Obama’s foreign policy in historical context: Wilson or Roosevelt?

Both Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) had a major impact on US foreign policy during their time as president. However, their view of America’s role in the world was significantly different. Central to Roosevelt’s view was the expression and use of US power abroad, with a focus on protecting American interests around the world. He was a key figure in the first US foreign military engagement when he was serving then President McKinley—against Spain’s pacific fleet in Cuba following the explosion of US battleship Maine. Later, as president, Roosevelt would extend the Monroe Doctrine (a US foreign policy statement in 1823 that viewed further European colonisation of the Americas as an act of aggression, requiring US intervention). The extension became known as the Roosevelt corollary—that the US would intervene against any ‘brutal wrongdoing’ in the Western Hemisphere.  Roosevelt had orchestrated the most advanced US interventionist foreign policy to date, focusing not only on US interests abroad, but any perceived wrongdoing in the Western world.

Roosevelt was still capable of diplomacy, despite the militaristic tone of his corollary. He intervened in a number of foreign disputes: between Japan and Russia over Manchuria and Korea; between Germany and France over the control of Morocco. These diplomatic episodes are best viewed through one of Roosevelt’s favourite quotes—speak softly but carry a big stick. Roosevelt was willing and able to use diplomacy when the circumstance warranted it, but military strength was at the core of his foreign policy.

Wilson had an altogether different view of US foreign policy. Unlike Roosevelt, the military and US power abroad was not central to his view. Conversely, he had a different understanding of the active role that the US should play internationally. Wilson believed strongly in the power of democracy, the opening of markets and the role of international organisations to promote peace. World War I provided a key distinction between the views of Wilson and Roosevelt. Initially, Wilson declared US neutrality when the war began, much to the chagrin of Roosevelt. It took until 1917, three years after the war began, for Wilson to bring the US into battle, as the position of neutrality proved increasingly difficult to maintain. Although we have to assume that Roosevelt would have joined the war much earlier, Wilson’s decision to join the war was not a transformation to the Roosevelt view. Wilson’s view of foreign policy evolved in light of the circumstances, and US involvement in the war was justified on Wilsonian grounds as the ‘world must be safe for democracy’.

Both of these views of the US role in the world still live on to the current day. As Obama nears the end of his presidency, can we place his foreign policy in this historical context and ask was Obama’s policy Wilsonian or Rooseveltian?

Wilsonian: Driven by world view and circumstance

Early in his presidency Obama initiated a reset with Russia, with the aim of restoring relations after they had become severely strained under President Bush. Initially, the reset was a success, with Russia supporting the US in key areas of national interest: sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program; the movement of troops through Russian territory during the Afghanistan war. Progress made from the reset of relations was reversed by a revanchist Russia in Ukraine and Crimea. The US, along with the EU, placed sanctions on Russia targeting state-owned banks and the oil and defense industries. Sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine are not anti-Wilsonian, but recognition that open markets, the rule of law and international norms are central to the world order.

Obama & the Asia-Pacific—some Roosevelt, but much more Wilson

To analyse this question regarding Obama’s foreign policy, two key events stand out in the Asia-Pacific: the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) through the South China Sea. First, the TPP is a mega-regional trade deal covering almost 40% of the global economy, and as yet, it does not include China. It is the centrepiece of Obama’s pivot to Asia and is an attempt to embed the US-led order to international commerce. The TPP, therefore, is more aligned to the Wilson view of US power abroad. It could be argued that FONOPs through the South China Sea are a Rooseveltian expression of US power. On the other hand, they could be seen as the US expression of the importance of global trade and international law.

Obama & the Middle East—predominantly Wilsonian

When one thinks of the president’s middle-east policy, such words as rational, calculated and cerebral come to mind. His policy with Iraq and Afghanistan has been anything but rash. Indeed, he has often been referred to as a hyper-realist (perhaps the only exception to this account is his imposition of the red-line for chemical weapons use in Syria). He has been cautious in the use of US power—something that is clearly more Wilsonian—and he moved as quickly as possible to reduce US troops in the two wars that he inherited in 2008. In 2011, as the Arab Spring hit Cairo, he supported the people in this movement for the urge to achieve democracy. In Syria, he has been reluctant to commit military forces to the conflict, thus leaving a vacuum that countries such as Russia have since filled. He also failed to act on his threat to Bashar al Assad after the Syrian leader used chemical weapons on his own people—it is hard to see Roosevelt not following through on this threat. Events in all of these countries have since complicated matters: the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the resurgence of the Taliban in parts of Afghanistan; the lack of democratic reform in Egypt.

Perhaps in response to his failure to act with military aggression after Assad crossed the red-line, Obama outlined his approach to US power in a speech to the UN in 2013. In that speech, he laid out the different US interests that would be protected by unilateral action, using the full force of US power, and those that would be defended by multilateral actions. There were four areas where the US was prepared to use the full force at its disposal: to protect its allies against ‘external aggression’; to guard against weapons of mass destruction; preventing terrorist attacks on the US; and ensuring the free flow of oil and gas. The phrase ‘external aggression’ sounds similar to ‘brutal wrongdoing’ of the Roosevelt view, but importantly it is only applied to allies, not the broader western hemisphere. Peripheral to these interests, the US will work with others to promote democracy and free markets.

Events since that speech have confirmed the Obama approach to international relations. In Iran, he has worked with other countries to change the course of their nuclear program (which may turn out to be the most significant policy of his presidency). The use of FONOPs in the South China Sea, as unilateral actions, demonstrates this distinction between central and peripheral interests. Obama has, arguably, displayed more attributes of Wilson’s world view than that of Roosevelt. Whether by circumstance or the sheer complexity of international relations, he has embedded elements of Roosevelt into his modern view of the role of the US in today’s world.

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