obama palm crop
By Kevin Blachford Contributor September 19, 2011

The lack of a clear, uniting purpose in American foreign policy has many doubting President Obama’s leadership.

America is a country that likes its foreign policy to reflect its ideals. From its origins as a nation the American people have always followed a strong ideology as a guide to the nation’s foreign policy goals. Past presidents have relied on impassioned ideas to guide American foreign policy. From James Monroe to George W. Bush, strong presidents have been able to use their own vision of America’s future to shape foreign policies and leave a lasting influence on global affairs. When Barack Obama was elected president, he inherited the unenviable task of dealing with financial deficits, economic turmoil, and two conflicts in which the American military appeared to be stuck in a quagmire.

President Obama was elected on a message of hope and change. His vision of a better America was an emotive message to millions of Americans who had become disillusioned with the interventionist policies of the previous administration. Obama’s message of change extended to his administration’s foreign policy. John Ikenberry summarized the tenets of Obama’s foreign policy as “emphasizing alliances, partnerships, multilateralism, great power forbearance and democratic community”. Early in Obama’s presidency he made landmark speeches in Egypt, Prague, and Indonesia that set out his foreign policy agenda.

It has been clear that Obama has concentrated his foreign policy goals on renouncing the unilateral position of the Bush Administration, which was widely seen by the rest of the world as aggressive and provocative. Obama’s open approach and renewal of commitments and cooperation on the international stage was seen as a step forward for American foreign policy. The decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize early into his first term as president was a recognition of Obama’s approach to international relations rather than for any particular foreign policy achievement. While Obama’s multilateral approach represented a conscious decision to break away from the foreign policy of George W. Bush, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Obama’s foreign policy lacks a coherent grand strategy. The anti-Bush position was the right approach for the early days of the Obama administration; the failure to back up this approach with a follow up strategy and coherent position is beginning to receive increasing criticism.

Admittedly, the Obama administration has faced unprecedented challenges including economic turmoil, the Arab Spring uprisings, an Iranian nuclear program, growing tensions in the South China Sea, and climate change. None of these challenges has simple solutions; they are issues that could perhaps remain unresolved for many years. The Arab Spring uprisings are one of the biggest upheavals in generations, but the response of the Obama administration has been described as a “largely ad-hoc policy that reacts to events, rather than trying to shape them.” At the end of World War II, America launched the Marshall Plan, a grand scale effort of reconstruction, to secure the growth of democracy and foster western-friendly nations as a buffer against the Soviet Union. But in dealing with the Arab Spring, there have not been any policies comparable to the Marshall Plan to help secure burgeoning democracies in the Middle East and North Africa.

While the consequences of the Arab uprisings are yet to be seen, political commentators are increasingly leveling criticism at the Obama administration’s lack of foreign policy vision. Niall Ferguson, an outspoken academic, has criticized Obama’s lack of foreign policy vision by declaring that Obama’s approach is “a succession of speeches saying, in essence, ‘I am not George W. Bush’ [which] is no substitute for a strategy”.

Continued criticism of Obama’s lack of grand strategy for America will further hinder Obama’s chances of re-election. The American public has long been susceptible to grand visions and ideals, and Obama’s lack of a grand strategy has led to criticism from academics and public figures alike. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl has criticized the lack of Obama’s grand strategy; Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate, has also raised doubts regarding Obama’s foreign policy failures; and Thomas M. Skypek, a defense analyst, has even created a blog called Hope is Not a Foreign Policy aimed directly at criticizing Obama’s foreign policy strategy.

Obama needs to set out easily accessible values and interests that define the American position before the administration’s critics define a strategy for him. America is still the world’s dominant nation and the world still looks to America for leadership. A grand strategy is not the answer to all foreign policy issues, but it provides an explanation for policy choices and allows America to define clear lines of interest and intent that provide a foundation for continued leadership to the rest of the world.

Photo courtesy of Justin Sloan via Flickr.