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Obama the pragmatist

Last month, in his address to the graduating cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, President Barack Obama stated that some of America's most costly mistakes since World War II were the result not of restraint, but of a "willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences." Though Obama may be right, the speech did little to mollify critics who have accused him of passivity and weakness, particularly regarding Syria and Ukraine.

This frustration can be blamed partly on the impossibly high expectations that Obama set in his early speeches, in which he inspired voters with promises of systemic transformation. Unlike most candidates, Obama maintained this transformational rhetoric even after it secured him his victory in the 2008 campaign. Indeed, a series of addresses in the first year of his presidency raised expectations even higher, by establishing the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world, promising to revamp America's approach to the Middle East, and pledging to "bend history in the direction of justice."


President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 3, 2014.
Getty Images
President Barack Obama during a meeting in the Oval Office on March 3, 2014.

It is often said that democratic politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But there is no reason to believe that Obama was being disingenuous about his objectives. His vision simply could not withstand the recalcitrant and difficult world that confronted him; so he had to adjust. After just one year in office, the man who had promised transformational leadership became a "transactional" leader — pragmatic to a fault. And, despite what his critics say, this was a positive development.

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While vowing to use force when America's vital interests are at stake and rejecting pessimistic projections of national decline, Obama has – unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush – relied more heavily on diplomacy than force. For this, his critics have accused him of failing to promote American values and retreating into isolationism.

But restraint is not isolationism. No one accused President Dwight Eisenhower of isolationism when he accepted a stalemate in the Korean War, refused to intervene at Dien Bien Phu, resisted recommendations from senior military officers regarding islands near Taiwan, watched the Red Army invade Hungary, or refused to back allies in the Suez Canal crisis. Nor did those who now disparage Obama's measured response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent annexation of Ukrainian territory call Bush an isolationist for his weak response to Putin's invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In fact, Obama's response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine reflects his long-term vision. Though Putin has gained possession of Crimea, he has lost access to some of the resources that he needs to achieve his goal of restoring Russia's former glory as a great power — and has reinvigorated NATO in the process.

Effective foreign policy making requires an understanding of not only international and transnational systems, but also the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple countries. It also demands recognition of just how little is known about "building nations," particularly after revolutions — a process that should be viewed in terms of decades, not years. In 1789, few observers in Paris would have predicted that a Corsican would lead French forces to the banks of the Nile within ten years. And foreign intervention in the French Revolution only fanned nationalist flames.

In such a complex and uncertain context, prudence is critical, and bold action based on a grandiose vision can be extremely dangerous. This is what advocates of a more muscular approach to today's revolutions in the Middle East often forget.

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Of course, it makes sense for US leaders to nudge events at the margins in an effort to advance democratic values in the long term. But attempting to direct revolutions that they do not fully understand would be a mistake, with potentially serious negative consequences for all parties involved.

In fact, in the twentieth century, US presidents who pursued transformational foreign policies were neither more effective nor more ethical. Woodrow Wilson's bet on the Versailles Treaty of 1919 contributed to the disastrous isolationism of the 1930's. And the bets that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made in Vietnam had devastating consequences, some of which are still being felt today.

More recently, George W. Bush — who famously declared that he did not play "small ball" — attempted to transform the Middle East with his "freedom agenda." More than a decade later, the US is still struggling to withdraw from the conflicts that he initiated.

Obama's foreign-policy mistakes, by contrast, have had only modest repercussions. To use Obama's own baseball metaphor, aiming for achievable singles and doubles is often a more effective strategy than swinging wildly in an effort to hit a home run, only to strike out. Of course, a game-winning home run is exciting. But a foreign-policy "victory" is not quite as straightforward — and the stakes are far higher.

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President George H. W. Bush understood this. A transactional leader, he famously stated that he did not do "the vision thing." But, like Eisenhower, he steered the US through multiple crises, overseeing one of the more successful periods of US foreign policy in the last half-century.

Of course, some of the criticism of Obama's speech was valid. But much of it was just partisan politics. To be constructive, the debate about Obama's foreign policy must account for twentieth-century US history.

In foreign policy, as in medicine, leaders must "first do no harm." Obama understands that. One hopes that the relentless uninformed criticism that his pragmatic policies have elicited does not drive his successor to revert to a risky transformational approach.

Commentary by Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a professor at Harvard and the author of Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

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