As recently as October, the conservative view of Barack Obama’s foreign policy had little nuance: The president was seen as weak, apologetic, and deferential, someone who was voluntarily abandoning America’s preeminent role as a world power. Charles Krauthammer stated the case in an address, called Decline Is A Choice, at the Manhattan Institute on Oct. 5:
The current foreign policy of the United States is an exercise in contraction. It begins with the demolition of the moral foundation of American dominance. In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.
Just a few months later, however, we have confusion in the House of Reagan. After Obama’s Nobel Speech last week, conservative pundits have begun to sound downright optimistic about Obama’s foreign policy approach. “There was a fair amount for Bush Doctrine-supporters, American-exceptionalist patriots, and neocon warmongers to like in Obama’s Oslo speech,” opined William Kristol, in the Weekly Standard. “I thought in some ways it’s a very historic speech,” announced Newt Gingrich. “a modest, welcome, and long overdue reaffirmation of American purpose and power as the essential underpinning of a more just and peaceful world order,” wrote John Cullinan, on the National Review’s blog. “I liked what he said,” said Sarah Palin, an influential, though not exactly authoritative foreign policy voice.
More than most areas of governance, words and ideas matter in foreign policy. (For evidence, just compare the global rejection of the muscular rhetoric of George W. Bush, to the embrace of Obama’s “shared interests” rhetoric, even as Obama has continued, with some stylistic and minor substantive variations, the essential Bush policies on the major foreign policy problems in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.)
So what is a committed conservative to do? Now that Obama appears to have embraced the principle of American exceptionalism–“Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms”–can we all get along?
The answer, in short, is probably not for long. Electoral pressures require Republicans and conservatives to continue to define themselves against Obama, and the conservative media (like the liberal one during the days of Bush) must produce a steady stream of red meat.
I am also skeptical of the storyline, presented in much conservative analysis, contending that Obama has changed position. Instead, he has done what all great politicians do, catered his message for the moment to the audience in question. The Nobel Speech was addressed, in the context of a premature award, to a liberal European audience. Obama was saying, in effect, I am not the cartoon peacenik savior you want me to be. The world is still a rough one. In the same way, Obama’s collectivist rhetoric on the world stage was designed for an audience, meant to reconnect with a world that had felt spurned by the bravado of the Bush years. The underlying policies, and the philosophy of the leader, remained more or less the same. He was presenting two sides of the same coin.
Look again at the way that Obama answered that question about American exceptionalism in Strasbourg. Krauthammer pointed to a single sentence, which he decided was an outrage. Obama’s full answer was much more nuanced. Here is the full transcript (emphasis mine):
Q Thank you, Mr. President. In the context of all the multilateral activity that’s been going on this week — the G20, here at NATO — and your evident enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks, to work through multilateral frameworks, could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy? And if so, would you be able to elaborate on it?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.
And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.
The seeds of Obama’s Nobel Speech were planted long ago.