Obama One Year Later: A Foreign Policy Report Card

So it’s one year into the Obama Presidency, and everyone is panicking thanks to yesterday’s results in Massachusetts.  But before Democrats start putting up the barricades, they should take a moment to realize how much this President has achieved in his first year of office. 

In no area is this more true than in foreign policy, where Obama has managed to change the way the United States engages the rest of the world.  In contrast to the Bush Administration, which tried to dictate terms, Obama has recognized the limits of American power and the potential of American leadership.  Or as he put it in his inaugural address, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

The reality is that the United States needs the rest of the world as much as the rest of the world needs American leadership.  When it comes to terrorism, climate change, trafficking, human rights abuses, and a range of other issues, no one country can solve the world’s problems on its own.  Obama intuitively understands this reality, and has charted a foreign policy that maintains American leadership while jettisoning American arrogance and unilateralism.

In doing so, Obama has framed his approach as one consistent with past Presidents, Republican and Democratic alike.  Again, from the inaugural address:

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.  We are the keepers of this legacy.

What Obama has done is pursue a foreign policy based on sound strategic principles and coherent tactics.  It has emphasized both innovation and results, rewarding creativity and encouraging critical thinking.  Realism has trumped ideology, and principles have trumped “interests.” Call it pragmatic idealism, if you must apply a label.

This approach is not unprecedented in American history.  It represents a vision not unlike that of the first Bush Administration (which helps explain why a number of G.H.W. Bush’s senior foreign policy advisors either endorsed Obama or remained on the sidelines).  It also reflects the creativity and flexibility of the postwar Truman Administration, which, under the leadership of men like George Marshall and Dean Acheson, had to build new foreign policy and national security institutions virtually from scratch.

It therefore is possible that, to use Acheson’s famous phrase, we are once again “present at the creation” of a new paradigm, one that focuses on what the United States can do for the world, not what the world can do for the United States.  Thanks to the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Haiti, it will take more time than originally envisioned.  But in the end, Obama has the opportunity to remake the way the United States pursues its interests in the world.

Let’s take a moment, however, to review (and grade) a few of the key components of Obama’s policies before assigning an overall grade.

Public Diplomacy:  perhaps the single greatest achievement of Obama’s young presidency is the way he’s changed how the rest of the world looks at the United States.  From his Cairo speech to his Nobel aceptance speech in Oslo, Obama has framed the U.S. role in a way that is more consistent with our values and our founding principles.  No matter what you may think of the outcome of his policies, the rhetoric has been a tremendous success.  Grade:  A+

Leadership Team:  Contrary to some pundits, Obama’s “team of rivals” has proven to be not only capable of working closely together, but quite good at it.  Hillary Clinton has proved to be an inspired choice as Secretary of State, and Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense has gone a long way toward depoliticizing the debate on Iraq and Afghanistan.  Vice President Biden has played an important and constructive role in debates on Afghanistan, helping to ensure that the Administration considered all options before making a decision.  National Security Advisor Jim Jones, despite some early stories questioning his role, has proven to be a quiet leader.  The only negative here is the overly long delay in appointing a USAID Administrator.  But even there, if his response to the crisis in Haiti is any indicator, the Administration has found a superstar in the making in Rajiv Shah.  Grade:  A

Afghanistan:  The Administration moved too quickly to get a policy in place, and in its haste did not think through the implications of its stated plans.  Fortunately it recognized that mistake and implemented a thorough and exhaustive policy review that produced a revised approach that focuses on counterinsurgency without overcommitting the United States to a decades-long struggle.  Many of Obama’s supporters (including many Care2 readers) were disgusted with Obama’s ultimate decision, but in my mind it was the only realistic approach.  Obama has to prosecute a necessary war made into an unnecessary mess by his unpopular predecessor. As I noted at the time of Obama’s West Point speech, this is now Obama’s war.  It doesn’t matter that Bush got us into it.  It only matters how (and when) the President manages to get us out.  Grade:  B+

Iraq: Luck has played a bigger role than policy in Iraq.  Despite continued violence, the country is in far better shape than it was three years ago, and barring a meltdown during or after the March elections, the troop drawdown should continue as planned.  That said, many of the underlying political disputes (Sunni vs. Shiite, Kurd vs. center, etc.) remain unresolved, and if any of them blow, Obama’s entire foreign policy agenda will get dragged down as a result.  Grade:  B

Human Rights:  A mixed bag.  Obama stopped the Bush administration’s torture policies and pledged to close Guantanamo within a year.  Although the latter has not happened, it’s still likely.  Although the President’s rhetoric on human rights has been strong, his actions have not matched it.  The Administration was largely silent during Iran’s Green Revolution (although it did issue a strong statement during the recent violence), and Hillary’s statement that human rights cannot play a central role in the U.S.-China relationship was particularly damaging.  Human rights activists also have been dismayed at the Administration’s tendency to engage abusive regimes (e.g. Burma and Cuba).  Grade:  B-

Pakistan:  Contrary to popular belief, Pakistan policy — rather than Iraq or Afghanistan — was the single biggest mess Obama inherited.  It’s not just that Islamists are gaining traction there, or that the Pakistan intelligence service is dominated by those who see fundamentalism as a useful policy tool; it’s not just that the Zadari Administration is weak, corrupt, and teetering, or that the government views everything through the lens of its relationship with India.  The biggest problem is that there is little that Obama (or any President) can do to fix what’s wrong.  That said, Obama has done the best he can under utterly impossible circumstances.  Grade:  B

Middle East Peace Process:  Despite the Administration’s sincere efforts to make progress on a Middle East peace, the intransigence of the Netanyahu Administration in Israel and the weakness of the Abbas Administration in the Palestinian Authority has made it nearly impossible to move the ball forward.  The Administration’s decision to oppose the Goldstone report further weakened Abbas without producing any movement by Netanyahu.  And distractions elsewhere have not helped.  Grade:  C- (B for effort, D- for results)

Iran:  Obama has demonstrated a willingness to talk to the Iranians on its nuclear program, but the intransigence of the Ahmedinejad regime has made any compromise difficult if not impossible.  The Green Revolution has further complicated the Administration’s approach, and it has not consistently spoken out in support of those putting their lives on the line to push for genuine democratic change there.  Grade:  C

North Korea:  Obama’s approach is much more consistent than his two predecessors, but it’s hard to accomplish anything when your opposite is a raving lunatic who may or may not be incapacitated from a stroke.  Grade:  B+

Latin America (excluding Haiti):  Like his predecessor, Obama has been distracted by other issues, meaning no clear or consistent approach to Latin America.  The rhetorical war with Chavez has cooled a bit, and the Administration has made some gestures toward improving the U.S. relationship (or non-relationship) with Cuba.  But those relatively minor issues have overshadowed the two big challenges facing the Administration:  how to strengthen its relationship with a rising and increasingly confident Brazil; and how to cope with the narco-ification of Mexico.  Grade:  C-

Haiti:  Still too early to tell.  Initial response has been heartfelt, albeit less coordinated than I would have liked to have seen.  Grade:  Incomplete

Africa (excluding Somalia):  Other than Obama’s June speech, Africa has not received much attention from the Administration.  Grade:  Incomplete

Terrorism:  the growth and decentralization of al Qaeda has been one of the Administration’s biggest challenges, and despite the Republican’s rhetoric in the aftermath of the underwear bomber, the reality is that the Obama team has done extraordinarily well both in terms of preventing terrorist attacks and decapitating the various groups’ leadership (with the exception, of course, of Osama).  Want perspective?  Every day, there are roughly 35,000 commercial flights in the United States.  That means in the year since Obama was inaugurated, there have been 13.5 million commercial flights.  And one attempted terrorist attack (which, we should remember, failed).  Grade:  A

Climate Change:  Copenhagen was not even remotely the success that everyone had hoped for, but let’s not forget that had Bush still been President, it would have been an unmitigated disaster.  The Administration has helped move the Chinese government away from its intransigence, and perhaps more importantly, is now regarded as a partner rather than an obstacle.  Grade:  B+

Nukes:  Obama has played an extraordinary role pushing for nuclear arms reduction, but so far he has had little success.  Nonetheless, he deserves credit for highlighting the issue and remaining committed to making it happen.  Grade:  A 

China:  Perhaps the biggest challenge facing this or any Administration — how do you balance the need to bring China on board on a number of issues, the utterly interconnectedness of the U.S. and Chinese economies, and the reality that the current government in China is a repressive dictatorship?  The Obama team has tried, not always successfully, to navigate these waters, and for the most part has gotten China to cooperate when it counts.  That said, it has done so at the cost of its rhetoric on human rights and its commitment to supporting the Dalai Lama.  Grade:  B-

Russia:  Another mixed bag.  The Administration needs Russia to play ball on nuclear arms reduction and Iran.  The jury is still out as to whether it has succeeded.  That said, the relationship is better than it was when Obama came into office (despite the “reset button” fiasco), but it is by no means warm. Grade:  B

Europe:  They don’t hate us nearly as much as they did a year ago.  And sometimes they like us.  And despite French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s occasional rhetorical bombs, the Europeans have cooperated with the Administration on a range of important issues.  Grade:  A

Japan:  A wild card.  The new Hatoyama Administration has proven to be quite prickly, and has clashed with the United States over the question of relocation of an American military base on Okinawa.  Both sides could benefit from a cooling off period, but it’s unlikely that Hatoyama will change Japan’s close relationship with the United States.  Given the fact that much of this is the product not of anything the Obama team has done but rather internal Japanese politics, the Administration can be faulted only for not anticipating that Okinawa would prove to be a bigger problem than expected.  Grade:  B

United Nations:  The United States no longer has an Ambassador who wants to knock the top ten stories off the UN building.  Need I say more?  Grade:  A

Final Grade:  Although the Administration’s policies have not been a resounding success across the board, its successful reorienting of overall policy away from the bluster and exceptionalism of the Bush Administration should not be underestimated.  That alone ensures not just a passing mark, but a superior one.  Grade:  A-

So what grade would you give the Administration?  And what did I miss?

Obama in Cairo, June 2009.  White House photo, via its Flickr photostream.  Public domain.
Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the host of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture.  You also can follow him on Twitter.


Ellinor S.
Ellinor S7 years ago

thank you

Charlie Brown
Charles J Brown8 years ago

Everyone, thanks so much for the comments, and thanks to (almost) all of you who kept it civil. I'd like to add one quick question to the debate -- what did you think of Obama's policy on Honduras? Given the ultimate result -- a free and fair election -- and the fact that the Administration refused to recognize the coup regime, it turned out pretty well. I'd give it a B , with the one downside being the time it took to resolve things.

Paul Puckett
Paul Puckett8 years ago

Ellen, there is always hope! But it may lie more with us, than with the government.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Ellen Richardson
Ellen Richardson8 years ago

From a wild life conservation standpoint, Obama and his two imps Salazar & Vilsak have continued and expanded on the war on wildlife of the Bush administration.There are no real advocates for wild life and habitat preservation is this administration.

Is there any hope anywhere?

Jo H.
Jo Houston8 years ago

By its continuing financial support for Israel;by its unwillingness to condemn breach after breach of the Geneva Conventions;by its "divide and rule" policy vis a vis Hamas and Fatah and its refusal to negotiate with Hamas,a democratically elected government whose members are no more 'terrorist' than the Jews who fought the occupiers of their country in Warsaw in WW2. By its failure to condemn the continuing brutalization of the Gaza population, and its failure,overall, to act decisively in the M.E.Peace process,America is complicit in the destruction of the Palestinian people. Where are all of the values and principles of which you speak in this article? More rhetoric,or do you need a second revolution to restore the values of the first? Grade FAIL -in the Middle East.

Johnathon K.
Johnathon K.8 years ago

What a silly biased one dimensional article based on an ideology . He's moving troops around between Iraq and Afganistan , fighting to maintain their military bases for central bank cartel globalism , but its a good thing right? Most of the factions of the Taliban and Al Qaeda are under the control of the CIA and MI6 , but its a good thing Obamas fighting a fake war for war profiteers, right? Pathetic

Melinda D.
Past Member 8 years ago

How can you give him an A in terrorism with the planes that have been rerouted recently?

Bora S.
Bora Salama8 years ago

2nd attempt, didn't post first time

If you were expecting CHANGE as far as the Middle East is concerned watch this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=033gCiurxbg and hear the American taxpayers' billions being promised to prop up what is most probably the world's greatest injustice. Israel, a state created for Jewish people out of the land of the Plestinians.

Were the Orthodox Jews consulted to find out if this injustice was acceptable according to Jewish Law. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oeB3QhX2RI

Were the American people consulted to find out if they wanted their billions poured into support injustice. watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynWjYHP91gA

Were the Palestinians ever asked if they wanted Palestine to be turned into Israel, a Jewish state. Have a guess

Greenseas gone
kathryn cook8 years ago

thanks for the post

Reg B.
Reg B8 years ago

Wow. Did I read this intro right? Does Charles J. Brown pretty much think 52% of MASS population are morons?? I love the way he used the words "has EVERYONE panicking" in those first few sentences. Who, exactly, is panicking Mr. Brown? You? The minority of people, (48%), who voted Democrat?

Making up the MAJORITY of people who voted for Brown in this election I present the following:

Law professors, teachers, doctor's, mechanics, feminists, engineers, animal rights activists, diplomats, professional women, tailors, fast food workers, farmers, professional men, corporate CEO's, minorities, authors, car salesmen, homosexuals, librarians, civil rights activists, preachers, news anchors, college professors, university graduates, bee keepers & yes... even Democrats.

Do you really believe that 52% of the populace is not as concerned as you about the issues the nation faces? Do you really believe that your ideology has a 'lock' on all that is good for the world?

Special Interest groups might be "panicking", illegal immigrants might be "panicking", fringe causes & elements FAR outside the vast majority of the general populations concerns might be "panicking", but guess what? The majority spoke. In a free and democratic election.

BTW. Nice report card. No biases there. Riddled with contradiction. Obama hasn't really "achieved" anything yet. It's a tough job. No making excuses.

I give you an "A " for managing to get your own head that far up your own ass.