In late 2009, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, just a few months into his administration. In his Nobel lecture, he gave insight into the ideas that he believed would form his foreign policy. While his ideas illustrated the potential direction of his foreign policy, the lecture was still only words, and words will not have much credibility if they are not supported by action. The title of this essay is taken from Obama’s Nobel lecture. Obama uses the phrase “enlightened self-interest” (2009) to describe past United States’ foreign policy depicting a world where the betterment of society is in everyone’s best interest. The question remains on whether or not this phrase describes Obama’s foreign policy. With the inheritance of two wars, Obama has had little opportunity to implement a foreign policy of his own making, and where he has had the occasion; it is questionable that his actions match his words. This essay will explore Obama’s ideas of foreign policy put forth in his Nobel lecture and contrasting them against foreign policy actions including issues regarding nuclear proliferation, Guantanamo Bay prison, and Sudan, and attempt to answer the question on whether Obama’s foreign policy is truly a policy of “enlightened self-interest”(2009).
“And within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists- a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world. I reject these choices” (Obama 2009)
The claim can be made that President Obama’s burgeoning foreign policy is in a struggle between what is and what could be. In his lecture, he talks about the realities of war and abiding by international law. Ever the pragmatist, President Obama shows that he realizes the current Iraqi and Afghan wars alongside the increasing tensions with North Korea and Iran must be handled carefully and realistically, all the while trying to support human rights and peace worldwide. His words reflect this struggle:
“As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples [Gandhi and King] alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people… Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to international standards strengthens those who do and isolates and weakens those who do not” (Obama 2009).
Obama’s lecture gives the most insight into the theoretical leanings of his ideas behind his foreign policy. He does not fit neatly into one category or another. Obama draws mainly on classical realist and classical liberalist thought, talking about the way the world is and the way world could be. Through this mix, critics have difficulty isolating him to one theoretical school. As he states in his speech, he rejects the idea of choice between Realism and Idealism. Still, most critics are still arguing the First Great Debate. Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, was quoted referring to Obama’s foreign policy in the New York Times: “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41” (Baker 2010). Baker goes further: “If there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one much more realpolitik than his predecessor's, focused on relations with traditional great powers and relegating issues like human rights and democracy to second-tier concerns” (2010). The claim is that Obama has a classical realist approach to foreign policy, but Baker was not the only one with an opinion on the subject.
In an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, multiple theorists and international relations experts were asked their opinion of President Obama’s foreign policy in light of Emmanuel’s comment and their thoughts on whether he was a Realist or an Idealist. Kagan and Pletka favored Obama as an Idealist, focusing on grand schemes. Walt, Kupchen and Lind favored him as a Realist, focusing on deficit of ideology. Three theorists, Nye, Malinowski and Zelikow, purposed that the gap between the two schools for Obama of thought was closer than it appeared, further reinforcing Obama’s opinion of his own foreign policy.
In the article “George H. W. Obama?”, Joseph S. Nye offers that a blending of liberalist and realist thought would best classify President Obama’s foreign policy. He calls this particular brand of blending, liberal realism. In the article, Nye only touches on a purposed definition for liberal realism, calling it a smart-power strategy consisting of hard and soft power (Nye 2010). “It starts with an understanding of the strengths and limits of American power [… and] requires cooperation among governments and international institutions” (Nye 2010). Obama seems to understand this concept well. He states in his Nobel lecture: “America […] can[not] insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves” (Obama 2009). It is the balance between American self-interest and abiding by international conventions that define his foreign policy. The ideas of human rights, democracy, and economic freedom weigh on Obama, but he combines these ideas with aspects of security, drawing on both soft and hard power. In reference to human rights, Obama states:
“The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation, but I also know that sanctions without outreach […] can carry forward only a crippling status quo” (Obama 2009).
With this statement, he shows understanding of the realities of state interaction while still desiring to encouraging human rights. In his lecture, Obama portrays himself as perfectly balanced between realist and liberalist thought and governing the United States with “enlightened self-interest” (Obama 2009).
The foreign policy ideas presented in Obama’s lecture suggest the definite influence of Amitai Etzioni. Three of Obama’s ideas parallel Etzioni’s suggestions for foreign policy ranging from the obvious to the subtle. First, control of nuclear proliferation should be a priority. In Security First, Etzioni is adamant that limiting nuclear proliferation should be at the top of any proper foreign policy, and Obama specifically addresses nuclear proliferation in his lecture and that it is the “centerpiece of his foreign policy” (Obama 2009). Obama has shown limiting nuclear proliferation is at the top of his foreign policy agenda by holding the Nuclear Security Summit in early April. This was the most literal parallel between Etzioni and Obama.
Another parallel focuses on the idea of negotiating with other governments who may not favor Western democracy, or as Etzioni calls them, the illiberal moderates. While Obama does not address current illiberal moderates by name, he does use historical examples where people and governments had negotiated with parties guilty of human rights violations and other matters not fitting in the Western liberal tradition. He states: “In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable, and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies” (Obama 2009). Obama considers negotiation with others who may not share in Western liberal thought as a necessity in promoting security. “No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door” (Obama 2009).
While he favors cooperation, he realizes that there are some with whom one cannot negotiate. These are Etzioni’s “warriors” and as with Etzioni, the isolation of these “warriors” is inferred throughout Obama’s lecture (2007). Etzioni only infers that the warriors should be isolated by focusing on the groups that should be included in the processes of peace such as the illiberal moderates. Obama echoes Etzioni’s inference: “Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it is incompatible with the very purpose of faith; for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto to others as we would have them do unto us” (2009). Also, this thinking followed Obama to the Nuclear Security Summit. Most countries with nuclear and potential nuclear capabilities were invited except for those defined as rogue states, Iran and North Korea. Instead of asking them to participate, Obama strictly and openly isolated them. It is only an assumption, but Etzioni’s philosophy apparently has been a strong influence on Obama and his ideas for foreign policy.
The question remains whether Obama has followed through on the ideas presented in his Nobel lecture. He has followed through with limiting nuclear proliferation. Earlier this month, Obama held a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC and signed a new START treaty with Russia. The summit was held as a success since countries such as the Ukraine promised to limit or dispose of their nuclear arsenal.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay has also played a significant role in Obama’s foreign policy. During his campaign, he promised to close it citing its controversial nature, and early in his presidency, he signed an order for it to be closed. As of this date, though, it is still open and functioning. Thirdly and sadly the promises of consequences have not been realized with Sudan. Recently, Sudan held what was supposed to be a democratic election for President. Between other parties dropping out and multiple accounts of fraud, it is difficult to view this election as legitimate. James Traub cites the International Crisis Group’s report in describing the frequency of election fraud: “the ruling National Congress Party ‘has manipulated the census results and voter registration, drafted the election law in its favor, gerrymandered electoral districts, co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties’” (2010). The fraud is obvious to everyone except the world leaders including President Obama.
In his lecture, Obama named the situation in Darfur as genocide but currently glosses over every account of fraud. It appears that the same fear that gripped the previous administration regarding Darfur and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the civil war between the North and the South confronts Obama’s administration as well. Next January, the southern Sudan will be voting on a referendum determining succession from Sudan. This appeasement over the election is in stark contrast to the ideas Obama put forth in his Nobel lecture. In terms of dealing with nations who broke laws, Obama stated: “I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior” (2009).
The goal of this essay was to determine if President Obama’s foreign policy was one of “enlightened self-interest” (2009). To the author’s dismay, it seems that Obama seems to favor self-interest more so than enlightenment or a balance between the two. The realities of the world seem to be pulling Obama more toward a realpolitik approach and away from a liberalist one. This is only supposition though since it is still early in his administration. With the actions Obama has taken, only one of limiting nuclear proliferation has really been implemented. While he is willing to name the crisis in Darfur as genocide, he is hesitant to admonish Sudan for election fraud. In his campaign, Obama promised change, but this author fears that he is only giving more of the same.
Baker, Peter. 2010 “Obama Puts Own Mark On Foreign Policy Issues” New York Times, April 14. Academic Search Premier (April 28, 2010).
Etzioni, Amitai. 2007. Security First. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
Foreign Policy Magazine. 2010. “George H. W. Obama?” April 14. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/14/george_hw_obama
Nye, Joseph S. 2010. “George H. W. Obama?” Foreign Policy Magazine. April 14. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/14/george_hw_obama?page=0,4
Obama, Barack H. 2009 “A Just and Lasting Peace” Nobel Prize of Peace Acceptance Lecture. December 10. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/obama-lecture_en.html
Traub, James. 2010. “How’s That Appeasement Working Out?” Foreign Policy Magazine. April 20. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/19/sudan_elections