President Obama has an ability to issue coherent, Op-Ed-length answers during press conferences that is currently unmatched on the American political stage. Today, at a press conference in Trinidad, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Obama to describe the “Obama doctrine” for foreign policy. At first Obama joked that it would be up to the press to write the “definitive statement on Obamism.” But then he said the following, which reads to me as just about the clearest, most succinct statement yet of Obama’s diplomatic approach (with a little editing). Here is his answer:
[T]here are a couple of principles that I’ve tried to apply across the board: Number one, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, but we’re only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it’s drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can’t be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.
And so in all these meetings what I’ve said is, we have some very clear ideas in terms of where the international community should be moving; we have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security that we have to attend to; but we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them. And the fact that a good idea comes from a small country like a Costa Rica should not somehow diminish the fact that it’s a good idea. I think people appreciate that. So that’s number one.
Number two, I think that — I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals — the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we’ve got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example. (More after jump.)
And so if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.
And again, I think people around the world appreciate that we’re not suggesting we are holding ourselves to one set of standards and we’re going to hold you to another set of standards; that we’re not simply going to lecture you, but we’re rather going to show through how we operate the benefits of these values and ideals.
And the — as a consequence of listening, believing that there aren’t junior partners and senior partners in the international stage, I don’t think that we suddenly transform every foreign policy item that’s on the agenda. I know that in each of these meetings the question has been, well, did you get something specific? What happened here? What happened there?
Countries are going to have interests, and changes in foreign policy approaches by my administration aren’t suddenly going to make all those interests that may diverge from ours disappear. What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we’re pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they’re cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem.
And so we’re still going to have very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues. In Europe, people believe in our plan for Afghanistan, but their politics are still such that it’s hard for leaders to want to send more troops into Afghanistan. That’s not going to change because I’m popular in Europe or leaders think that I’ve been respectful towards them. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means that among the population there’s more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done.