Obama’s Speech: Wilsonian Ambitions/Status Quo with Respect to Foreign Affairs


Barack Obama’s inaugural address was businesslike and serious, mostly free of the grandiose oratory that became his hallmark during the 2008 campaign.  But tucked in the speech was a potentially sweeping realignment of American foreign policy, one that diverged significantly from President Bush’s framework, and appears at first blush to be in the direct lineage of Woodrow Wilson’s collaborative, humanitarian idealism.

This conclusion should be hedged somewhat, since an inauguration address isn’t a State of the Union speech.  It sets big themes, not bullet-point agenda items.  Nonetheless, when Obama spoke about his hopes to engage the world, it was a full-chessboard vision that didn’t come up much in a campaign where foreign policy disputes focused on toughness in specified issues like talks with Iran and the pursuit of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

These are the key passages of the speech, full text of which is available here:

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.


[W]e cannot help but believe . . .  that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

One trait jumps out: this was not a slate of incentives for cooperating with American interests.  Its emphasis on human rights was unconditional.  It was a rationale for why other countries should adopt American ideals.  That is not a mere semantic difference from Bush policy — a split signaled by more than the promise that “we are ready to lead once more.”  Instead, it’s the difference between the big brother who functions as a bully and the big brother who views himself as caretaker and a role model.

As a statement of purpose, it places persuasion and cooperation as central tools of American power.  At its center is soft power, not self-defense or coercion.  You can offer everyone a carrot — no need to mention the stick.  They’re already aware of that.

It’s true, of course, that Obama also noted his intention to take action against direct enemies of the United States.  (“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”)  This was not a framing device in his speech, however, and this is a key distinction.  It wasn’t even the segue into speaking of America’s example to the world.

Instead, Obama emphasized his vision of U.S. leadership after describing America’s tradition of diversity and its triumph over bleak episodes in its history.  The message was this:  America is a microcosm of the world, and if we’ve been able to move past our differences, so can you.

Bush struck these tones only in the framework of national defense.  A fair comparison is Bush’s inaugural address in 2005, which can be read in full here.  Bush, too, spoke of exporting American ideals, but through the rubric of America’s self interest:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.

Bush struck these tones only in the framework of national defense.  A fair comparison is Bush’s inaugural address in 2005, which can be read in full here.  Bush, too, spoke of exporting American ideals, but through the rubric of America’s self interest:


My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people from further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America’s resolve, and have found it firm.

We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.

All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

The effect and purpose of Bush’s words couldn’t be more different.  Obama draws distinctly from a Wilsonian tradition of exporting American ideals in order to make the world a better place.  Note the absence of linkage between working with poor nations and deflecting terror, and the lightly qualified pledge that America is “ready to lead once more.”   This is not the Bush approach.  (As an aside, by my count, Obama used some variation of the word “free” five times in his speech, and “liberty” twice.  Bush’s 2005 speech totaled 34 and 15, respectively.)

It’s the difference between coercing a vision of your excellence and persuading people to emulate you — the bully big brother versus the role model.

In November 2007, two months before the Iowa caucus, the New York Times magazine published an account of Obama’s foreign policy views that foreshadowed much of this, then ultimately positioned him between the archrealists and the traditional idealists.  Obama’s inaugural address leaned more heavily in the idealist direction (pragmatic Wilsonianism?) and landed closer to the idealist camp than we’ve heard from any president in our lifetime.

Maybe this adds up to nothing more than a less-pithy version of calling yourself a shining city on a hill.  Taken at face value, it sounds instead like an ambitious departure from the last several decades of American foreign policy.


I take for granted Jeff’s understanding of what Obama’s inaugural addresss signified. I’m less than certain that he will actually act on the notions advanced within the address, but that wasn’t Jeff’s assertion, and so I will leave that alone. Where I differ is from his interpretation of Bush’s foreign policy as being highly national interest-based.

Bush may have run as a Scowcroft-type Republican. It was certainly his father’s ideology, and it was one of his main areas of disagreement with Gore during the 2000 presidential debates – he took a public and prominent stance against so called “Nation Buidling”, arguing it was not in our interest, while Gore was arguing for a more humanitarian outlook. That all changed at some point – the exact moment is hard to pinpoint, but certainly by time the decision was made to invade Iraq, neoconservatism had taken over the presidency.

What is neoconservatism? The term is widely thrown around, but ultimately, it is little more than Wilsonianism. It is a belief that there is a duty, of a moral, and almost religious nature, to spread the gift of democracy (and by association, market economics) to those countries not fortunate enough to have achieved it themselves.  Furthermore, that this democratization can and should take place by force if necessary, and potentially even if a more traditional conservative policy of containment or isolationism may prove more effective at serving American interests.

To better show the degree to which neoconservatism is not dominated by considerations of national interest, I quote perhaps the pre-eminent paleoconservative still active in American political discourse, Pat Buchanan: “[B]etween traditional conservatives and neoconservatives a breach has been opened and an irreconcilable conflict has arisen. We of the Old Right only have one country. We believe U.S. foreign policy must be determined by what is best for America.” Or as Lawrence Kaplan observed after reading what could be called the neoconservative manifesto, An End to Evil, “This is not conservatism. It is liberalism, with very sharp teeth.”

The traditional considerations of national interest are absent in neoconservative thinking, which in turn is what led the United States to make the decision to invade Iraq. While the Bush administration gave the public a line about WMDs, almost every inside account of their internal thinking, most prominently by George Packer in The Assassin’s Gate, and Bob Woodward in State of Denial, reported that a pair neoconservative thinkers within the administration had hijacked the foreign policy that the president had campaigned on.

These two, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, serving at the time as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Deputy Secretary of Defense respectively, convinced the president that the cause of the September 11 attacks was the lack of democracy and freedom within the Arab world, and that the only way to “win” the War on Terror would be to engage in almost a holy war on undemocratic regimes. It was acknowledged within their thinking that there would be serious costs to this, but there was a strident belief that there was an American duty to spread the wealth, so to speak.

There was perhaps not a complete break from a consideration of national interests in this sort of foreign policy – it was believed that this sort of radical democratization would pay off in the long run for the United States, as well as being the right thing to do for countries abroad. However, much of that same thinking was present in Woodrow Wilson’s own democratic crusades. It was a sort of market fundamentalism for foreign policy – a belief that the world is not zero-sum, and that the richer your neighbors, the richer you are. Ultimately however, there is no real distinction between neoconservatism and Wilsonianism. We may never know the degree to which Bush was a true-believer, as opposed to merely having been a pawn for Feith and Wolfowitz, but if we are to judge an administration by how it acted, then an Obama embrace of Wilsoniansm is little else than an Obama embrace of Bush-era foreign policy ideals. One can only hope the Obama adminstration does not suffer from the failings of competence which may have doomed the Bush-era.

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