Terms of Engagement

The World According to Barack Obama

The World According to Barack Obama

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.