It constituted a rebuff to George Kennan's proposal for a more modest and less costly form of containment, as first outlined in his famous "Long Telegram" of 1947. And NSC-68 laid out a strategy to achieve the desired goals: a major increase in spending on defense and diplomacy enabled by a government-sponsored boost to economic capacity. NSC-68 may have been too sweeping -- President Eisenhower ultimately abandoned its costly prescriptions -- but the authors presented their case with great force and clarity. Them were the days.

In the category of wrong-headed-but-forceful, we should probably give Bush 2002 some credit, since in the course of arguing for a new set of criteria for pre-emptive attack, the authors explain that new adversaries and new capacities have rendered the old criteria irrelevant.  In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, of course, potential critics of an aggressive policy had been largely cowed into silence, thus granting the Bush administration all the political latitude it needed. Obama does not have this luxury, and his strategy report, chiefly written by Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, is careful not to needlessly alienate the not-already-convinced. The rejected dogmas of the past are alluded to rather than openly refuted, as when the Obama NSS notes that "over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote, and our leadership on their behalf." No points awarded for guessing the methods, or who employed them.

The Obama National Security Strategy reads, in short, like an Obama speech. It summons us to put aside zero-sum choices and leaves everyone feeling that their concerns have been heard and addressed. Its tone is hortatory, its sentiments lofty, its directions vague. The NSS does not tell the reader what the administration will do in this or that part of the world, or under this or that set of circumstances. Rather, it seeks to explain why the president is doing what he's doing. Its great strength and virtue is that, like an Obama speech, it offers an alternative way of understanding the world -- a worldview.

The author Robert Kagan has said that Americans understand -- as Europeans do not -- that we live in a Hobbesian world in which chaos must be held in check by power -- albeit power shaped and limited by principle. For all the tough-minded invocation of "the world as it is" as opposed to the way we would wish it to be, Obama's National Security Strategy owes far more to John Locke, with his faith in the power of contract, and of contracting parties, than to Thomas Hobbes; it wishes to be read as an alternative to the ominous Hobbesian vision of Bush 2002. One section even bears the heading: "Resist Fear and Overreaction." The single-minded emphasis on danger itself endangers us. And Hobbesian methods employed in pursuit of U.S. security -- whether torture or rhetorical saber-rattling -- have made the world less secure rather than more so. (It's worth noting that by 2006 the Bush administration had been sufficiently chastened by failures in Iraq and elsewhere that its second NSS dwells more on political than on military responses to the problems of tyranny and extremism. Still, the Bush folks could never shake the image established by the 2002 report.)

What's more, the Obama document argues, the United States has focused too exclusively on the one threat that requires a military response. The effort to defeat "violent extremists," including al Qaeda, is "only one ele­ment of our strategic environment and cannot define America's engagement with the world." The others -- nuclear proliferation, "dependence upon fossil fuels," climate change, pandemic states, failing states -- compel the United States to use a much wider array of instruments, including diplomacy and development. The central phenomenon of our world is not the struggle between freedom and the forces of terror and authoritarianism, as Bush 2002 often implies, but the dynamic of globalization, which creates new threats but also new opportunities: technical innovation, human mobility, the rise of new powers. We live with too much awareness of threat, and too little of opportunity.

The strategy, as both critics and admirers have said, dwells at great length on the home front. "What takes place within our borders," the document states, "will determine our strength and influence beyond them." But this also implies that Americans' security is far more within their own power, and far less subject to Hobbesian forces, than previously thought. Rebuilding the economy will rebuild American strength. So will behaving better: While Obama has expressed far more skepticism than Bush did about America's capacity to forge democracy abroad -- a deep reservation about "the world as it is" -- the NSS asserts that "the most effective way for the United States of America to promote our values is to live them."

The Obama National Security Strategy expresses a faith in rules that is quite alien to the spirit of Bush 2002. The Obama team does stipulate, as Bush had, that "the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our inter­ests." But the document goes on to state that "we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force" -- because "[d]oing so strengthens those who act in line with international standards, while isolating and weakening those who do not." The premise is that the limitations imposed by accepting rules, and the international order that lays down such rules, is offset by the legitimacy that comes of such restraint. In its most overtly "Wilsonian" passage, the document describes the international order not only as a source of added legitimacy for American goals but as "an end that we seek in its own right." The president calls for a new era of global institution-building "to modernize the infrastructure for international cooperation in the 21st century."

Of course you can find a lot of Bush 2002 in Obama 2010, and not just the gauzy quotes from Our Leader. The document asserts that the United States "must continue to underwrite global security" and must "maintain our military's conventional superiority." Obama does not propose that the U.S. retreat from its position of global leadership. But you really have to be deaf to tone and texture to conclude, as the current issue of Newsweek does, that "there are far more similarities than differences between the two National Security Strategies." Bush 2002 was a response to 9/11; Obama 2010 is a response to the failure of that response.

This president is as idealistic about a rule-based international order as his predecessor was about promoting democracy. One may be from Locke and the other from Hobbes; but they are both, in their way, from Wilson. Events may prove Obama as naïve in his faith -- as blind to the world as it is -- as they did Bush in his. Those of us who hold out hope for Obama's foreign policy would say that at least he is erring in the right direction.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Whoa There, Rising Powers!

Brazil and Turkey's diplomatic forays may be annoying, but they also signal a huge shift in the way the world works. Is Obama paying attention?

When I first read the news about the nuclear deal that Brazil and Turkey reached last week with Iran, I flinched. My reflex reaction was: Third-World troublemakers rally to the side of evil-doer in the face of Western pressure. That was, of course, the wrong reflex. This was not China giving succor to Zimbabwe, or Venezuela recognizing Abkhazia. Brazil and Turkey are among the most solidly founded democracies and market economies in the developing world. Both are important U.S. allies, and mature actors in international fora. Their joint bid to break the impasse on Iran represents something more encouraging, more worrisome, and much more significant than any of Hugo Chávez's antics.

The Obama administration appears to have had the same reaction I did: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly called her Turkish counterpart to warn him off the effort, and publicly predicted it would fail. The implicit message sounded like: Don't mess in our sandbox. That fell on deaf ears. President Luiz Inacío Lula da Silva of Brazil went ahead with his long-planned trip to Iran, and he was joined there by Prime Minister Recip Tayyep Erdogan of Turkey. And they hammered out a deal that in important ways resembled the one the West had been seeking: Tehran would yield up 1,200 kilograms of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to be reprocessed elsewhere and then returned for peaceful uses.

The Obama administration repudiated the deal, and the big powers within the U.N. Security Council went ahead and agreed on a new draft sanctions resolution. Some critics have alleged that the U.S. administration passed up a golden opportunity for peace in a fit of pique at diplomatic interlopers, or that Iran had made painful concessions to fellow emerging nations that it would not make to the West. I think the administration was right on the merits. In the highly unlikely event that the deal goes through, Iran will still have lots more low-enriched uranium left to play with; and Tehran has openly stated that it will persist in enriching available stocks. Accepting such a deal would have constituted a recognition that Iran cannot be prevented from developing a nuclear weapons capability. That might be where all this ends up, but it's way too early to acquiesce to such an outcome.

We're probably back to square one, or square whatever, on Iran; but something important has shifted in the world order, and we will have to get over our flinch reflex. Brazil and Turkey are middle-sized powers -- eighth and 17th in the world, respectively, in GDP -- that live at peace with their neighbors and believe they have a calling to play a role on the global stage. In recent years, both have opened embassies around the world. Both have ambitious leaders whose sails are filled with the wind of nationalist sentiment. In an article last week for Foreign Policy, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu explained that one of the guiding principles of his country's foreign policy was "rhythmic diplomacy," which sounds like jazzercise but in fact, as he put it, "implies active involvement in all international organizations and on all issues of global and international importance."

What are we to make of the fact that countries the United States wishes would play a larger role in the world are now doing so, but in a way that frustrates American goals? First of all, it tells us that the diplomacy surrounding global issues will be a lot more complicated than it was even quite recently. Sometimes the mobilization of new actors will help solidify a consensus around tough issues, as the G-20 did last year in confronting the global financial crisis. But since the global consensus tends to fall apart as you move beyond the economy, the impatience of middle-sized powers to play a role equal to their status, or what they view as their status, will further muddle already messy areas of statecraft. The Brazils and Turkeys of the world are not likely to form a coherent new bloc, but they will be far less inclined than they were in the past to stay within the lines chalked in by the referees of the West.

We overrate the salience of democracy to foreign policy. Partisans of a "concert of democracies" have assumed that maturing democracies in the developing world would seek to advance the same, supposedly universal, values prized by their elders in the West, but it hasn't worked out that way. Foreign policy in Brazil and Turkey seem much less deeply shaped by their domestic political order than by the ambitions of their leaders and by their membership in the "non-aligned movement," which tends to view coercive measures of any kind imposed by the West as a violation of state sovereignty. What's more, since neither country feels deeply threatened by Iran, neither is prepared to put aside cherished principles in order to restrain the regime in Tehran, or even to strengthen the nonproliferation system.

Nor has Obama's proposed nuclear grand bargain inspired these states to reconsider their own policies. The U.S. administration is hoping to use the ongoing U.N. conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to gain widespread agreement to the so-called additional protocols, which mandate more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities. Brazil and Argentina are the only signatories with nuclear enrichment plants who have not accepted the additional protocols (and Argentina has said it will agree as soon as Brazil does). During a discussion at the conference last week, the Brazilian delegate reiterated that adopting the additional protocols should be wholly voluntary, as Iran has insisted; he added that in any case non-nuclear-weapons states should not have to accept such restraints until those who have weapons agree to fully disarm.

It's tempting to dismiss much of this as mere histrionics, to be put aside when, for example, it comes times to vote on Security Council resolutions. There's no question that Brazil's interests, or Turkey's, overlap in many places with those of the U.S. and Europe; Turkey seeks nothing more ardently than full EU membership, for instance. But in many other places, interests diverge, and the middle powers are inclined to view the current world order as an instrument to advance Western designs, not theirs. Why should they have to accept a system that permits India, Israel, and Pakistan -- non-signatories of the NPT who happen to be American allies -- to have nuclear weapons while they have bound themselves not to? Why, for that matter, should they have to accept an American running the World Bank, and a Frenchman running the IMF?

The international system, which looked impregnable a decade ago, now seems increasingly ineffective and weak. "Both countries look at the global order and see the failings of the West," says Matias Spektor, a Brazil expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The West has been expanding the reach of its norms and its rules. But at the same time you've got Iraq, the financial crisis,  North Korea going nuclear, Iran, the EU imploding -- all while these emerging states have proved to be relatively steady." The perceived failure and injustice of the existing system didn't matter so much when those on the outside felt powerless. Now they feel, if anything, overly empowered, and are prepared for rhythmic diplomacy.

All this raises a fundamental question about President Obama's engagement policy. For all his efforts to improve America's international standing and to treat states, cultures, religions, international institutions, and everything else with due regard, Obama has found the world only slightly more tractable than George W. Bush did. Bush thought Turkey was a good friend until the Turks refused to let American troops pass through on the way to Iraq. Brazil was just the kind of country Obama had in mind when he argued that the U.S. could make real progress on nonproliferation by showing commitment on disarmament -- the bargain at the heart of the NPT. Obama has done the best he could, or feels he can, given the restraints imposed by a hawkish Congress and a skeptical public. And Brazil hasn't budged an inch.

Engagement, it turns out, is a weaker currency than Obama had thought. His diplomatic investments have been too modest to win compliance even from the major democratic states in the developing world that would seem to have the most in common with the United States. And the reason is that price of compliance has gone way up as those nations have grown in self-confidence. U.S. presidents will have to learn to expect less.

Or perhaps they'll need to spend more. For Obama, the really important question is whether he should reconcile himself to an unavoidable clash of interests with rising powers, or try to win them over by offering a deeper and more substantive kind of engagement -- for example, by pushing for a greater democratization of the institutions from which those states now feel excluded. It may be that the only chance to get Brazil to act more like a global citizen is to treat it like one.