The world usually turns out to work differently from what American presidents expected while campaigning.
Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on domestic issues in 1932 and ran a more isolationist foreign policy for his first years in office than any of the Republican presidents elected in the 1920s. But he became aware of the threat that Adolf Hitler posed earlier than most, and changed course accordingly.
George W. Bush called for a “humble” foreign policy when he was running in 2000. But the attacks of September 11 utterly changed his priorities and policies.
Barack Obama has not had such a stark turning point. But the world certainly seems to be working differently than he expected during the 2008 campaign.
Obama expected to be greeted as a hero and champion by the peoples and governments of what Donald Rumsfeld called derisively “Old Europe,” and by leaders in the Middle East and Third World.
He thought it would matter that he “looked different” from previous presidents. But all presidents have looked different from one another, and the election of the first black president probably had more resonance to Americans than to foreigners who have less emotional connection with our history.
Obama may have been cheered by his reception in Berlin in July 2008, but he has gotten the cold shoulder from leaders of European countries old and new. Rather than hail his long opposition to military action in Iraq, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and other Europeans plunged into intervention in Libya, a bit miffed that Obama was (in the reported words of an unnamed Obama adviser) “leading from behind.”
Obama supposed that leaders of countries like Russia and China would find him, as Sarkozy might put it, a confrere. Not quite. Vladimir Putin pocketed the concessions on missile defense that Obama made in his “reset” with Russia and gave back little in return. Putin is still balking at stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.
With China, Obama has had an edgy rather than trustful relationship. His administration, like Bush’s, is trying to induce China to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs, with mixed results. And like Bush in his second term, Obama is basing policy on the so-far-forlorn hope that concessions will somehow make the horrifying North Korean dictatorship, now under a twentysomething leader, change its ways.
In his first years as president, Obama brusquely rejected the emphasis on human rights that was, in varying proportions, part of the foreign policy of every president from Jimmy Carter to the second Bush. After all, if it was Bush’s policy, it was bad.
So he coldly ignored the Green Movement against Iran’s mullahs in June 2009, and he only hesitantly has expressed sympathy with what we at least used to call the Arab Spring.
But the mullahs have shown no more fellow feeling for the first black president than for the third Texas president or his predecessors.
Our lack of engagement with the Arab Spring movement has reduced our leverage in the region. So has our sudden and abrupt withdrawal from Iraq, against military (but perhaps in accord with political) advice.
Where Obama has done better is in regions where he has followed the trajectory of Bush’s (and in some cases Bill Clinton’s) policies.
In Africa, he has continued Bush’s widely successful campaign to eradicate AIDS. But there are signs that in some African countries Bush is more popular than the president whose father was a citizen of Kenya.
In Asia, once you get east of the horrifying conundrum of Pakistan, Obama has built alliances, formal and informal, with the major countries ringing China. Foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead hails the recent and first trilateral talks between the U.S., Japan, and India as “history made.”
Obama has built on our rapprochement with India, started gingerly by Clinton and continued with gusto by Bush. Suddenly China finds itself surrounded by nations — including South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and, maybe, Burma — resisting its expansionist thrusts. Japan is buying F-35s, and Australia has agreed to host U.S. troops.
You didn’t hear Obama (or his opponents) talk much about Asia in 2008. But it has the world’s largest populations and fastest economic growth — while Old Europe struggles to avoid the collapse of the euro.
Obama’s policy there, which continued past initiatives, is a serious achievement. But not one he forecast in his 2008 campaign.