- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
David Bosco over at The Multilateralist takes issue with my assertion that the Obama Administration is making sweeping changes to U.S. foreign policy. I feel compelled to respond … well, because I’m on the train and the alternative is struggling with the really bad Wi-Fi connection in an effort to catch up on what the HuffPost Style page has to say about the low-cut dress Charlize Theron wore last night. It’s not the dress really that draws me to the article — though it is certainly not a disincentive — but rather the fact that she was receiving some kind of lifetime achievement award. She’s 36. 36! That’s a long life … for a junebug.
That said, the Internet connection on the Acela sucks. So, I will turn my attention back to what some colleagues here at FP have characterized as "a smackdown" on Obama’s foreign policy. These are the same people who cheered every fight on the kickball field in elementary school. But there would be something profoundly hypocritical about a blogger turning his back on noisy spectators, given, after all, that that’s what bloggers are.
So what’s Bosco’s beef? Apparently he feels that I have overstated the sweep and specifics of the Obama "pivot," and he seeks to make the point that Obama’s approach to foreign policy is much like that of the Bush Administration. Now, of course, there’s something to what he says. Perhaps I should have stipulated that there is always a degree of continuity to U.S. foreign policy. But I have said that so many times in the past that I didn’t feel the need to hammer that home yet again.
Further, some of his points are absolutely fair. There were bigger differences between Bush’s first term and Obama’s stance than between W’s second-term foreign policy and the current crew’s. Bush did show more respect for multilateralism after he blew up America’s reputation with his unilateralist first-term catastrophes. That said, if I’m going to take a side in the "who’s more of a natural multilateralist, Bush or Obama" debate, I think I’ll stick with the president we’ve got now.
Bosco rightly notes that the drone attacks undertaken by this administration have been unilateralist in nature (for the most part, those conducted outside the ambit of multilateral alliances or U.N.-sanctioned missions). But when he suggests it is contradictory for me to cite Obama’s move toward a more multilateral policy as part of his policy shift while I also cite his shift to more surgical, drone-intensive anti-terror strategies, he’s just muddling matters to suit the argument he would like to make. That’s because I was mentioning both matters as separate components of a litany of "pivots" that Obama has made. One was pertaining to multilateralism vs. unilateralism. Another separate point pertained to the shift from going after terrorists as part of massive ground wars to going after them with more tactical finesse. Further, I didn’t say Obama had completely eschewed unilateralism … just as I feel that in certain circumstances he would choose conventional ground war. Distinctions between one administration’s foreign policy and another’s can be profound and yet not complete.
Further arguing that using advanced technologies is a manifestation of a belief in American exceptionalism is just silly. All societies use the tools at their disposal. Would a less "exceptionalist" president resort to throwing sticks and rocks at his enemy as a sign of fairness if that’s all the enemy had at his disposal? But let me add some nuance to this. Do I believe Obama thinks America is special? Yes. Do I believe he has often bent over backwards to communicate that this administration is more inclined to listen and actually treat our allies and others we interact with on the international stage as equals than his predecessor? You betcha.
As for his final point that the world somehow sees Obama as the same as Bush because U.S. approval levels are not as high as they were during the first hopeful months of Obama’s presidency, Bosco seems to deliberately ignore how different Obama’s approach is from Bush and Cheney’s and how far we are from the darkest days of revulsion at U.S. unilateralism early in the Iraq War. I’ve certainly spoken over the past three years with many foreign leaders and diplomats who have noticed the difference — even as many have been deeply critical of Obama’s policies or the administration’s inaction on key issues.
So, to summarize, do I think Obama is the anti-Bush, a 180-degree different being with similarly different policies? No. Don’t think I said that either. But do I think his administration has taken a different course from Bush in many ways? Yes. Is the shift away from the Global War on Terror as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy something meaningful, important, overdue, and worth noting? Yep, I think so. The shift to Asia? Also yep. And if what I call important shifts on multilateralism he calls "far superior atmospherics," I guess that my view is that atmospherics are a fairly important dimension of diplomacy.
Having said that, should Bush get credit for his own shifts away from his ghastly first-term policies to the extent that he made such shifts? Sure. It’s just that the current president has gone much further than his predecessor was inclined to and I think he deserves credit for that.