Always a (Liberal) Internationalist

obama un pic.jpg

If there's any implication to my last post, it's that Obama has always been something of an interventionist, and his decision to support one intervention over the other has more to do with political circumstances than it does with principle. As a politician in Chicago's Hyde Park, Barack Obama was virtually obligated to oppose the Iraq War. If, at the time, he were serving in the U.S. Senate, I have no doubt that he would have voted for the Authorization to Use Military Force.

My colleague Adam Serwer disagrees; as far as he sees it, Obama's current worldview is substantially different from the one he espoused as a young state senator:

[T]he Libya intervention seems to have revealed a genuine ideological transition from the Barack Obama of 2002, from a kind of neo-realist to a full fledged liberal internationalist. Both approaches would have justified intervening on moral grounds, but the character of Obama's intervention is differentiated by its reliance on international institutions.

I'm not sure that this is correct. Not only was Obama quick to leave room for other, more worthy interventions in his 2002 speech against the Iraq War ("I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars"), but as early as 2006 -- in the Audacity of Hope -- he articulated a revised vision of liberal internationalism (304):

Globalization makes our economy, our health, and our security all captive to events on the other side of the world. And no other nation on earth has a greater capacity to shape that global system, or build consensus around a new set of international rules that expand the zones of freedom, personal safety, and economic well-being. Like it or not, if we want to make American more secure, we are going to have to help make the world more secure.

Indeed, if anything, Obama blends his liberal internationalism with a little foreign policy realism. Here he is a few pages later (308):

We should start with the premise that the United States, like all sovereign nations, has the unilateral right to defend itself against attack...It may be preferable to have the support of our allies in such military campaigns, but our immediate safety can't be held hostage to the desire for international consensus; if we have to go it alone, then the American people stand ready to pay any price and bear any burden to protect our country.

Barack Obama is only a hard-nosed realist in the context of his predecessor's Wilsonian adventurism. Otherwise -- like most orthodox Democrats -- he's a straightforward liberal internationalist, and always has been. Indeed, in its scope and method, the Libya intervention is basically a return to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton set the standard for multilateral interventions as small, ill-defined conflicts.

You may also like