Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy

Brookings Institution Press
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By the time of Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, he had already developed an ambitious foreign policy vision. By his own account, he sought to bend the arc of history toward greater justice, freedom, and peace; within a year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely for that promise.

In Bending History, Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon measure Obama not only against the record of his predecessors and the immediate challenges of the day, but also against his own soaring rhetoric and inspiring goals. Bending History assesses the considerable accomplishments as well as the failures and seeks to explain what has happened.

Obama's best work has been on major and pressing foreign policy challenges—counterterrorism policy, including the daring raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden; the "reset" with Russia; managing the increasingly significant relationship with China; and handling the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. Policy on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, has reflected serious flaws in both strategy and execution. Afghanistan policy has been plagued by inconsistent messaging and teamwork. On important "softer" security issues—from energy and climate policy to problems in Africa and Mexico—the record is mixed. As for his early aspiration to reshape the international order, according greater roles and responsibilities to rising powers, Obama's efforts have been well-conceived but of limited effectiveness.

On issues of secondary importance, Obama has been disciplined in avoiding fruitless disputes (as with Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba) and insisting that others take the lead (as with Qaddafi in Libya). Notwithstanding several missteps, he has generally managed well the complex challenges of the Arab awakenings, striving to strike the right balance between U.S. values and interests.

The authors see Obama's foreign policy to date as a triumph of discipline and realism over ideology. He has been neither the transformative beacon his devotees have wanted, nor the weak apologist for America that his critics allege. They conclude that his grand strategy for promoting American interests in a tumultuous world may only now be emerging, and may yet be curtailed by conflict with Iran. Most of all, they argue that he or his successor will have to embrace U.S. economic renewal as the core foreign policy and national security challenge of the future.

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About the author

Martin S. Indyk is vice president and director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings. Both Indyk and Lieberthal were top foreign policy staffers for President Bill Clinton.

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Brookings Institution Press
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Published on
Feb 24, 2012
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Pages
342
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ISBN
9780815721833
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / 21st Century
Political Science / American Government / Executive Branch
Political Science / International Relations / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Arms control, for decades at the core of the foreign policy consensus, today is among the more contentious issues in American politics. It is pilloried and considered out of mode in many conservative quarters, while being viewed as nearly sacrosanct in many liberal circles. In this new book, Michael Levi and Michael O'Hanlon argue that neither the left nor the right has a correct view of the proper utility of arms control in the age of terror. Arms control in the traditional sense--lengthy treaties to limit nuclear and other military competitions among the great powers--is no longer particularly useful. Nor should arms control be pursued as a means to the end of constraining the power of nations or of promoting global government. It is still a critical tool, though, for controlling dangerous technologies, particularly those that, in the hands of hostile states or terrorist organizations, could cause massive death and destruction. Arms control and coercive action, including military force, must be integrated into an overall strategy for preventing proliferation, now more than ever before. Arms control should be used to gain earlier warning of illicit activities inside dangerous states, allowing the international community to take coercive action in a timely way. The authors propose three new criteria to guide future arms control efforts, designed to respond to today's geopolitical realities. Arms control must focus on the dangers of catastrophic technology, not so much in the hands of major powers as of small states and terrorist groups. Their criteria lead to a natural focus on nuclear and biological technologies. Much tougher measures to prevent countries from gaining nuclear weapons technoloty while purportedly complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and procedures for controlling dangerous biological technologies will be most prominent in this framework, while lower priority is giben to efforts such as bilateral nuclear accords and most types of arms control for outer space. This book provides a framework for an effective arms control strategy in a new age of international security.
Arms control, for decades at the core of the foreign policy consensus, today is among the more contentious issues in American politics. It is pilloried and considered out of mode in many conservative quarters, while being viewed as nearly sacrosanct in many liberal circles. In this new book, Michael Levi and Michael O'Hanlon argue that neither the left nor the right has a correct view of the proper utility of arms control in the age of terror. Arms control in the traditional sense--lengthy treaties to limit nuclear and other military competitions among the great powers--is no longer particularly useful. Nor should arms control be pursued as a means to the end of constraining the power of nations or of promoting global government. It is still a critical tool, though, for controlling dangerous technologies, particularly those that, in the hands of hostile states or terrorist organizations, could cause massive death and destruction. Arms control and coercive action, including military force, must be integrated into an overall strategy for preventing proliferation, now more than ever before. Arms control should be used to gain earlier warning of illicit activities inside dangerous states, allowing the international community to take coercive action in a timely way. The authors propose three new criteria to guide future arms control efforts, designed to respond to today's geopolitical realities. Arms control must focus on the dangers of catastrophic technology, not so much in the hands of major powers as of small states and terrorist groups. Their criteria lead to a natural focus on nuclear and biological technologies. Much tougher measures to prevent countries from gaining nuclear weapons technoloty while purportedly complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and procedures for controlling dangerous biological technologies will be most prominent in this framework, while lower priority is giben to efforts such as bilateral nuclear accords and most types of arms control for outer space. This book provides a framework for an effective arms control strategy in a new age of international security.
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