Change We Can Believe In?

To listen to Barack Obama’s speeches is to hear how his administration would break with the past. But judging by the members of his new foreign-policy working group, the Illinois senator would rather go back in time.

"Change We Can Believe In" is the slogan of the Barack Obama campaign. But looking at the composition of his "senior working group on national security," perhaps the tag line should be "going back in time." It is difficult to escape the impression that Senator Obama's vision for moving the United States forward-in terms of its foreign policy-consists of trying to reset the clock back to 2000.

Perhaps this is an unfair characterization. After all, this is a campaign organization, not an embryonic national-security team-and by reaching out, as the Senator said in his own words, to "those who were advising Senator Clinton's campaign" as well as his own, it reinforces Obama's effort to try and unify his party after a divisive primary campaign. To be able to stand with senior, distinguished former officials also helps to bolster his own credentials. But it also suggests that Senator Obama does not have an "alternate" group of foreign-policy advisors and is planning to rely heavily on the Clinton-administration apparatus when it comes to staffing a new administration.

And despite the rhetoric of change, it also seems that Senator Obama is not eager or comfortable breaking new ground when it comes to conceptualizing foreign policy. Indeed, looking at the composition of the Obama foreign-policy brain trust last year, Philip Zelikow, who served as a counselor to Condoleezza Rice, told the Chicago Tribune that Obama was not recruiting "outsiders trying to tear down the temple." This new senior group certainly reinforces Zelikow's impression of a foreign-policy team comfortable with the past status quo rather than aiming to fundamentally redesign U.S. diplomacy for the twenty-first century.

Contrast this with the Senator's economic team. Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, provided a contrast to Zelikow's description of the foreign-policy team by commenting about Obama's economic gurus, "These are people who think new thoughts …" But U.S. foreign policy is in desperate need of people prepared to think "new thoughts."

What are the "new thoughts" this "senior working group" is going to provide on foreign policy? A worrisome sign is the tendency to largely blame the Bush administration for the precipitous drop in U.S. power and influence in the world, while giving too little weight to the major structural shifts underway that are transforming the global balance of power. A new face at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January 2009 is not going to profoundly change these dynamics. I know that many of them have spoken about a "new Atlanticism"-but have they fully digested that, in many key European countries, Atlanticism is no longer defined as automatically following the lead of Washington? And what appeal does Atlanticism have to rising powers like China and the "southern democracies" like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia?

It will also be interesting to observe what advice this group may give to a presidential candidate who is also a sitting U.S. senator-meaning that Barack Obama does have some power to affect the legacies that the outgoing administration will bequeath to him. And when he tells this group that he wants to return "to a pragmatic tradition of American foreign policy which has been so ably advanced by the people in this room"-how does that transform into concrete advice? To support free trade agreements with other states, even when it can cause distress to certain segments of the U.S. economy, because this helps to build strong ties of common interest between the Untied States and other countries? That, despite all the vocal criticism of Russia's "wrong direction," Senator Obama should endorse the 123 Agreement with Russia, because this will bring the Russian nuclear industry into alignment with U.S. nonproliferation goals? That an investment treaty with China is in America's long-term best interests? Sound foreign- policy advice may give way before political calculation.

So, if "change" is being defined as "something other that President Bush and his team," Senator Obama delivers. But right now it seems that what is being offered, in terms of foreign policy, is a bridge right back to the twentieth century.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.