The foreign policy of all American presidents is a composite of what they say and what they do, what they propose and what they fight for, what they desire and what they fear.
During his six years in office, President Barack Obama has served during a time of profound global change. In speeches, interviews and press conferences, he often describes a world that is messy, menacing but also hopeful.
The president’s most recent State of the Union address, his fiscal 2016 budget and his new National Security Strategy all describe, in different ways, Obama’s perspective on this complicated world. They provide important insights into how the president views the international scene and America’s role in it. They also provide guidance about how Obama will govern during the final two years of his presidency.
During his State of the Union speech on Jan. 20, 2015, the president argued that the steadily improving American economy gives the nation a solid foundation to confront global challenges and opportunities. He promised vigorous and prudent American leadership.
“My first duty as commander-in-chief is to defend the United States of America,” Obama said to a joint session of Congress. “In doing so, the question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” he continued. “We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”
The president vowed to go after terrorists who threaten American interests and dismantle their networks, saying he reserves the right to act unilaterally if necessary to accomplish these missions. But he said it’s far better to work closely with partners. The United States, he declared, has learned painful lessons during more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq about the dangers and costs of ground wars in distant places. These lessons, the president said, will guide the nation’s fight against the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL.
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group. We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.”
The president said the nation must project its power intelligently, blending its formidable military force with shrewd and tough-minded diplomacy. “Leading, always, with the example of our values. That’s what makes us exceptional. That’s what keeps us strong. That’s why we have to keep striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards — our own.”
A little more than a week after his State of the Union address, Obama presented his new budget for the 2016 fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, 2015, and extends until Sept. 30, 2016. In it, the president proposes spending $3.99 trillion and raising $3.53 trillion in revenues, resulting in a deficit of $474 billion. The federal budget deficit has fallen sharply during Obama’s presidency from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to less than $500 billion now. (The Congressional Budget Office recently said that under Obama’s plan, the deficit would fall to $380 billion in 2016 and reach a total 10-year deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion, somewhat less than the president’s projections.)
A striking feature of Obama’s budget is his proposal to rewrite the 2011 Budget Control Act’s strictures on discretionary spending. The law, negotiated by Obama and Congress, places tight caps for almost a decade on both defense and domestic discretionary programs. The cuts, otherwise known as sequestration, total $1.2 trillion over 10 years and cover those programs that are funded each year by the 12 appropriations bills that Congress must pass and the president must sign into law.
On the heels of steady and strong economic growth in recent years, Obama has called for replacing “mindless austerity with smart investments.” For the coming fiscal year, his budget proposes to exceed the spending caps by $75 billion, divided evenly between defense and non-defense programs. The budget also allocates $58 billion for a special fund in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State, called Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).
Obama is proposing $534 billion for regular defense programs and $43 billion for foreign affairs, while OCO would give an additional $51 billion for the Pentagon and $7 billion from OCO to the State Department.
A president’s budget blueprint is just that — a blueprint — and merely the starting point for tough negotiations with Congress, which controls the purse strings. Obama’s vision to boost government spending through large tax increases and reverse budget cuts is fundamentally at odds with Republicans who remain committed to shrinking the size of government.
Obama may find common cause with some GOP hawks who want to restore Pentagon spending. But on the whole, many of the president’s key proposals are likely dead in the water. That includes increasing taxes on the wealthy and multinational corporations who shelter profits overseas to finance new investments in education initiatives, infrastructure construction and middle-class tax breaks.
Obama’s budget proposal also does not address the two biggest factors driving long-term debt: Social Security and Medicare. Its deficit savings would be achieved through higher taxes, health-care savings and a comprehensive immigration bill that would legalize millions of workers — a bill that has slim changes of materializing in the current Congress.
Republicans on the House and Senate budget committees recently released their own 2016 spending proposals that call for far deeper cuts, though they too bust through the sequestration spending caps with budgetary sleights of hand. The House version would gut federal programs like food stamps, Pell Grants and Medicaid to slash $5.5 trillion in spending over a decade, while giving the Pentagon $96 billion in extra “emergency” funding next year, well above Obama’s $58 billion request. The Senate proposal is not quite as drastic, but it also aims to cut spending by $5.1 trillion over a decade while significantly boosting defense funding.
Now the wrangling to find an elusive middle ground begins. The two chambers will have to set up a conference committee to resolve their differences. If a unified budget emerges, Republicans can then enact a maneuver known as reconciliation, which could tack on provisions such as repealing ObamaCare, setting up a presidential veto and another potential budget showdown later this year.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing lawmakers to fund Obama’s diplomatic efforts given the global crises that have been piling up.
In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 24, Kerry highlighted several specific features of the administration’s request: $3.5 billion to battle the Islamic State, address the crisis in Syria, bolster regional security and respond to humanitarian emergencies in Iraq and Syria; $3.1 billion for Israel; $639 million for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to bolster their democracies and help them resist Russia; $1.4 billion to support rebalancing to the Asian-Pacific region; $1 billion to address the underlying causes of illegal migration from Central America; $5.4 billion to finance international organizations and peacekeeping efforts; $3.4 billion for programs for Afghanistan and Pakistan; $4.8 billion for embassy security; $1.2 billion for public diplomacy and exchanges; $8.2 billion for global health programs; $808 million for clean energy and to curb the impact of climate change; $978 million for the Feed the Future program; $390 million for the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund; and over $2 billion for democracy, human rights and governance programs.
In his testimony, Kerry described a global order that is “marked both by stark tragedy and by great promise.” He added: “America must lead, but cannot do so on the cheap. The money we devote to the entire range of foreign policy programming, everything from embassy security to our counterterrorism and nonproliferation initiatives, amounts to only about 1 percent of the federal budget, yet it may impact 50 percent of history that will be written about this era.”
He said the State Department is taking the diplomatic lead in assembling the global alliance against the Islamic State and claimed the coalition has halted the group’s momentum. Kerry also said the administration has supported Ukraine’s recently elected government against illegal intervention by Moscow and attacks from the armed separatists that Russia supports. And he touted sanctions targeting Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors and said they have “imposed a clear cost on the Russian economy and brought Kremlin leaders back to the bargaining table.”
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter took several trips to Capitol Hill to defend the president’s defense budget. Carter said there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States on a defense strategy that is based on protecting the homeland, building global security and projecting power to defend U.S. interests. America’s strategic priorities, Carter said, are to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region; maintain a strong commitment to security and stability in Europe and the Middle East; sustain global counterterrorism efforts; strengthen key alliances and partnerships; and modernize the military.
He emphasized the need for lawmakers to adjust the spending cap that limits spending for defense programs, saying he can’t implement important aspects of the administration’s strategy with current mandatory spending limits. He argued that America’s “friends and potential enemies around the world are watching” to see how the defense budget is written.
Carter was for the most part preaching to the choir. Given that the White House, Senate and House have all pushed to raise defense spending, this is one area of the budget that will likely escape the sequestration chopping block.
Perhaps the broadest expression of Obama’s foreign policy vision is contained in his new National Security Strategy. The NSS is required by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and charges each administration to issue a national security strategy annually. From 1987 through 2000, an NSS was submitted every year except in 1989 to 1992. The George W. Bush administration submitted two NSS documents in 2002 and 2006. Obama released his first NSS in May of 2010 and then offered his second NSS this February.
Obama’s new NSS identifies America’s “enduring national interests” as protecting the security of the homeland, U.S. citizens, allies and partners; ensuring a strong, innovative and growing economy in an open international system; promoting respect for universal values at home and around the world; and a defending a rules-based international order guided by American leadership.
The NSS says the United States must prioritize efforts that address the top strategic risks the nation faces. These risks are catastrophic attacks on the homeland and critical infrastructure; threats or attacks against American citizens abroad and its allies; global economic crises or major economic disruptions; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the spread of severe global infectious diseases; climate change; major energy market disruptions; and the security consequences associated with weak or failing states.
Obama’s strategic plan argues that the nation’s foreign policy can’t be captured by a phrase or sound bite and must be mindful of the complexity of the international terrain. “This strategy eschews orienting our entire foreign policy around a single threat or region. It establishes instead a diversified and balanced set of priorities appropriate for the world’s leading global power with interest in every part of an increasingly interconnected world.”
In his transmittal letter for the NSS, Obama said America’s strong economy and withdrawal from the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are positive developments that position the nation for the future. But he said serious threats still hover on the horizon: terrorism, cybersecurity, Russian aggression, climate change and outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“We must be clear-eyed about these and other challenges and recognize the United States has a unique capability to mobilize and lead the international community to meet them,” he said. “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”
Obama said the United States continues to lead from a “position of strength,” but has to “make hard choices among many competing priorities and must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.” The president said that while the nation must be aware of, and responsive to, the dangers it faces, the face of American diplomacy and international engagement should be positive and confident. “I believe that America leads best when we draw upon our hopes rather than our fears,” he declared.
That philosophy of “strategic patience,” whether it comes to Russia, Iran, Syria or Cuba, consistently draws rebukes from Republicans who call Obama’s leadership style hesitant, indecisive and accommodating. But Obama has made it clear that he is out to play the long game of advancing American interests, and Washington must be careful not to respond immediately and reflexively to every crisis and headline that comes its way.
“The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence. They require us to take our responsibilities seriously and make the smart investments in the foundations of our national power. Therefore, I will continue to pursue a comprehensive agenda that draws on all elements of our national strength, that is attuned to the strategic risks and opportunities we face,” he argued in his NSS.
On an ambitiously optimistic note, considering the partisan acrimony that has marked his last six years in office, the president insisted his strategic agenda is achievable, “especially if we proceed with confidence and if we restore the bipartisan center that has been a pillar of strength for American foreign policy in decades past.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.