Pragmatic Internationalism

Jacob Shively
Photo by Michael Spooneybarge

As his presidency draws to a close and the nation collectively looks to his potential successors, much has been written about the last eight years in Obama’s America— his economic triumphs, his legislative failures, the critiques of drone usage and Guantanamo Bay, and the victories of equality and minority rights. At the sunset of his tenure, University of West Florida assistant professor of government Jacob Shively, Ph.D., has written a book on Obama’s foreign policy and how that has affected our standing in the world. With accessible language and an easily digestible page length, Dr. Shively presents to the world his synopsis of the simultaneously maligned and praised aspects of Obama’s international doctrine.

Shively teaches and researches international relations with a focus on foreign policy. His book, Hope, Change, Pragmatism: Analyzing Obama’s Grand Strategy, is available on Amazon. Northwest Florida’s Business Climate sat down with Shively to explore the depths of his knowledge on this issue and ascertain a well-informed, measured understanding of what the past eight years means for America’s international actions and ideology going forward.

What is your background and the study’s methodology?

I have been here at UWF for three years. My research starting in grad school was really focused on U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy. My dissertation compared Carter and George W. Bush’s foreign policy. I wanted to extend my research with this project. The larger goal is to think about the US’s role in the world and how that’s changing.

In terms of methodology, I tried to keep it pretty simple. I wanted to create a framework that we could use to apply to any grand strategy in any administration. What I mean by grand strategy is how a state uses all the tools at its disposal to achieve goals in the international sphere. It’s an approach to the world. The problem is that most researchers and commentators use different criteria to define grand strategy, or they’ll conflate what they think the strategy should be with what it might be, objectively speaking. I wanted to look objectively at what Obama was doing, especially because he’s come under a lot of criticism over the last couple years for some of his decisions. His counter-argument is that he’s playing the long game and set the U.S. up for success over the long run.

I wanted to set up a basic framework to study and apply to the Obama administration. Rather than look at the whole administration as a historian might, I wanted to cut it up into more discrete cases. That expands your number of observations within a single case. I looked at the Obama administration’s first year in office when they’re trying to set early precedents and set up his philosophy. The next case is 2011, which is particularly the Arab Spring. In both cases so far, the administration is confronted with defining their relationship with the world. Should we be more engaged or less engaged? The third case is 2014 where you have ISIS bursting onto the scene early in the year, then later in the year, the Russians are getting deeply involved with Ukraine. So they have to think about how they use power.

You describe that overarching doctrine as pragmatic internationalism, right?

Well the administration has not really given us its own terms to describe what it’s doing in the world. I don’t think Obama and his team thought they were doing anything radically new. When it comes to foreign policy, we see ambitions early on. In 2009, they look at banning nuclear weapons and building bridges with Iran. We see fundamentally an attempt to constrict America’s engagement with the world, but he is insistent that the U.S. remain the most important leader in the world. But particularly coming off of the financial crisis of 2008 or the wars in Iraq, he doesn’t think we can afford to do that in as expansive ways as it used to. So it’s still internationalism, which started with World War II, but it’s more restrained.

You say in the book that that doctrine was promising but ultimately poorly implemented.

Interestingly, a number of critics and supporters of his approach to foreign policy say that they recognize the need to revisit how we define American leadership in the world. It was promising in the sense that it was attempting to break the inertia of the Cold War that had been in place for 15-plus years. We wanted to adjust to the world as it was changing. A lot of people on both sides of the aisle would say that’s a healthy thing. You need to stay current with the international environment without all of your policy being dictated by decisions that were made decades ago.

Inertia is of course a powerful factor in bureaucracy. It’s really difficult to make those kinds of adjustments and changes. They happen at a grand strategy level, but making sure it filters down throughout the institution is another matter.

Do you think the nature of bureaucracy is one of the contributing factors that led to its poor implementation?

To some extent, yes. It’s just a big shift to try and turn around. I will say that our military is constantly looking ahead and trying to be nimble. Another problem with the failure of this approach was that, coming out of the White House, it was not clear what kind of leadership Obama was looking for. They thought they were being very clear, so during the Arab Spring and they get involved in Libya but not in Syria, but it’s hard to walk away from those issues and draw any hard and fast lessons about what their priorities and values were. I think they had some internal ideas about what they were doing, but it was never well communicated. For other governments, that makes it difficult to interpret where the administration is going.

The other argument that I introduce at the end is the idea of strategic inaction. I think the administration probably saw themselves as being really savvy about not acting where everybody else was saying they should act. They were not going to be pressured into acting. They may have been right. In Syria, for example, there’s no good answer. You can’t get more involved, but you can’t really get less involved either. They more or less probably set the best possible tone, but it’s not a tone of American success. They’re slowly wearing them down, which is probably best, but the problem is that seems to broadcast weakness to critics. So the administration think it’s being savvy and strategic, but a lot of outsiders look at it and say that it looks like weakness.

How has that shaped our standing in the world? Do foreign governments perceive a bit of whiplash from the Bush years?

The whiplash isn’t as strong as you might think. By the end of his second term, Bush was far more conciliatory than he gets credit for. They learned their lessons and realized they overreached with Iraq, but that was really the only aggressive invasion that they pursued. They did some special forces elsewhere in the world, but Obama actually dramatically expands that with the use of drones.

Obama defined his foreign policy as a clear distinction from Bush. For most leaders around the world, they felt very worried about Bush early on after 9/11, so Obama looks like somebody they can understand or work with. At the end of the day, though, Obama is still pretty insistent about still representing U.S. economic and security interests first, and he has constraints at home with the Recession. So there’s a perception of whiplash or a decline in standing, but the best way to look at that is waves on the top of a larger ocean. Sometimes the challenge seems really dramatic, but most other governments recognize that it’s a big shift and it’s hard to turn. They get loud and protest if the U.S. does something that concerns them, but at the end of the day, they trust us to be stable more than any other government. Any given president can only do so much and we have a lot of other assets that preserve our standing.

Does a president’s foreign policy influence at all the subsequent president’s policy? Is there a reaction there?

We usually treat candidates as someone brand new, but it’s very stable over time. If you look at the transition from the 70s to 80s—Carter to Reagan—that’s one of the more dramatic shifts that you have, and even there it’s only at the margins. Even with Bush to Obama, it looks dramatic, but you really see a lot of continuity across the process. The best way to think about it is the grand strategy more or less remains stable, but different presidents influence different regions, so that’s where you may observe change. There’s not much difference unless there’s a fundamental interruption like World War II that causes a scramble.

Did 9/11 do that for Bush?

It almost elevates to the level of one of those dramatic breaks. Bush tries to use that moment to be more assertive in the changing or shaping the world. They go in Afghanistan and start talking about using U.S. power to go out and change the world. Iraq becomes the next target.

The larger story there is the neo-conservatives and they were frustrated when the first Bush in the early 90s did not take out Saddam Hussein, so they’ve been waiting in the wings and 9/11 gives them this opportunity to push this agenda. People thought we were at the beginning of a new US relationship with the world, but it didn’t last because it was just too expensive to maintain.

Most Americans think Iraq was poorly handled if not a bad decision. That was the moment of potential dramatic and fundamental change, but what it did allow was a shift in tone and a shift at the margins in the regions we focus on. Even if Trump or Sanders got elected, they wouldn’t be able to transform foreign policy to the extent they claim.

Is it true that Republicans are more hawkish and Democrats are doves?

That’s very misleading. We want to draw correlations, but you have to be less distinct with American policy. Republicans are more comfortable with being hawkish and they enjoy the rhetoric. Democrats want to focus more on domestic issues, but they can’t get around the budgetary and Congressional restraints. So it’s not so black and white.

Is there a particular positive facet of Obama’s foreign policy that will be long-lasting and will ripple throughout the following years?

Most of the discourse is on this projection of weakness. I would say his attempt to downshift U.S. foreign policy will probably be a legacy that will help some of his successors. By that, I mean still staying engaged but attempting to not be the single state that always comes in to address an issue or problem, or at least doing that in conjunction with others. So whether you like or hate the Iran deal, it was done with five or six other nations. One positive outcome will be the recognition of investing in long-term American interest around the world, but not doing it through military power.

At the start of his presidency, Obama wanted to repair relations with the Muslim world. Was he successful in that?

I don’t think so. He did not achieve what he was hoping in 2009. There are some legitimate successes, but they were trying to completely change the discourse. They thought that Obama by his very character would change the tenor of international politics and they quickly resorted back to more traditional tactics. They were savvy in that sense, so they didn’t have their heads in the clouds the way some charge.