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Obama’s Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change?

HomeEssaysHistory and PoliticsObama’s Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change?
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17.10.2019
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Abstract

The worsening of the international situation is distinguished by the increase of the terrorist activities, destabilization processes in the Middle East, and the Russian aggression towards the European countries and has an impact on the US position in the world. In addition, US President Barack Obama failed to introduce a foreign policy that would be able to bring peace and stability to the international system. In particular, the current foreign policy is characterized by the tension in the relations with Russia and the loss of the strategic position in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, there is a necessity to analyze the foreign policy of Obama’s administration regarding the role of the United States as the “indispensable nation” and determine whether the US foreign strategy has changed since the middle of the 20th century.

Introduction

The change in international relations threatens the United States and forces the country to implement changes into its foreign policy. After coming to power, US President Barack Obama announced the end of the wars in the Middle East that started after the 9/11 attacks and the introduction of peaceful solutions to any kind of conflict. According to Obama, “US military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance; just because we have the best hammer does not mean every problem is a nail” (Reifowitz, 2014).

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At the same time, the position of the politicians and analysts regarding the success of the US foreign policy varies. Some of them state that the position of the United States on the international stage has improved due to Obama’s ending of the on-going wars in the Middle East. On the other hand, Obama’s administration policies have resulted in the decline of US power. The US wars in the Middle East are far from being over. The period of peace and stability in Iraq has come to an end. The population of the country is no ability to deal with the problems on its own. In addition, the current international environment is characterized by a number of threats. It is evident that the US supremacy is coming to an end. This can be explained by both internal and external factors. Internal factors reflect the economic situation in the country. External challenges include the international shift of powers. According to the report of the National Intelligence Council, by the 2040s, China will become more powerful than the United States of America (Womack, 2014).

Thus, there is a necessity for the USA to adopt a new foreign policy. Taking into account the current international environment, the strategy cannot be based on the unilateral renouncing of nuclear weapons as the United States will be placed in a more dangerous position. Unlike the US foreign policy of the period of Cold War, when the United States admitted the possibility of being the first to initiate nuclear warfare over the territory of an aggressor, the modern policy should be more defensive (Rosenbaum, 2012, p. 25). Indeed, the usage of nuclear weapons can destroy the whole planet. Even during the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, neither side was willing to take the risk of being the first to strike with nuclear weapons. At the same time, this factor will guarantee that the power of the international actors remains unchanged and their national interests are secured. As a result, refusal to use nuclear weapon can significantly undermine the position of the United States and its image as an indispensable state.

Short History of U.S. Foreign Policy in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, the US foreign policy was determined by President Wilson. Along with the beginning of World War I, Wilson declared the necessity to adhere to neutrality and tried to secure international peace. In 1917, the US entered the war. Despite the fact that the country was not tied to its allies by any kind of international agreement, the United States provided substantial support to its allies. With the end of the war and introduction of the Fourteen Points of Wilson, the United States gained military, political and public influence on the international arena (Cooper, 2009). Wilson’s calls for national self-determination had an impact on countries all over the world. In addition, the US President contributed to the establishment of the first international organization, League of Nations, aimed at resolving different kinds of military conflicts. The approach of the US President also determined the directions of the future foreign policy of the country, which included the promotion of democracy and protection of peace under the US auspices (Cooper, 2009).

A similar policy was adopted during World War II when the United States announced neutrality. At the same time, the United States provided support to the allies on the terms of Lend-Lease. The United States entered the war in order to protect its national security. While Germany did not pose a threat to the USA during the war, the establishment of its influence in Europe and Asia could result in being constantly alert for the attack. After the end of the war, the United States found itself in the rivalry with the Soviet Union whose power was growing. The isolationist approach to the US foreign policy has ended.

The Cold War period was characterized by the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. While there was no large-scale fighting, the countries were engaged in numerous regional conflicts, such as the Korean and Vietnam wars, Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, and the war in Afghanistan. In addition, the international community experienced the threat of nuclear war. In 1947, the United States adopted the strategy of the containment of the Soviet Union in order to restrict the spread of communism all over the world (Kuafman, 2010). According to the policy of containment, the US had to meet the Soviet aggression with the help of military force, but exclude the use of nuclear weapons. The international relations were characterized by the bipolar environment, where both the United States and the Soviet Union introduced their military, cultural and political supremacy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had military and economic interests in every region of the world. At the same time, international relations were subjected to substantial transformations, including the appearance of the multi-polar world and new threats to the national security of the countries. Among the biggest threats, there are such problems as global warming, expansion of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. During the 1990s, the USA mainly scaled its foreign policy budget and defensive strategies. According to the research, the United States missed a lot of opportunities because of foreign policy (Brzezinski, Scowcroft, & Ignatius, 2009). However, according to the official position of the US government, during the 1990s, the United States represented the only country that could provide global security. In addition, without the support of the US, any efforts to ensure cooperation would fail (Kuafman, 2010). According to the former Secretary of the State Albright, the foreign policy was justified. In particular, Albright stated that “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us” (U.S. Department of State, 1998).

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The shift in the US foreign policy was made after the 9/11 attacks. US President George W. Bush took unilateral actions to fight the threat of terrorism and declared the war on terror (Kuafman, 2010). The approach determined US foreign policy during the 2000s. According to the policy, the United States began two military campaigns in the Middle East, including the invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the war in Iraq undermined the superior position of the United States in the world. It was doubted that the US invasion in the region was related to the war on terror.

The indispensability of the United States was underlined by Obama’s administration. According to the US President, “when a typhoon hits the Philippines or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help; so the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation; that has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come” (The White House, 2014). Obama’s foreign policy was initially based on the three main aspects. The first one is the improvement of the relations with other global powers, including China and Russia. Secondly, Obama’s policy foresaw the shift from the conflict to cooperate with the countries of the Middle East and the transformation of the image of the United States in the Muslim world. Finally, the new approach in foreign policy determined nuclear disarmament. At the same time, the US foreign policy experienced a negative influence on the financial collapse and economic crisis (Indyk, Lieberthal, & O’Hanlon, 2012).

Thus, before the 20th century, the United States foreign policy was not aimed at establishing a global political and economic presence. The country was secure in the Western Hemisphere and did not need to engage in European affairs, which presented no or little interest for the United States (Kuafman, 2010). The policy was known as isolationism. For more than 150 years, the country did not provide assistance or establish military alliances with European countries. However, the US isolation was threatened with the rapid development of Germany and Japan. As a result, the USA has adopted a foreign policy that still remains effective nowadays and is aimed at promoting democracy and protecting peace under the US auspices. In addition, the USA is proud that the country remains an indispensable state and influential player in international relations.

Position of the US Government

According to the position of the US President, the directions of the foreign policy are clear. In particular, the United States “choose hope over fear, see the future not as something out of its control, but as something the country can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort; the United States rejects fatalism or cynicism when it comes to human affairs and chooses to work for the world as it should be” (The White House, 2014). After coming to power, Obama inherited a severe economic recession of the country and two wars. One of the main goals of the foreign policy of the newly elected President was to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, Obama approved the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq. In order to provide the political changes in Afghanistan, the US President transformed the strategy of the war in Afghanistan. In particular, the attention was paid to the efforts of the citizens of Afghanistan to keep the Taliban regime from power and eliminate the threat of Al Qaeda (Nelson, n. d.). As a result, instead of providing the US presence in the region and guaranteeing peace and security, Obama adopted the strategy of deploying additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan to train the population of the country to fight against the Taliban on their own (Nelson, n.d.). Because the Republicans were more focused on domestic affairs, Obama succeeded in withdrawing its military forces from Iraq. Obama’s administration also reduced the threat of terrorism. In 2011, the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed during the operation of a team of Navy SEALS (Nelson, n.d.).

Apart from the war-related issues, Obama’s foreign policy was related to other aspects. For instance, the US President announced a decision to establish good relationships with the countries of the Middle East (Nelson, n.d.). In addition, the United States and Russia signed a treaty on nuclear arms reduction.

Despite the fact that the representatives of the White House do not agree on the majority of aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, they underline its indispensability. Apart from the realities of international relations, which encompass a variety of spheres of cooperation including the diplomatic relations between countries and the trans-border exchange of goods and services, there are a few areas where the US presence is indispensable.

At the same time, the US President has taken a different approach towards a nuclear factor in foreign policy, which has had an impact on the position of the country in international relations. For instance, Obama’s administration reassured that the country was going to promote peace and stability in the world without the use of nuclear weapons (Garvey, 2013). In particular, the United States plans to reduce the amount of strategic nuclear weapons. According to the official position of the country, even if to decrease the arsenal, the United States will be capable of guaranteeing the international peace and security as well as protection of its allies (Garvey, 2013). In order to ensure equal relations between the United States and the other nuclear powers, Obama started cooperating with Russia and China in the nuclear sphere.

However, the position of the US government regarding Obama’s foreign policy varies. According to the US Defense Department, Obama’s administration is not decisive and unable to take action when necessary (DeYoung, 2015). In particular, considering the war in Syria or the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the policymakers were described as “sclerotic at best, and constipated at worse” (DeYoung, 2015). The Republicans pointed out that the US foreign policy has changed. Obama has changed the attitude towards the countries of the Middle East, which traditionally represented a threat to US security. In addition, Obama’s administration improved relations with Cuba and Russia (Indyk, Lieberthal, & O’Hanlon, 2012).

Critical Interpretations of Obama’s Foreign Policy

According to the position of the critics, Obama leaves the foreign policy of the country in shambles. With the deterioration of the international situation, the national security of the country has gained significance. Both Democrats and Republicans raise the question of the future directions of the US foreign policy. Indeed, the current foreign strategy of the United States is not a successful one. The analysts argue whether the international situation has been caused by the US policy or whether it is beyond the initiatives of the country. At the same time, the efforts of the government can improve the position of the United States in the international arena.

At the beginning of the election campaign, Barack Obama made grandiose promises. For instance, Obama promised to bring “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal” (“Obama’s nomination victory speech in St. Paul,” 2008). In addition, Obama promised to introduce a new foreign policy of the country aimed at facing “down the threats of the 21st century just as we did the challenges of the 20th” (“Obama’s nomination victory speech in St. Paul,” 2008). However, critics argue that instead of addressing the challenges of the 21st century, the situation has worsened. First, the world has become a more dangerous place than it was due to the increasing threat of terrorism. The terrorist organizations not only reverse the gains that the United States made in Iraq but also impose a threat to the national security of the country. Obama’s administration has noted that the threat of terrorism is declining (Kakutani, 2013). However, according to the reports of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, in 2013, the global terrorist activities reached the highest rates (“Global terrorism on the rise: Fivefold increase in terror-related deaths since 2000,” 2014). The State Department informed that the number of terrorist attacks had increased by 40 percent compared to 2012 (“Global terrorism on the rise: Fivefold increase in terror-related deaths since 2000,” 2014). Besides growing of the terrorist activity, the threat of terrorism was characterized by the improvement of technical and financial support of the organizations. As a result, they became capable of making more dangerous attacks. Apart from that, the geopolitical position of the country in the world has been undermined. It is determined by the fact that the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has worsened. While reasons for the war in Syria were not related to the US foreign policy, the inconstant and passive US initiatives contributed to the escalation of the conflict (Kakutani, 2013). Violence and instability in Libya have also been influenced by the US’ inability to stabilize the situation after eliminating the Qaddafi regime. The relations with the countries of the region have worsened compared to 2008. In particular, the US allies, including Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, faced the threat of the terrorist proliferation in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. In addition, the importance of such countries as Iran constantly increases. For instance, Iran has a greater influence on Iraq than the USA. As a result, the United States loses its strategic position in the Middle East. Third, for the first time after the end of the Cold War, Russia has made an attempt to intervene in the European states (Holmes & Inboden, 2014). The actions of the country posed a threat to the established political order in Europe. Similar situations can be observed in Asia as well. Afghanistan has an unstable political situation and can be engaged in a civil war with the possible establishment of Taliban rule. In Latin America, such states as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have become more criminalized. As a result, the United States faces a problem of the growth of illegal migration, human trafficking, and the illicit drug trade (Holmes & Inboden, 2014). In Africa, the Sahel-Sahara region has become a new area of global terrorism. It is determined by the establishment of the terrorist groups in Mali and Nigeria. As a result, China and Russia may consider the United States a declining power. The allies of the United States are more likely to worry about the declining influence of the country. Another threat to the international community is posed by the nuclear proliferation of Iran and North Korea. Thus, because of the threat of the nuclear attack from the rivals, the United States cannot introduce the policy based on the unilateral renouncement of the nuclear weapon.

In addition, the indispensable principles of the US foreign policy are also being argued. For instance, the politicians and analysts criticize the United States for insufficient assistance provided to Ukraine and Nigeria. The United States also did not provide help to mayors in Darfur and did not guarantee a no-fly-zone to defend the civilian population. Similar requests from the Ukrainian and Syrian sides were also declined by the US officials. The indispensable position of the United States also indicates that the country is a leader in the sphere of international relations. However, the USA failed to force other countries to adhere to its position. The inability to come to an agreement during the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the World Trade Organization’s position proves that the US strategy has failed. In addition, the aspiration of some countries to see the US as a leader is determined by the necessity of the countries to pursue national goals. Thus, there is a conflict between the US position and the position of other players of the international relations that results in the lack of partnerships with the USA.

The critics of Obama’s foreign policy also indicate that the President tries to incorporate rogue regimes into the liberal international order. At the same time, foreign strategy will have anti-American outcomes. In particular, the countries supported by the United States including Iran and Cuba have well-defined anti-Western policies. According to Obama’s administration, Iran is an actor in international relations and its interests should also be taken into account. However, the United States did not take any action to support its allies in Syria as their decision could have an impact on the nuclear negotiations with Iran. These policies have led to the strengthening of both the political and economic positions of Iran. In addition, terrorist organizations have reinforced their efforts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen (Continetti, 2015). While Cuba is not as important as international power as Iran, it is still known as an anti-American country. The improvement of the economic relations with Cuba will neither ensure the establishment of freedom and democracy in the country nor change the perception of the US among the population.

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Thus, the United States does not pursue the traditional foreign strategy of the indispensable state. First, the USA lacks the political will to engage in international relations due to the potential risks. Second, the multilateral structure of the global system does not allow the United States to pursue the imperial policy. However, the country still remains influential in certain spheres of activity, including military operations.

Conclusion

As a result, Obama’s foreign policy represents a change rather than continuity of the former courses. The US foreign policy has been changed after the election of Barack Obama. In particular, the US President introduced the initiatives aimed at improving the US image in the Middle East. As a result, Obama’s administration announced the withdrawal of the troops from Iraq and the relationships with Iran were further developed. Apart from this, a new approach was taken regarding the cooperation of the USA with China and Russia. Obama also initiated the reduction of the nuclear arsenal in order to provide peace and security in the world.

The success of the current US foreign policy includes the weakening of the threat of the international terrorism achieved with the help of the elimination of Al Qaeda leaders, improvement of the relations with China, transformation of the US image in the world, and adoption of a new nuclear policy together with Russia.

At the same time, the US foreign policy is criticized by the politicians and analysts for the failure to improve the political situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. In addition, the US initiatives in terms of the reduction of the nuclear arsenal and improvement of the relations with the countries of the Middle East and Cuba are considered to have significant drawbacks for the US foreign policy. Some of the critics also doubt whether the US President uses a foreign policy strategy or just responds to the international situation. However, Obama has made an attempt to introduce a new global order based on the leadership of the United States and the promotion of cooperation between the nations.

However, the United States still remains a powerful international player capable of influencing global events. Obama has employed a realistic approach to the US foreign policy and the position of the country on the international scene. In addition, the foreign policy is based on both, the principle related to the leading role of the US in the world and the necessity to reduce its influence on other nations. As a result, the United States managed to take into account the positions of other international players and preserve its leadership. However, critics underline that while the protection of the national interests of the country has been achieved, the promotion of the US global order is still a future goal of US foreign policy.

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