Home The Washington Diplomat July 2008 Obama’s Worldly Background Imprints Foreign Policy Views

Obama’s Worldly Background Imprints Foreign Policy Views


Although critics call Barack Obama a foreign policy novice, an examination of his life reveals extensive first-hand experience with the world abroad and its challenges. Indeed, given Obama’s youth in Indonesia, repeated pilgrimages to Africa, and visit to the former Soviet Union as an Illinois senator, the newly crowned Democratic presidential candidate can claim more personal experience with foreign cultures than most previous U.S. presidents.


The title of Obama’s autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” would seem to indicate that his biggest family influence on his life was his mysterious Kenyan namesake. Yet it is his mother, Ann Dunham, who may reveal more about the worldview Obama would take to the White House, and indeed, Obama has said that much of who he is today has been shaped by his mother’s upbringing.

A Midwestern girl with a progressive mind and wandering soul, Dunham embraced foreign cultures through decades of work on third world challenges. The New York Times recently gave this succinct but revealing rundown of Dunham’s life:“In Hawaii, she married an African student at age 18. Then she married an Indonesian, moved to Jakarta, became an anthropologist, wrote an 800-page dissertation on peasant blacksmithing in Java, worked for the Ford Foundation, championed women’s work and helped bring microcredit to the world’s poor.”

Obama wrote admiringly in “Dreams” that his mother “traveled the world, working in distant villages of Asia and Africa, helping women buy a sewing machine or a milk cow or an education that might give them a foothold in the world economy.”

In “Obama: From Promise to Power,” author David Mendell described Dunham as “an idealist, who refused to see the flaws in humankind even as they were strewn before her … she had a great attraction to other cultures and not just to study them but to live among them.”

And she took young Barack along for the ride, no doubt imbuing him with some of her idealism about the third world’s potential.


Following her divorce from Obama’s absentee father, Dunham married an Indonesian and moved with her 6-year-old son to Jakarta in 1967, two years after Gen. Suharto’s military coup and purge of communists resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. It is clear from Obama’s memoirs that his childhood in Indonesia laid the groundwork for a multicultural outlook on life.

“I went to local Indonesian schools and ran the streets with the children of farmers, servants, tailors and clerks,” he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” calling it “a joyous time, full of adventure and mystery — days of chasing down chickens and running from water buffalo, nights of shadow puppets and ghost stories and street vendors bringing delectable sweets to our door.”

But he also witnessed the ravages of third world life: disease, drought and floods, with little infrastructure to help the poorest cope. Obama wrote in “Dreams” of seeing “the poverty, the corruption … the constant scramble for security” that “bred a relentless skepticism.”

At the same time, Obama appreciated the security from such hardships that being an American provided, and he reveled in trips to the American Club, with its pool, Cokes, and cartoons. “All this, I knew, was part of my heritage which set me apart, for my mother and I were citizens of the United States, beneficiaries of its power, safe and secure under the blanket of its protection,” he wrote in “Audacity.”

Yet Obama also noticed American arrogance toward Indonesians, even among his mother’s coworkers at the U.S. Embassy. He wrote in “Dreams” that his mother responded by encouraging him to embrace local culture and “disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad.” Echoes from those lessons can be heard in Obama’s current calls for less unilateralism and greater U.S. engagement with both allies and adversaries.

Obama has returned to Indonesia a few times since he left at age 10, noting the country’s shift toward “militant, fundamentalist Islam” and recalling that his last visit took place on a beach in Bali close to where terrorist bombings in 2002 killed more than 200 people.

“Indonesia feels more distant now than it did thirty years ago,” he wrote in “Audacity.” “I fear it’s becoming a land of strangers….Yet in many ways Indonesia serves as a metaphor for the world beyond our borders.” Reflecting perhaps a broader view of democracy’s limits, he added that Indonesia’s recent history demonstrates how “in the short term, at least, democratization may lay bare, rather than alleviate, ethnic hatreds and religious divisions — and that the wonders of globalization might also facilitate economic volatility, the spread of pandemics, and terrorism.”


Obama has written that he “came of age during the Reagan presidency,” criticizing the 40th president’s policies in Central America and on apartheid in South Africa as a student of international affairs at Columbia University. Yet in that time Obama also recalled debates with fellow progressive students that were a precursor to his recent praise for Reagan on the campaign trail.

Obama was struck by the progressives’ failure to condemn Soviet repression. He also rejected their blame of U.S. multinational companies and international trade rules for world poverty, and said that Reagan’s military buildup seemed “sensible” given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. “Pride in our country, respect for our armed services, a healthy appreciation for the dangers beyond our borders, an insistence that there was no easy equivalence between East and West — in this I had no quarrel with Reagan,” he wrote in “Dreams.”

Obama even experimented with joining the Reagan-era Wall Street boom. His first job after graduating was with a New York consulting firm, where he worked as a researcher and writer on global business issues for multinational corporate clients.The job introduced him to a heady world of Japanese financiers and German bond traders. Although Obama toyed with making a career of it, global capitalism’s rougher aspects ultimately turned him off and he quit to become a community organizer.


Obama grew up with nagging questions about his absent Kenyan father and his African heritage. On his first visit to relatives in Kenya, his ancestral homeland, Obama felt an instant connection he had been missing his whole life. Upon arriving at the airport in Nairobi, even strangers recognized his name.

“For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide,” he wrote in “Dreams.” “My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.”

The trip and subsequent ones also educated Obama on the endemic tribalism and corruption in Africa, as cousins described struggles to get a job or start their own business without paying bribes.

Those stories made a lasting impression: During his 2006 visit as a senator to Kenya, Obama confronted President Mwai Kibaki about the country’s corruption and the influence of ethnicity in Kenyan politics and government. Obama later highlighted this issue in legislation to make million in aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo contingent on the country making progress on good governance.


Obama was no sooner elected to the U.S. Senate than he was appointed to the Foreign Relations Committee’s Africa subcommittee and plans were made for a tour-de-force visit of the continent in 2006 — a trip he said would dem•onstrate the connection between America’s fate and Africa’s. Obama acknowledged in an inter•view with the Chicago Sun-Times “a special interest in these issues,” and of the nine foreign policy issues highlighted by his Senate Web site, five focus on Africa.

As noted by author Mendell, the trip bore remarkable resemblance to Robert F. Kennedy’s historic 1966 trip to South Africa, also made two years after his election to the Senate and two years before his own run for the White House. Like Kennedy, Obama went to South Africa and spoke out against the government’s policies. Where Kennedy railed then against apartheid, Obama criticized South Africa’s lack of action on HIV/AIDS prevention.And although his remarks drew media attention, they won him no friends, with South African President Thabo Mbeki pointedly declining to meet with Obama.

It wasn’t Obama’s first experience publicly criticizing the South African government — he helped lead a student campaign at Occidental College in Los Angeles that called for the school to divest from South Africa because of its apartheid policies. Indeed, Obama commented during his 2006 visit that “if it wasn’t for some of the activities that happened here, I might not be involved in politics.”

Obama also used the trip to spotlight one of the continent’s toughest problems: genocide in Darfur. Shunned by Sudan’s leaders, Obama instead traveled to Chad to speak with refugees from Sudan’s ethnic civil war.There, he echoed his previous calls for more action by the United Nations as well as the United States, and his campaign Web site highlights legislative work to provide U.S. aid to African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.

Obama’s return to Kenya (his first as a celebrity) brought a firestorm of attention, with his speeches carried live on national television and a play produced of his memoirs — even a beer was named after him. In contrast to the blow-offs he received from South Africa and Sudan, Kenya’s leaders embraced him. In addition to meeting with Kibaki, opposition leader Raila Odinga held an impromptu rally for him.

Obama clearly sees a personal role in helping Africa attack its problems. For example, he is honoring his mother’s work by funding a micro-credit program in Kenya that helps women who adopt children with AIDS to start their own businesses. He and wife Michelle also took a public AIDS test in Kenya, an act that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted would inspire tens of thousands of otherwise resistant Kenyans to take the test.

Obama has also indicated that as president he would push U.S. pharmaceutical companies to increase access to antiviral drugs for Africans fighting HIV/AIDS and reduce trade barriers to help Africans do more business in the United States. And his campaign site pledges he will open more U.S. consulates “in the tough and hopeless corners of the world — particularly in Africa.”

Yet for all the adulation and personal connection to Kenya and Africa, Obama keeps his ancestral homeland at somewhat of a distance. “Kenya is not my country, it’s the country of my father,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “I feel a connection, but ultimately, it’s not going to be me. It’s going to be them who are climbing a path to improving their new lives.”


Although Obama already came to the Senate with ample experience abroad, he was clearly a novice in Washington’s world of foreign policy and national security mandarins. So he jumped at the chance to travel with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to Russia and Ukraine in 2005 to check on agreements aimed at safeguarding nuclear, biological and conventional weapons. It also gave his ego a reality check: On this trip, it was Lugar, not him, who was the “rock star.” Lugar’s previous visits and work on nonproliferation issues allowed him to cruise through security checkpoints, while Obama was frequently asked for ID.

The trip demonstrated how lightly weapons of mass destruction such as anthrax are guarded at ex-Soviet facilities, prompting Obama to call them “the greatest threat to the security of the United States.” He has also pushed to secure conventional weapons, warning they could “leak out and travel the world, fueling insurgencies and violent conflicts from Africa to Afghanistan.”

Obama’s work on these issues has been distinctly bipartisan; along with Lugar, he joined Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) in passing laws to aid nonproliferation programs. In addition, he has pledged as president to convene a bipartisan congressional group to advise him on foreign policy and military action. Indeed, it is not too far a stretch to speculate that because he lived largely outside the ideological warfare that has characterized U.S. foreign policy since the 1980s, Obama is more predisposed than most politicians to reinstate the idea of politics stopping at the water’s edge.

Yet it is Obama’s lack of experience in a crucial part of the world — the Middle East — where partisan lines will likely be drawn in the upcoming national campaign.Although he traveled to Iraq, Israel and the West Bank in January 2006 as part of a congressional delegation, Obama spent less that two days in Iraq and hasn’t returned since. That fact was recently used by Republican nominee John McCain to prove Obama’s inexperience on Iraq, and voters can look forward to more of the same in the months to come.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.