Obama's Liberal Imperialism

"American diplomats don’t consider themselves diplomats in the usual sense, but rather as representatives of an empire."

To accuse President Obama of being exceptional in his refusal to embrace American exceptionalism has been a perennial staple of discourse among hawkish conservatives intent on proving that he has a proclivity for going AWOL when it comes to national security. During the 2008 election campaign, Senator John McCain, for example, accused then candidate Obama of not believing in America’s role as the world’s leader and of not pushing back hard when confronted by those in other countries who doubted America’s greatness. And Mitt Romney tried to play the same card in 2012: “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do. And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that.”

For those, like me, who would prefer our country to be more of a republic and less of an empire, and to eschew its historic global role of the “dangerous nation,” to use the characterization coined by Robert Kagan, who meant it as praise, the most obvious response to these claims is a heartfelt: “If only!”

No matter what his neocon detractors may allege, it seems clear, on the basis of his conduct in office, that when Obama campaigned on the slogan, “Change You Can Believe In,” he did not mean to mount a substantial challenge to what has been the fundamental assumption of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War—that it is up to the U.S. to lead the world and that, in the end, whether Washington has proceeded unilaterally as it did in the George W. Bush years, or multilaterally, as the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment has prescribed, the America’s view of what the global order needs to look like should be dispositive, to use a word that Vice President Biden is fond of deploying. Claims that President Obama brings shame on the United States by being too humble and too conciliatory when he goes abroad, or attempts to make heavy weather of his having supposedly bowed to the Saudi king during a visit to Riyadh, or shaking hands with Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral—a gesture Senator McCain likened to Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler—will doubtless continue to circulate among certain branches of the GOP. They refuse to accept that America’s greatness is not enhanced by constantly intervening abroad with military force. It is undermined.

What is remarkable about the Obama administration’s foreign policy is how resistant it has been to this rather basic insight. The surprising thing is not how far the administration has strayed from neocon orthodoxy. Rather, it is the extent to which it resembles that of the Bush administration. The consanguinity, you could even say, between the neocons and liberal hawks has rarely been more apparent.

Indeed, in the case of drone strikes and the expansion of the powers of the intelligence agencies, a strong case can be made that President Obama’s hawkishness is every bit the equal of his predecessor. American diplomats in the Obama era are no different from those who served presidents Clinton and Bush. As far as they are concerned, they are the masters of the universe (well, the earth anyway); in other words they have assumed without hesitation or reservation the default position of US diplomacy since the beginning of the Cold War.

Two recent episodes, minor in the broader scheme of things, and perhaps with a bit more low comedy than is usual, have been emblematic of this. The first was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (interestingly, she is married to Robert Kagan) whose leaked phone conversation in which she while discussing with the US ambassador to Ukraine who should be installed in the place of the country’s current president, Viktor Yanukovych, derided the European Union’s less aggressive stance in supporting the opposition, and concluded “Fuck the EU.” The second was the decision by Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the United Nations, to receive two recently released members of the Russian dissident performance group, Pussy Riot, and, in turn, to use the occasion to denounce Russia’s human-rights record.

Obviously, there are differences between the two events. Ambassador Power seems to have been looking for a platform to denounce the Russian government, and seems to have thought that, in doing so, she had done a good day’s work in the service of her country. In contrast, Assistant Secretary Nuland imagined her conversation to be private, and when it came out, though she tried to laugh it off, she was apparently obliged to make a number of phone calls to her European counterparts to smooth things over. As the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, remarked “the term ‘diplomat’ and [Nuland’s] choice of words actually stand in contradiction to each other.”