Friday, February 13, 2015

Realists, idealists or a “value free, non-judgmental” foreign policy? (reposted here from WaMa Newsletter July 19, 2009)

Very few presidents, perhaps with the exception of his predecessor, face the challenges that President Obama faces in foreign policy. But these challenges are made more difficult not only due to their nature and variety but also because of their ramifications in domestic politics.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, for example, made the promotion and defense of human rights a central theme of his foreign policy; others like Nixon emphasized the reordering of world balance by opening relations with China and the end of an inherited conflict; from Truman to Bush ’41 the policy of containment was central; Reagan made it a mission to end the Cold War. For others, like Bush 43’ unexpected events led to a reassessment of America’s role in the world.

American presidents for the most part seem to, in the end, take the pragmatic realist road, albeit one adorned with idealistic aspirations or just rhetoric.

Other than a declared intention to "sit down without preconditions" most students of foreign affairs haven't been able to detect a clear overarching theme in President Obama's foreign policy prior to his inauguration or after. At face value one can detect elements of idealism and realism in tension with a sense of pragmatism owing to domestic politics.

But is President Obama representing a new approach, or just one marked by the social sensibilities of his generation? Are we witnessing tensions between the Department of State and the White House which are not being made public? Or are we playing “good cop/bad cop” foreign policy? Are we witnessing an attempt at “value free nonjudgmental” foreign policy?

Apparent mixed reactions between the Executive and the White House to Iran's elections and the recent events in Honduras seem to point to tensions in interpreting those events.

During the recent visit to the White House by the President of Chile Michelle Bachalet, President Obama praised the Chilean economic model as the role model for Latin America to follow. Ironically, that model came as result of another “coup” which was a reaction to the implementation of a model contrary to the one President Obama praised. During that occasion a duly elected president attempted to use the democratic process to, with the intervention and “advice” from another country, Cuba, put and to the democratic process. In Honduras, history seemed about to be repeated, this time with the addition of Venezuela.

Approve of him or not, President Obama is a symbol of something new in America and around the world. For many around the world he represents the hopes of a new Americanism, at the very least of a renewal and a recommitment of America’s values and role in the world. In other moments in history other presidents, from Kennedy to Reagan, did as well. It is from the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, and inspired by those presidents, where most pressure is being placed against Cuba’s Stalinist regime by way of the European Union’s foreign policy. 

Why is it then that President Obama and some around him seem to be caught between a rock and hard place interpreting who their natural political allies are in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other parts of the world? Is it by default just because other presidents held opposite interpretations? Or is he attempting a rhetorical balancing act between two audiences?

When issuing statements on foreign policy President Obama seems to be speaking to two audiences. For some in his domestic audience, still imbued in the domestic politics of the Cold War, apparently he still talks their language. Some in that generation proposed internationalism as the counter offer to a world divided in large national and ideological blocks. But there is today not only a post-Cold War generation in the US but also a “cyber-international” generation in the world, one that is popularly democratic, post-racial issues and trans-borders.  

From pro-democracy young bloggers in Cuba to street protests in Venezuela, and as we are witnessing now in Iran, a new generation of “international democrats” or “democratic inter-nationalists” (as opposed to the “internationalists” of the 1960s generation) is creating a new network of political solidarities. 

That generation seems to aspire to move from the rigid dogmatisms of the left and the right of the Cold War days. President Obama runs the risk of missing not only a worldwide historical moment but of also missing his role in leading it, if he doesn’t declare a vigorous defense of democracy and human rights as part of his foreign policy.

Latin America has had its share of military coup d'états, both from the left and the right. And the U.S. has had its share of knee-jerk reactions and missed opportunities, and to be fair, many occasions of impotence.  

Now a new generation of American foreign policy makers needs to move from old paradigms to correctly interpret who America’s democratic partners really are in the post-Cold War world.

In Latin America they need to identify who are those who represent the future and the real hopes for real economic and political democratization of a whole continent. For now, it seems the Department of State has taken the lead in the case of Honduras and has effectively taken away the lead from a bellicose, regional petro-demagogue in forging the narrative.


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