international analysis and commentary

Obama’s Domestic Foreign Policy


It has become somewhat common wisdom that President Obama’s international agenda has been superseded by his domestic one. Indeed, managing the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial meltdown, taking on the mammoth task of reforming healthcare, passing Wall Street reform, along with being seen as ‘doing something’ during the recent BP oil spill crisis, have clearly relegated international issues to the sidelines. Yet this is only part of the story.

In parallel, another development has taken place. Increasingly, foreign policy issues have taken a sharp domestic twist, with the boundaries between the national and the international progressively blurring. Take for example two key international events in recent months, such as the release of the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) this May and the substitution of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan with General David Patraeus following the Rolling Stone article this June/July. In both cases, domestic imperatives, rather than foreign policy concerns, have vividly colored the administration’s strategy.

It is true that NSSs have become generic public documents with little of strategic substance. Yet, given all the vagueness, NSSs nevertheless paint a fairly accurate portrait of a particular administration’s thinking on national security and foreign policy at a specific time and place in history. 

What is striking about Obama’s strategy is its decisive inward looking turn compared to past NSSs under the Bush Jr. and Clinton administrations – particularly, when it comes to assessing the capacity of the US to directly shape international events and outcomes to its willing. Rather than the self confident language of spreading market economies, defending human rights abroad, promoting liberal values and advancing democratic arrangements internationally, as the Clinton and Bush NSSs emphasized – albeit with different degrees – Obama’s NSS instead amply calls for “renewing American leadership” by investing and building “within our borders” in order to shape the abroad.

“At the center of our efforts is a commitment to renew our economy”, Obama’s key foreign policy document argues. Rather than by expanding free trade and open markets, this renewal passes through domestic investments in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and new sources of clean energy. When it comes to promoting liberal values, the impetus is similar. It is by “strengthening the power of our example” that the current NSS seeks to “spread freedom and democracy abroad”.  Likewise, the first security imperative is to “strengthen security and resilience at home”, followed by dismantling terrorist networks, averting the spread of nuclear weapons and so on.

This ‘domesticization’ of foreign policy has become increasingly evident also in the case of Afghanistan. The recent crisis that led to the (forced) resignation of General McChrystal, following the Rolling Stone article, has been viewed in the US principally as a matter of domestic politics. The debate on national TV and statements coming from key administration policy-makers and the President himself, revolved mainly around internal rivalries and the necessity of reasserting “civilian control” over the military.

In firing the general, Obama emphasized that this was a change in personnel not policy, arguing that “war is bigger than any one man”.  Yet it is that very same war, now the longest war in US history, which, with its frustrating lack of progress and its unclear objectives, has plainly become the problem. Not the single one man. Even the lengthy Rolling Stone piece, which caused much stir about McChrystal’s conduct, screams throughout its pages: ‘it’s the war stupid’.

How can the trend towards this sort of “domestic foreign policy” be interpreted? Two explanations can be offered. The first is one that sees an America mired in crisis – an overstretched and uncertain country, burned out by protracted wars and saddled by domestic imperatives, which slowly yet inexorably is becoming inward looking and sooner or later will revert to its most basic isolationist impulses. The second is a more cautious analysis. One that would point to profound international and domestic changes underway to which the US is responding and adapting. It is retooling itself, through trial and error, to fight the wars of the future while, in parallel, gearing up its domestic socio-economic foundations to lead the world deep into the 21st century. Only time can tell which of these two concluding analyses will be described as ‘farsighted’, and the other discarded as ‘naïve’.