RIETI Report January 2009

Foreign and Security Policy under the Obama Administration

The world witnessed a historic event this month when Barack Obama became the first member of a minority racial group to be president of the United States. The media coverage of the Obama presidency has been overwhelming, yet narrowly focused on the historical significance of the fallen racial barrier. RIETI Faculty Fellow KUBO Fumiaki has taken a different look at the Obama presidency by avoiding the glare and distractions of the racial issue to focus instead on what kind of president Mr. Obama will be in terms of foreign relations and national security matters.

In this month's featured article in the RIETI Report, "Foreign and Security Policy under the Obama Administration", Professor Kubo breaks down the two major U.S. political parties into eight subcategories based on foreign policy and national security views. His methodology is insightful because the Democratic and Republican Parties have changed over the years with respect to these areas. For example, the Republican Party has only recently emerged as the strongest party in terms of foreign policy and national security matters, yet it was Democratic presidents who led the U.S. into WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In fact, over the large part of the 1900s the Democratic Party pursued an active foreign policy role while the Republican Party was more inclined to remain on the sidelines and tend to domestic policy matters. As Obama enters office with the U.S. at war against Islamic extremists in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be interesting to see how his foreign and security policy agenda takes shape.

To see the historical significance of the Obama presidency from a different perspective, please also see RIETI Faculty Fellows NAKANISHI Hiroshi's article "Inauguration of the Obama Administration and Changes in the World Order."

This month's featured article

Foreign and Security Policy under the Obama Administration

KUBO FumiakiFaculty Fellow, RIETI
Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics, the University of Tokyo

Foreign and Security Policy under the Obama Administration

KUBO Fumiaki

In America, various new foreign policy visions are being put forward at the present time. What foreign and security policies will the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama pursue? In what follows, I would like to ponder this question using the typology below.

Types of U.S. foreign policy visions

Today's U.S. foreign policy visions can be classified into eight different categories:

  1. Leftwing Democrats / antiwar advocates
  2. Moderate Democrats
  3. Liberal hawks
  4. Moderate Republicans / realists
  5. Hard-line conservative Republicans
  6. Neoconservative Republicans
  7. Religious conservative Republicans
  8. Isolationist Republicans

In regard to Democrats, the first category groups together those who are against U.S. military involvement overseas. Currently they strongly oppose the Iraq war and demand an immediate and complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Those classified in the second category are generally supportive of U.S. military involvement overseas and back the government's policy to resolutely fight against terrorism. At the same time, however, this group also attaches great importance to multilateral frameworks. Grouped together in the third category are those who strongly support U.S. military involvement for humanitarian purposes, such as dispatching troops to Bosnia and Kosovo.

Among Republicans, those falling under the fourth category are non-ideological realists with foreign policy roots stretching back to the Nixon-Kissinger era. They support realistic foreign policy predicated on national interest and the reality of military power. Foreign policy views held by those in the fifth category reflect the strong-arm foreign policy agenda pursued by the Reagan Administration in its early years when the United States sought to contain the Soviet Union through the build-up of overwhelming military power. Republicans in the sixth category embrace a vision that combines foreign policy with a sense of mission to democratize the rest of the world. This group fully exerted its influence during the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. Those classified in the seventh category are primarily concerned with domestic issues, but they are also interested in foreign policy in relation to issues such as religious persecution and abortion. The eighth category groups people ranging from moral conservatives, like Patrick Buchanan, to libertarians, all of which are completely opposed to the idea of overseas U.S. military involvement.

Many typological studies of U.S. foreign policy cover a full range of American history (as is the case with Walter Russell Mead's four schools). But often these studies are not useful in understanding the distribution and trend of today's foreign policy views. In that respect, the classification shown above would be more helpful.

Also, the scope of the groups represented in the above classification better characterizes American voters overall and is not limited to narrowly defined foreign policy experts, vocal antiwar advocates and religious conservatives who wield disproportionate influence over the outcomes of primary elections and decisions made in Congress.

Relationship with the 2008 U.S. presidential elections

Incidentally, a diverse set of foreign policy views were being promoted during the campaign season leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Among the Democratic candidates in the race, Dennis Kucinich belongs to the leftwing antiwar group, but Barack Obama also received strong support from that same group. People in this group initially supported Hillary Clinton, but many later turned against Clinton and threw their support behind Obama because Clinton had voted to authorize the Iraq war and she continued to defend her position on that issue. Bill Richardson and John Edwards also tried to appeal to leftwing antiwar voters, while Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd leaned more toward foreign and security policy specialists. Senator Joe Lieberman, who was the Democratic nominee for vice president in the 2000 presidential election, is a liberal hawk, but none of the party's candidates in the 2008 election could be defined as such.

Even more diverse foreign policy views were observed among the Republican candidates vying for the 2008 nomination. U.S. Representative Ron Paul is a libertarian who waged an effective campaign in the primaries by strongly demonstrating his stance against the Iraq war. Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican Party's Iowa caucus, is nothing if not a religious conservative. Tom Tancredo, a House of Representatives member who was quick to withdraw from the race, is a hard-line conservative who was also known for his fierce attacks against illegal immigrants. In this regard, he is close to the right-wing isolationist Buchanan. Mitt Romney also defended a hard-line conservative position. Meanwhile John McCain espoused both neoconservative and moderate views, as did members of his staff. Rudi Giuliani, who generally takes a moderate stance on domestic affairs, sided with hard-line conservatives and neoconservatives on foreign policy matters partly because of the significant role he played in the wake of 9/11.

An administration based on bipartisanship

Upon securing the Democratic Party's nomination for president in June 2008, Obama began showing signs of his intention to shift to a middle-of-the-road moderate stance. This can been observed in his remarks on the Bush Administration's secret wiretapping program that was being conducted as an antiterrorism measure, and in his statements on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. On domestic issues, Obama made a similar policy shift with respect to off-shore oil drilling.

The tendency became clearer in his selection of inaugural Cabinet members. Obama nominated Senate Clinton as secretary of state and opted to keep Robert Gates on as secretary of defense. Meanwhile, he named Jim Jones as his national security adviser; despite the fact Jones had expressed support for McCain. It has been said that Obama selected Jones following advice he received from Brent Scowcroft among others. While it is well known that Colin Powell expressed support for Obama in the final stage of the election campaign, it has also been reported that Obama had been in contact with former Secretary of State George Shultz long before that.

So far surprisingly no one from the leftwing antiwar group has been offered a significant position in the Obama administration, even though this group supplied the core support base for Obama from the very beginning. Judging so far from his Cabinet selections, Obama's foreign and security policy team is a composite of middle-of-the-road Democrats and moderate Republicans, from which Candidate Obama's initial supporters from the leftwing antiwar group of Democrats has been excluded.

At the same time, Obama's Cabinet lineup can be defended on the basis of its experience, capacity, and caliber in consideration of the fact that the new administration's transition is forced to take place while the U.S. is at war in Iraq. Also, the economic team of Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and Paul Volcker indicates Obama based his selection criteria on experience instead of politics. As a result, his economic team will be less biased toward leftwing policies.

Some people criticize this selection as bringing back the same old people, contrary to his campaign promise of making a "change." Obama responds to this criticism by saying that the change he is bringing to the political community in Washington D.C. is bipartisanship, not young and new inexperienced people.

Who will be disillusioned?

Some leftwing antiwar advocates harshly responded to the selection of Obama's leadership team. This group, which had abandoned Clinton and worked hard to get Obama elected as president, seemed to have achieved their goal in the end. However, they now face the realization that Clinton is returning as the secretary of state while Gates is staying on as secretary of defense. Also, quite a few leftwing bloggers and political activists have been expressing disappointment over Obama's shift in stance on the issues of wiretapping and off-shore oil drilling.

In the coming months, Afghanistan will emerge as a critical issue for Obama. If the situation deteriorates to the point where the death toll of American soldiers in that country reaches a disturbingly high level, with no exit scenario in sight prior to fall 2012, it could threaten Obama's prospects for reelection. Should this become the case, not only Republicans but also leftwing antiwar Democrats would join in on the chorus of criticism.

Unrelated to foreign policy issues yet drawing criticism from his original core backers, Obama's selection of Rick Warren as his inaugural pastor was met with strong disapproval from leftwing Democratic Party supporters such as homosexual rights activists. Once inaugurated, it is highly likely President Obama may let down a number of people and organizations that originally supported him. He needs to make careful choices regarding whom to disillusion. Foreign policy is no exception.

In the course of a new research project launched in December, "Study of the U.S. foreign and security policy under the Obama administration", RIETI will be closely monitoring the Obama Administration for further personnel decisions and, more importantly, new developments in U.S. foreign and security policies.

(December 24, 2008)

Global Financial Crisis Forum

In response to the ever-increasing likelihood that the global financial crisis may continue for an extended period of time with a lasting impact on Japanese industry and trade, a special section devoted exclusively to the crisis - Global Financial Crisis Forum - has been created on the RIETI website. By grouping together all crisis-related papers and articles published by RIETI fellows in this designated space, RIETI hopes to enhance knowledge transfer and encourage greater research and debate to hasten the end of the crisis. Please refer to the Global Financial Crisis Forum on a regular basis to keep up to date on the latest RIETI research on the topic.

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