While much has been written and said about President Obama’s handling of domestic matters and of course most especially the economy, foreign affairs, as almost always in America, except in time of war, have received but cursory attention.
After World War I the nations of the world looked to America for leadership - we punted and enclosed ourselves in a naive type of isolation. After World War II, when we were the only democracy left with any real economic and military clout, we accepted world leadership - but, the world quickly divided into two camps: the capitalist west and the communist east (eventually a third bloc the non-aligned arose among the third world countries). From 1948 to 1990 our foreign policy was reactive to that of the Soviet Union and consisted of doing whatever we had to to maintain our allies (witness our support until 1960 of European colonialism) and encourage countries to oppose the Soviet bloc. We found ourselves in bed with fascists and militarists in third world countries because they often professed anti-communism (sometimes just to get our economic and military aid). After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America became the sole super power and for another decade basically our position became the world’s position. We encouraged Europe to join us in seeking peace in Bosnia and ending genocide in Kosovo. But when we ignored Rwanda so did other nations. Pres. Clinton risked his political capital by involving himself in the age old problems of Ireland the troubles in the North were resolved. In the 1990's we never lost votes at the United Nations because we were THE power.
Then came the twenty first century and the Bush-Cheney administration. The US pursued a foreign policy of being a world bully. As far as other nations were concerned it was our way or the highway. All the outpouring of international sympathy and support for the US after 9/11 was squandered by the administration in its misadventure in Iraq. And, in Afghanistan, where we had international support, the ball was dropped so all the eggs could be put in the Iraq basket. All the old anti-American shibboleths going back to the turn of the century days of dollar and gunboat diplomacy reasserted themselves and we became a nation with few true allies
President Obama has reversed that downward course. He has restored America’s position in the world as an honest broker that supports human rights and economic and political freedoms. And, a nation that respects the sovereignty of the other 196 nations on the planet. In Africa, Obama has supported democratic elections as a means of transfer of power - most notably in the Ivory Coast,- and peaceful resolution of civil strife in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. When opposition figures win and the incumbents refuse to recognize the results we have taken a role in support of negotiated settlements, e.g. Zimbabwe and Kenya. In North Africa after supporting the people in Tunisia and Egypt we assisted, primarily by supporting our European allies France and Great Britain, the people of Libya in their successful revolution to overthrow the dictator Qaddafi. In Sudan after years of civil war the US was the leading force in support of a UN peace plan that allowed the African people of South Sudan to form their own nation and free them of the northern Sudanese arab dictatorship. In doing that we broke with the post WWII American policy against countries dividing themselves ( a policy that we maintained to no avail in Yugoslavia as it unraveled) and returned to the Wilsonian commitment to self-determination of peoples.
In Asia President Obama has reestablished solid relations with India, the world’s largest capitalist democracy, and Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, one that is developing both democracy and a free market system. Those who fear that China will dominate Asia in the future should realize that our support of these two nations, along with Japan and South Korea on the Pacific rim; and Australia and New Zealand in effect contain China although we don’t talk about it in those terms.
In the Middle East Obama has tried to be even handed. The US has publicly supported the popular Arab Spring (so far a North African Spring) in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Whether that support will help the Arab people remains to be seen. And his Israel-Palestine positions, often in sync with past administrations have drawn at times both praise and criticism from both sides indicating he must be doing something right. His support of Israel is rooted in a century of American history and our national interest and not like the radical right wing tea party Republicans (who are more right wing on Israel issues than the right wing in Israel) on some apocalyptic belief a united Jewish Jerusalem being requisite to the second coming.
I believe that only domestic right wing Republican opposition and the longevity of Fidel Castro has prevented the Obama administration from resolving the fifty year break between the US and Cuba. In the next few years that breach will be healed, democracy restored to Cuba and it will be an economic boon to both nations. I hope Obama is guiding our ship of state when it again docks in Havana.
President Obama has pursued a foreign policy of fully participating in international organizations. These very organizations that are based primarily on American ideas and American constitutional structures: the United Nations, the specialized agencies, e.g. WHO, ILO, and the regional organizations OAS and NATO. Obama has called for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by all but 7 other nations in the world (Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Nauru, Tonga and Palau: some list for the US to be on.) and a plethora of international conventions signed by both Bushes, Clinton and Carter languishing in the dysfunctional US Senate.
There is much Obama has not done and there is much to criticize in his slow drawing down of the war in Iraq and his escalation in Afghanistan. But the core of foreign policy is setting a tone. Whether the world sees an evil empire, or a fin de siècle imperialist power, or an ideologically driven military regime or a shining city on a hill often decides the place of a nation in the world community. We live, as the Republican Wendell Willkie said over seventy years ago in “One World”. That may be difficult for the right wing Tea Party radical Republicans who have a problem with our being One Country to accept, but it is truer today than in 1940. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, as implemented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has restored America to its place as the moral leader of the world -- the beacon of democracy represented by the Statue of Liberty (in NY Harbor or historically in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square). It may not get him re-elected, but it may go a long way to making this a more peaceful world and a peaceful century.
27 Sep. 2011