Tom Farer, Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Roughly a year and one-quarter into the Obama Presidency it is now possible to identify with some confidence not simply the incumbent’s foreign policy goals (which are, after all, not obscure), but, more importantly, his sense of how to pursue them.  It is the latter, what we might call the President’s “statecraft,” which most distinguishes one American President from another.    To be sure, for at least two reasons the distinction I am proposing between goals and means is fraught with difficulty.  One is that under close inspection most goals, even when indisputably desirable in themselves (which is not always the case, e.g. conquering Iraq), are in turn means to still more general ends.  Secondly, the efficacy of means being uncertain (there being no laboratory for scientifically pre-testing them), the choice of means inevitably reflects deep values (as well as thoughtful extrapolations from historical experiences deemed analogous) which constitute much of the real substance of those grand ends the political culture requires Presidents to declare.  Nevertheless, I think the distinction has some value, particularly for purposes of comparing one President with another, because at the loftiest level of goal announcement (e.g. promoting democracy, protecting vital American interests) presidents of the US can sound misleadingly similar. 

Like his predecessors, this President’s statecraft is expressed in his daily acts and omissions.  Their sheer abundance requires that, as a prelude to characterizing his statecraft, this mass of decisions to act or not to act (whether by word or deed) needs to be organized in terms of general approaches or sets of approaches to the conduct of American foreign policy that have been available to all occupants of the White House, indeed to the heads of state of all countries.  One set of approaches corresponds very roughly to the academic categories of Realism and Constructivism.  I use them here without the subtle refinements of their use among theorists and in ways that don’t correspond in some respects to their academic usage.  

The Realist in the White House acts on the assumption that elites governing other consequential states more or less rationally calculate and pursue material interests by whatever means available without reference to international norms or institutions except to the extent they are seen as contingently useful.   Consistent with this belief, the Realist believes that material things being finite and power being the currency which determines their allocation, conflicts of interest are as inevitable a they are real and in the end are resolved by the balance or, as is often the case, the imbalance of power.   

The Constructivist, by contrast, believes that states like individuals are moved by concerns with dignity and respect, as well as material goals, that elites do not always calculate rationally, and that their statecraft stems in significant part from their interactions with other states which shape not only their view of the other, but also their view of themselves.  It follows that hostile relations between states may not be the result of self-evident, irreducible conflicts of interest but rather may arise from spirals of hostile communication (by word as well as deed) which can, with difficulty, be reversed if not to active and sustained cooperation, than at least to a modus vivendi. 

For reasons far too complex to develop in this brief blog, no White House resident or Svengali (even Vice President Cheney) can be caged as a perfect example of either tendency.   In his references to states he deemed hostile, George  W.  Bush seemed unable to imagine that the positions of such states could be traceable in any way and to any degree to past actions of the United States.  So it seems fair to say that he had no natural affinity with the Constructivist world view.  But believing (perhaps unknowingly in the spirit of Immanuel Kant), as he at least rhetorically did, that the character of a country’s government is a principal determinant of its foreign policy, he hardly qualifies as a straightforward Realist.   By contrast, even if we take account only of his Cairo speeches where he referred ruefully to the US role in the 1953 overthrow of  an incipient democratic regime in Iran, Barack Obama qualifies as the post World War II President with the strongest Constructivist instincts. 

A similar but not quite identical basis for comparing the foreign policy premises of American Presidents is their respective beliefs about the relative efficacy of hard and soft power.   The use or threatened use of force is, of course the hardest form of power.  But I would also place at the hard end of the means spectrum economic forms of coercion.  Indeed, I find it conceptually useful to place all forms of coercion under the hard power heading while recognizing operationally important differences between the military and other instruments. 

Soft power I would define as the exercise of influence by non-coercive means.   It can be focused directly on other governing elites or on the populations for which they claim to speak and by which they may, in turn, be influenced.   If, for example, we want to use a country’s territory in order to project force into another one (as we wished to use Turkish territory in connection with the invasion of Iraq), and the government of that territory is to some degree responsive to public opinion,  the US effort to make the relevant population think of it as a benign force in the world would constitute use of soft power.   Another is signaling to another governing elite friendly intentions and/or the belief that its interests coincide with our own. 

Every President uses it to some degree.  George W. Bush is generally and correctly seen as an ardent believer in the efficacy of hard power.  But it was not the only tool in his kit.  His rhetorical efforts to identify the U.S. with the spread of liberal democracy were essays in soft power as was his cultivation of Central and East European countries that he saw as more sympathetic to US policy in the Middle East and West Asia than traditional allies. 

As the surge of additional US forces into Afghanistan confirms, Barack Obama has no constitutional aversion to the use of hard power.  At the same time, he has demonstrated a strength of belief in the efficacy of soft power and a willingness to employ it that goes far beyond Bush father and son, Reagan and even his nearest Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.

His selection of an Arab city as the site of a major speech on US policy toward the Middle East was an exercise of soft power.  So was the speech’s content, not only the rueful admission of the 1953 US action in Iran, but also the expression of sympathy for the Palestinian people, the recognition of their suffering rather than the mere coldly pragmatic reaffirmation of a two-state solution.  Another calculated exercise of soft power was the stated intention to “reset” relations with Russia followed by the termination of the project to install elements of a missile defense system in former Warsaw Pact states.  A third salient attempt to influence by non-coercive means was both the choice of venue for and the substance of his first speech addressed to African peoples.  The goal, of course, was to encourage African governments to reduce corruption, strengthen the rule of law, invest in the health and education of their citizens and thus to release indigenous capacity for development and create  far more enticing environments for global pools of capital and multinational investors, all to the end of enhancing the welfare of African peoples.  As the site of a speech laying responsibility for African poverty and underdevelopment at the feet of bad governance, he choose not Kenya, the notoriously corrupt and increasingly violent country of his father’s birth, nor Nigeria, the continent’s most populous state and leading oil exporter which tops even Kenya in the dimensions of its corruption and in the arbitrariness and violence of its politics, but Ghana, a country that had recently experienced the peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections, a country with relatively low levels of violence, less conspicuous corruption, and relatively high levels of civic participation. 

A fourth illustration of the Administration’s belief in soft power and its attempted exercise thereof was the President’s  announcement at the very outset of his term that torture and torture-like methods of interrogation were forbidden to American interrogators and his intention to close Guantanamo.  A final illustration of this current Administration’s belief in the efficacy of soft power is its reversal of the previous Administration’s overt hostility to the UN in particular and to the restraints of international law and international institutions generally.  For weaker states, however much they may themselves elide normative restraint and resist monitoring by intergovernmental organizations of their domestic behaviors, the UN and international law generally and the formal equality of states under international law represent in their minds important leverage against the powerful, leverage that in important areas such as the control of their on-shore and off-shore natural resources appears to protect them against the imperious thrust of powerful states  which in all earlier human epochs would have felt no inhibition about seizing resources in other jurisdictions.  Thus actions implying respect for the UN and international law are an invitation to cooperation resting on a conviction that the most powerful state of all can be trusted to seek solutions to common problems that will make all parties better off than if they acted on their own. 

 The sum of the matter, then, is that along two extraordinarily important dimensions for comparing the statecraft of Presidents, Barack Obama has already distinguished himself.


About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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