FPI Director Robert Kagan Appraises the First Year of Obama's Foreign Policy

January 28, 2010

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The Obama Administration's Foreign Policy Concepts:
An Appraisal at One Year

Robert Kagan
Foreign Policy Initiative Director
Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

On Monday, January 25, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) hosted a discussion with FPI Director Robert Kagan on the first year of President Obama’s foreign policy.

Kagan began his remarks by noting that “the world is not going to leave us alone, and we shouldn’t leave it alone.” Though no administration can be judged after only a year in office, he believes that the Obama Administration is in the middle of a strategic shift in their thinking.  The perspectives and worldview that they brought with them into office one year ago have met the realities of the world and American public opinion, and are now being revised.

In American foreign policy, Kagan said, there is more continuity than discontinuity in the policies of each successive administration.  President Obama has added nearly 60,000 troops to the fight in Afghanistant – a policy that Kagan speculated President Bush would have pursued if he was in office for a third term – and has largely kept to the parameters of Bush’s withdrawal timeline for Iraq.  Obama has notably increased the use of Predator drone attacks against terrorists and militants in Afghanistan, with more strikes in 2009 than the previous five years combined.

President Obama has, however, noticeably diverged from the grand strategy that every President since World War II has pursued.  In Obama's world view, America is not the leader and organizer of the liberal international order, but is rather the “convener of nations,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated.  His positioning the United States as a neutral arbiter of international conflict  places distance between the United States and many of its traditional allies.  This represents a dramatic shift in American foreign policy.  Kagan believes that this course is ultimately unsustainable, because countries like Russia and China have little agreement with American policy goals.

It has become fashionable in many circles to believe that America is in a state of decline.  While Kagan does not agree with that notion, he argues that President Obama does.  It appears that the administration has accepted the concept as reality, and thus pursued closer relationships with a revanchist Russia and rising China to encourage them to accommodate American interests, now; so as to prevent a lurching and harmful change later, when the United States would not have the capability to influence and affect global events.

In the question and answer session, Kagan addressed a wide variety of topics, including Iran, START, missile defense, the role of the nation state in the 21st Century, American exceptionalism, and Middle East democratization. 

Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative's Board of Directors. His most recent book is The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf 2008). His previous book, Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century, (Knopf 2006) was the winner of the 2008 Lepgold Prize and a 2007 Finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize. His acclaimed book Of Paradise and Power (Knopf, 2003), was on the New York Times bestseller list for ten weeks and the Washington Post bestseller list for fourteen weeks.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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