The emergence of transnational threats such as the Islamic State has forced the president to again defend his foreign policy record and respond to the criticism that he lacks a guiding vision. In response, the president has continued to insist that he has a pragmatic vision guided by an unwavering faith in the importance of US leadership.
This vision was first outlined in his 2011 speech to the British parliament in which he argued that the US and its democratic allies were the backbone of a global institutional architecture that promoted stability and prosperity. In his view, these core countries should rally around their shared democratic values, support democratic reformers around the world and reinvest in existing international institutions. These investments, he continued, would ensure these institutions had the capabilities to address new contemporary transnational problems—such as proliferation, health epidemic, unstable financial markets and terrorism—which no state can solve on its own. It is an optimistic vision where emerging powers incorporate themselves into the contemporary institutional architecture, especially when given greater stake in it. After all, the so-called BRIC countries share many cross-border concerns and have the capacity to help address them.
Yet recent developments have led the president to revisit his views. For example, Russian intervention in Ukraine and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has put the focus squarely on conflicting interests between the core group of Western and emerging powers. As a result, it seems naive and idealistic to talk about shared threats and cooperative action among the major powers. It has also led to doubts in some circles about whether the U.S. should continue to exercise leadership through today’s international institutions.
Yet these developments have not changed the president’s enthusiasm for US leadership. In May, the president told the graduating class at West Point Military Academy that “the question is not whether America will lead but how it will lead” because “it is America that the world still turns to for help.” He also reiterated his view that institutions are a “smart investments” and a “force multiplier” by increasing U.S. moral authority, making the behavior of others more predictable and reducing the need for costly unilateral action. Further, the United Nations is critical to tightening sanctions on Iran and pooling resources to help provide relief to refugees and rebuild war torn societies. A recommitment to these institutions signals the country’s continued strength and resolve because only a superpower confident in its standing would be willing “to affirm international norms through our actions.”
At the same time, the president’s understanding of leadership has changed. First, there is a focus on moving US leadership away from a emphasis on its military might that he fears can lead to costly and prolonged wars. Besides, major powers like Russia and China are not likely to be militarily intimidated when their perceived vital interests are at stake. Second, the president seeks to reach out to new partners to build new cooperative arrangements such as working with likeminded Arab governments to counter terrorism and address the Syrian crisis. It is a pragmatic understanding of leadership where the form of the collective endeavor and the precise followers will be decided based on the particular threat.
On the surface, this view of leadership and institutions seems sensible, but some key questions linger. First, if cooperation means working with states that routinely violate human rights, will it weaken the moral authority that the president deems so important? Second, the president may eschew force as a primary tool, but it still remains in the toolbox so he needs to explain how it fits into his leadership strategy. Third, is it realistic to believe that the U.S. can address thorny cross-national problems such as ISIS without the support of other major powers? If it is not realistic, must the US be prepared to share leadership with these countries? And can the contemporary institutional architecture manage recent major power disagreements and at least prevent them from escalating to war?
In the end, the president has shown that his view of U.S. leadership can change with the times. But this vision of international cooperation will remain incomplete until some pressing questions are answered.