Continuity and Change

Though a lot of people – including many Catholics – seem to want to believe otherwise, there is thus far not much new in the substance of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Commentators right and left have noted considerable continuity between the decisions by the previous administration and by the new one. Withdrawal from Iraq is proceeding largely as negotiated with the Iraqis in the Status of Forces Agreement agreed under President Bush. The “new” Afghanistan strategy follows the old strategy reviews of the second half of 2008. The tactic of making nice with European leaders and avoiding asking for anything difficult, whether on Afghanistan or the financial crisis, is straight out of Bush’s second-term playbook.

In our relationship with China, Obama’s focus is financial, no surprise for the American investment bankers who forged a consensus about Chinese economic potential over the last twenty years. The “reset button” with Russia consists mainly in proposing a replacement treaty for the START strategic arms control agreement, which expires this year. The Bush administration sent Moscow a similar draft treaty last year (there was no response). This case actually demonstrates continuity not just with Bush but with Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan despite the fact that our problems with Russia and the real dangers we face abroad are very different today from what they were in the Cold War.

In its overtures to Iran, the newer and more immediate threat on the global scene, the administration has maintained the same posture as its predecessor: progress is possible if and when Iran forfeits its nuclear weapons ambitions, as reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week. Like the new administration, President Bush authorized quiet talks with Tehran while holding to the same condition. Nothing very new with North Korea, either, which has torn up agreements with the last two administrations.

Of course, there are some real differences. Obama swiftly reversed the “Mexico City” policy, thereby allowing U. S. support for abortion overseas; that decision will likely produce more deaths worldwide. Some restrictions on American involvement with Cuba have been lifted, though the economic embargo, much criticized by the Vatican, remains in place. Future terrorist suspects will not be subjected to what The New York Times described as the “brutal” experience of being deprived of sleep and kept in a small, dark space with insects about. Yet those who see “stability” as the holy grail of American foreign policy are on the whole satisfied with the administration’s acceptance of the policies it was handed.

Rhetorically, though, what a difference three months makes! If the substance is the same, the words represent an utter and important break with the past. Over time, as we move beyond the first 100 days of the administration, those rhetorical flourishes will translate into significant differences.

President Obama, in all of his international travel, has spent time apologizing for America. His consistent theme is that we had no right to do what we did, especially in the previous eight years but in the longer term as well. In some instances, he is right. But there is little mention of America’s responsibility to lead where others could not or would not. And scant notice of the single-minded determination of totalitarians, right and left, Islamist and secular, to dominate in their own spheres and beyond.

In the president’s remarks, there are allusions to American criminality but little discussion of America’s positive exceptionalism, nor claims for a universal morality – freedom of conscience and all the political arrangements that it necessarily entails, a necessity the Catholic Church came to embrace in the last century. There is a distinct lack of emphasis on American efforts to render ourselves less exceptional by extending the reach of those universal truths where possible, but more emphasis on the underlying assumption that it is rather America that must be changed.

The administration’s foreign policy parallels its domestic policy, and Obama’s roots: break existing power structures and level outcomes. This may sound attractive to some Catholic ears, for whom equality of outcome seems to accord with Church social teaching. But the outcome of the administration’s rhetoric-turned-policy will not be equality based on Catholic truth. It will be premised instead on the absence of any such universal truth. This is the source of the administration’s dalliance with the culture of death. In time, this will be the core contribution of the Obama team to American foreign – and domestic – policy.

Foreign leaders from Beijing to Moscow to Caracas cheer this. Gone are not just the Texas accent but the natural law references of George W. Bush (who might not have known, but would have felt deeply, the intellectual heritage of phrases like “freedom written on the human heart”). President Nicolas Sarkozy of France referred in frank comments last week to Obama’s inexperience but also to his “subtle mind.” Translation: “he’s like us.”

And waiting in the wings is a transnational view of legitimate law and sovereignty as advocated by Harold Koh, nominee for State Department legal advisor, whereby international institutions and law trump national legislatures. It sounds like the dawn of cooperation and fairness among nations. But we should enjoy the continuity in our foreign policy while it lasts. The next turns could be very ugly.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.