Obama the Jeffersonian

The only constant about President Obama’s foreign policy so far seems to be its reception. Conservatives dread the end of American ascendency and wonder out loud whether Obama is projecting weakness while the Europeans are supposedly upset about the current administration not paying them enough attention.

The truth is that a series of early hiccups abroad coupled with ever increasing Republican opposition at home is imposing caution upon the administration. “Democratic foreign policy observers predict that a weakened domestic political position will make Obama inclined to be more selective in choosing when and with whom to engage,” reports Politico‘s Laura Rozen, “focusing on opportunities where he can demonstrate success over more ambitious but less certain efforts, such as trying to achieve Middle East peace.”

The president admitted that his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was misguided and in fact hampered the peace process instead of advancing it. Rozen links to an article in Spiegel, Germany’s leading opinion magazine, which declares that Obama “will have to fundamentally re-think his political course.” That is a bit of an overstatement, perhaps, for one lost Senate seat does not diminish the entire Democrats’ agenda. It is symptomatic however of a growing animosity toward the president and his party and a lack of foreign policy results is in part to blame.

The administration got off to a decent start. It “strategically reassured” China rather than treating it like a future advisary. Still, Sino-American relations are shaky and China increasingly focuses on its own backyard, recently signing a free-trade agreement with ASEAN as some American commentators continue to cry havoc.

Obama sought a new start with Russia and while a renewed nuclear arms treaty is underway, the Russian Bear still roars, interfering in its former satelite states and trying to conquer the Arctic.

Lastly, in Afghanistan, the president initiated a surge reminiscent of the strategy that worked so well in Iraq, but Pakistan, although part of the administration’s thinking on the war, is a mess, increasingly plagued by terrorist attacks and goverment corruption. Moreover, Obama is torn between supporting Pakistan and deepening the American alliance with India. The latter is of far greater importance in the long run but he can’t have both.

At the core of his shortcomings, opines Walter Russel Mead in Foreign Policy, is Obama’s “split personality when it comes to foreign policy.” The president is “not only buffeted by strong political headwinds,” he notes, “but also pulled in opposing directions by two of the major schools of thought that have guided American foreign-policy debates since colonial times.”

There are basically four different world views among American president and policymakers: the Hamiltonian, named after the first treasury secretary and reiterating his position that government should promote economic growth and protect the interests of American business at home and abroad; the Wilsonian, which stands with the Hamiltonian but stresses democracy and human rights as primary American export products; the Jeffersonian, which dissents from the aforementioned views and seeks to minimize American commitments overseas; and the Jacksonian, populistic and “suspicious” as Mead puts it, “of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness.”

Moderate Republicans tend to be Hamiltonians. Move right toward the Sarah Palin range of the party and the Jacksonian influence grows. Centrist Democrats tend to be interventionist-minded Wilsonians, while on the left and the dovish side they are increasingly Jeffersonian, more interested in improving American democracy at home than exporting it abroad.

After 9/11, the Jacksonians demanded action. George W. Bush’s presidency was “defined by an effort to bring Jacksonians and Wilsonians into a coalition.” The failure of this approach “created the context that made the Obama presidency possible.” Obama comes from the Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, which would like to see the costs and risks involved in efforts overseas reduced, while holding dear the more Wilsonian idealism of shaping of the world in America’s image.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

According to Obama, the United States can best spread freedom and democracy by providing a good example of it. He said so much in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he declared that America should be the “standard-bearer” of civilization.

And therein lies the rub: “While Wilsonians believe that no lasting stability is possible in a world filled with dictatorships, Jeffersonians like Obama argue that even bad regimes can be orderly international citizens if the incentives are properly aligned.” Hence Obama’s “soft power” approach to otherwise hostile regimes as Iran and North Korea and the “scrupulous caution” with which his administration has behaved in Latin America so far, lest it provoke any sort of confrontation with the “Bolivarian” states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia.

In spite of Obama’s “split personality” some progress has been made — perhaps, in part, thanks to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has no desire for renewed isolationism. It seems that merely a year after Obama took office, many have forgotten already how badly American prestige was left shattered by the last Bush Administration. President Obama did much to restore traditional alliances and America’s appeal to moral leadership in the world. His failure to bring about much concrete with regards to China and Russia so far is in part to blame on President Bush’s neglect of relations with both superpowers throughout his two terms in office.

Mead is optimistic nonetheless. He calls Obama’s an “ambitious and an attractive vision. Success,” he believes, “would reduce the level of international tension even as the United States scales back its commitments.”

It’s no easy task though. “The other schools are generally skeptical about reducing American commitments. Wilsonians interpret Jeffersonian restraint as moral cowardice” whereas the Jacksonians like to think of it as “cowardice pure and simple.” Lastly, the Hamiltonians might be willing to go along with restraint for some time “but sooner or later they attack Jeffersonians for failing to develop and project sufficient American power in a dangerous world.” On top of political opposition, there is the American people who “perceive problems all over the world.” A Jeffersonian response is likely to strike them as “too passive.”

Even if Obama succeeds only partly in bringing back some Jeffersonian influence, he will provide a necessary element of caution and restraint in American foreign policy, preventing “imperial overstretch” by ensuring that America’s ends are proportionate to its means.

We need this vision today more than ever: If Obama’s foreign policy collapses — whether sunk by Afghanistan or conflicts not yet foreseen — into the incoherence and reversals that ultimately marked Carter’s well-meaning but flawed approach, it will be even more difficult for future presidents to chart a prudent and cautious course through the rough seas ahead.