Daniel W. Drezner

Why Barack Obama is not going to be the foreign policy president anytime soon

Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons — anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain’t in the giving mood.  I don’t ...

Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons -- anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain't in the giving mood. 

I don't really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they're missing something important:  with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile.  Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements -- particularly of the non-military kind -- during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser.  Why?  Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.   

Think about it.  The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush.  That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush.  I won't swear to this, but my impression is that Obama's standing has taken a hit whenever he's gone overseas in the past year. 

Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons — anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain’t in the giving mood. 

I don’t really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they’re missing something important:  with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile.  Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements — particularly of the non-military kind — during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser.  Why?  Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.   

Think about it.  The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush.  That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush.  I won’t swear to this, but my impression is that Obama’s standing has taken a hit whenever he’s gone overseas in the past year. 

On the other  hand, during a recession presidents can tell the rest of the world to go f*** themselves and they won’t lose much in the way of popularity. 

Just a glance at the December 2009 Pew survey shows the extent to which Americans are looking inward.  And who can blame them — it’s a pretty bad economy and there’s double-digit unemployment.  This tendency is exacerbated by something that Kaplan does point out

In the post-Cold War world, with the fracturing of power and the decline of influence by any one country or bloc, the problems that he faces are simply harder—more impervious to military, economic, or diplomatic pressure—than they would have been 20 to 50 years ago.

I’d say "post-Great Recession world," but that’s quibbling.  If Americans are fed up with how long it takes for anything to get done in Congress, wait until they pay attention to foreign affairs.  The Doha round is on year nine and counting.  With important exceptions, the United States has military forces in practically every country it’s intervened in since 1945. Who knows how long a global warming treaty — or the reconstruction of Haiti — will take.

Are there exceptions?  Sure, but they’re ephemeral.  I suspect the follow-on to START-II would get through the Senate, because, really, is now the time to pick a fight with Russia?  Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike would probably warm the cockles of most Americans.  But they wouldn’t stay warm for long. 

No, it’s the economy, stupid.  The healthier the economy, the more political capital for Obama, and the less likely he will be punished for taking an interest in foreign affairs.  If Obama has any political self-preservation instincts at all, international relations will be done on the DL for a while. 

It’s unfair, and very problematic for foreign policy wonks, but no one said life is fair.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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