Barack Obama as Woodrow Wilson's Foreign Policy Heir

By Robert Kagan
Sunday, June 7, 2009

President Obama likes to see himself as a pragmatist, but in foreign policy he is proving to be a supreme idealist of the Woodrow Wilson variety.

Like Wilson's, Obama's foreign policy increasingly seems to rest on the assumption that nations will act on the basis of what they perceive to be the goodwill, good intentions or moral purity of other nations, in particular the United States. If other nations have refused to cooperate with us, it is because they perceive the United States as aggressive or evil. Obama's job is to change that perception. From the outreach to Iran and to Muslims, to the call for eliminating all nuclear weapons, to the desire for a "reset" in relations with Russia, the central point of Obama's diplomacy is that America is, suddenly, different. It has changed. It is better. It is time, therefore, for other nations to cooperate.

But how has America changed? Obama's policies toward Iran, the Middle East, Russia, North Korea, China, Latin America, Afghanistan and even Iraq have at most shifted only at the margins -- as many in those countries repeatedly complain. So what, for instance, is the source of the "new beginning" in U.S.-Muslim relations that Obama called for in Cairo?

The answer, it seems, is Obama himself. In the speech, The Post reports, "Obama made his own biography the starting point for a new U.S. relationship with Islam." Or as the New York Times put it, while "the president offered few details on how to solve problems around the globe," his basic argument "boiled down to this: Barack Hussein Obama was standing on the podium in this Muslim capital as the American president."

Critics complain that Obama's speeches are too self-referential. If so, this is not a mark of vanity. It is a strategy. Obama believes that his story is a powerful foreign policy tool, that drawing attention to what makes him different, not only from George W. Bush but from all past American presidents, will persuade the world to take a fresh look at America and its policies and make new diplomatic settlements possible.

In Cairo, he emphasized his Muslim heritage to show Muslims around the world that he empathizes with them as no previous American president possibly could. His apologies for America's past behavior also highlight his uniqueness. He is not the first president to apologize. Wilson apologized to the peoples of the Western Hemisphere for the interventionist policies of his Republican predecessors (only to outdo them with his own interventions). Bill Clinton apologized to Africans for America's history of slavery. But Clinton accepted responsibility for America's sins as if they were his own.

Obama, on the other hand, does distance himself from America's past sins. His response to Daniel Ortega's long recitation of U.S. misdeeds in Latin America was to point out that he personally had nothing to do with them -- "I was three months old." When he admits American sins in relations with Iran, he wants Iran's revolutionary leaders to distinguish between America, which they hate, and America's new president, whom they can like and with whom they can do business.

Can this work even without fundamental change in the conduct and parameters of U.S. foreign policy? Obama obviously hopes so. Take the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obama calls for a freeze on settlements, but the question for many Arabs and Palestinians is what he will do to force Israel to comply with his demands. Will he cut off aid? The answer is almost certainly no. But Obama must believe that the expression of his good intentions is enough.

Or take Obama's declared desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Of course he admits that he cannot make this happen. But he believes that by agreeing with American critics that the present American-dominated order is unjust, he can buy the international goodwill necessary to end Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Finally, Guantanamo. Who knows when Obama will be able to close it, what he will be able to put in its place or whether, ultimately, he will be able to strike a fundamentally different balance between American security and the legal rights of detainees than was struck by Bush or by previous presidents in times of perceived national security threats? It probably won't be all that different. But Obama hopes that by displaying earnestness to change American practices, he can build an image of greater moral authority and that this in turn will produce diplomatic results that have hitherto eluded us.

It is conceivable that this theory may prove correct. Certainly, it will soon be tested. But let us not call it realism. The last president who sincerely pursued this approach was Woodrow Wilson. He, too, believed that the display of evident goodwill and desire for peace, uncorrupted by the base motives of national interest or ambition, gave him the special moral authority to sway other nations. And Wilson was as beloved around the globe as Obama is today, possibly more beloved, at least for a moment. Millions took to the streets in the great cities of Europe when he crossed the Atlantic in 1918. His gifts to persuade, however, proved ephemeral, and the results of his efforts were, from his own perspective, an utter failure. Not only the nations of Europe but his own United States proved more self-interested and less amenable to moral appeals. We will see whether Barack Obama, the most Wilsonian president in a century, fares better.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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