The central theme of Barack Obama's successful campaign for the presidency was his call for "change"—albeit often with few details. There is an imperative need for change in America's foreign policy. Even during the cold war, Washington's strategy led to security free-riding by allies and clients, caused the republic to blunder into ill-advised military crusades, most notably the Vietnam War, and imposed unnecessary financial burdens on taxpayers.
Matters have become even worse since the end of the Cold War. U.S. forces have intervened in places as diverse as Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf, and Washington's formal and informal security commitments have expanded enormously. America's strategic over-extension and muddled priorities reached new levels under George W. Bush, with the utopian goal of implanting democracy in the Middle East and other unpromising regions.
America's foreign policy cries out for drastic change, but it remains uncertain whether president-elect Obama will bring the right kind of change. Many of his foreign-policy positions are sketchy, and in those cases where he has provided details, there are as many reasons for uneasiness and skepticism as there are for hope and confidence.
He shows no willingness, for example, to reconsider Washington's commitment to the hoary North Atlantic alliance. Indeed, he advocates further expansion of NATO, including membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite the certainty of provoking Russia. Obama has praised NATO's interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton years, and he embraced the February 2008 decision to grant Kosovo independence over Moscow's vehement objections.
His attitude is most unfortunate, since many U.S. policies reek of obsolescence or misplaced priorities. For example, Obama's reflexive enthusiasm for NATO ignores mounting evidence that the alliance lacks either the cohesion or strategic rationale to play a worthwhile security role in the twenty-first century. NATO's bumbling performance in Afghanistan is only the most visible example. Worse, adding small-security clients creates dangerous liabilities for the United States as the leader of the alliance. An obligation to defend Georgia, for instance, could entangle America in the deservedly obscure dispute between Tbilisi and Moscow over the status of Georgia's secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. President Obama should ask himself how risking a confrontation with a nuclear-armed power over such meager stakes would benefit America.
It is on the issue of humanitarian intervention, though, that Obama's attitude—and that of some of his likely foreign policy appointees—is most worrisome. His article, "Renewing American Leadership," in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs included a dubious and troubling assumption. He insisted that "the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders. The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity." That assumption about the alleged indivisibility of destinies is not materially different from the sentiments that President Bush expressed in his second inaugural address: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
But that assumption is both erroneous and dangerous. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means that America can never be safe or prosperous unless the dozens of chronically misgoverned countries are (somehow) transformed into free, democratic states. That is a blueprint for endless nation-building missions and perpetual war. Given the strains created by the recent debacle in America's financial system, it is also an ambitious mission that American taxpayers can ill-afford.
Although it is hard to imagine, Obama's foreign policy could prove even worse than that of the Bush administration. He flirts with the notion that the guiding principal of U.S. foreign policy should be to promote, defend and enforce respect for "human dignity" in the world. As an operational concept, such a standard would have to improve several notches just to reach vacuous. At best, it would entail Washington becoming the nag of the planet, constantly hectoring other governments to improve their behavior. At worst, it could become an excuse for lavish foreign-aid expenditures and military interventions to protect the downtrodden in failed states or even in functioning countries with repressive regimes. Yet most of the probable arenas for such interventions entail little or no connection to America's tangible interests. Instead, this country would embark on expensive and potentially dangerous humanitarian crusades that would bleed America's armed forces and drain the treasury.
It will not be an improvement if an Obama administration withdraws American forces from Iraq only to launch new interventions in such strategically and economically irrelevant snake pits as Darfur and Burma. That is not the kind of foreign-policy change the American people want or need.
If President Obama adopts a security strategy confined to defending vital American interests, he will win—and deserve—the gratitude of the American people. If, on the other hand, he embraces a nebulous crusade to secure "human dignity" all over the world through the instruments of U.S. foreign aid and military power, he will undermine his own administration and ignite yet another round of public frustration about the unwillingness of political leaders to focus on America's best interests and well-being. That is the fundamental choice facing President Obama as he enters the Oval Office.