The Five Pillars of Obama's Foreign Policy

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

President Obama stands for the national anthem before speaking at Ghana's Parliament on July 11, 2009

The introductory phase of Barack Obama's foreign policy ambitions concluded on July 11 before the Ghanaian Parliament, when a solo trombonist sounded a few ceremonial notes. Obama had just finished his fourth major address on international affairs in as many months, and a few hours later, he would return to Washington from his fourth overseas trip.

All the i's had been dotted and the t's crossed. In sometimes exhaustive, often repetitive detail, Obama has traveled the world, from Riyadh to Cairo and from London to Moscow — he plans to travel to China and other parts of Asia in the fall — offering his international vision: a hodgepodge of classic realpolitik, diplomatic determination, community-organizer idealism and charismatic leadership. He has presented what he hopes will become a new public identity for the U.S.: less global leader than global facilitator, less savior than responsible partner.

The effect of this change in tone, style and message will not be known for some time. What's more, it can be difficult to measure results in international affairs — to say conclusively, for instance, that Russia's cooperation on nuclear-weapon reductions could not have happened under a McCain Administration or that the willingness of China to increase pressure on North Korea is anything more than a response to the rogue nation's increasing belligerence.

What is known now, however, is the outline of Obama's operating philosophy of world affairs, a set of principles and assumptions that were only hinted at during the protracted presidential campaign. So what is the new Obama Doctrine? Here are five of its central pillars:

1. Biography Matters
During the campaign, Obama told American voters that his election as the first black President, a man of goatherd ancestry and foreign upbringing, could itself change geopolitical dynamics. Since his election, he has been working hard to make good on that promise, aggressively marketing his background. In Africa, he spoke about the colonialist mistreatment his Kenyan grandfather faced, and in Cairo he talked about his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. He presents himself internationally as he does domestically, as an embodiment of meritocratic achievement that can happen in free and open societies. "I have the blood of Africa within me," he said in Ghana. "And my family's own story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the larger African story." His message was hard to miss: If I can do it, so can you. It was a message targeted directly at the people of the world, not their governments.

2. If It's Good for the South Side, It's Good for the World
Nothing has been more central to the President's foreign policy approach than the theoretical lessons he learned as a community organizer in Chicago: listen to different views, understand the various motivations and then focus on the commonalities rather than the disagreements. He repeats these refrains everywhere he goes. "The United States and Russia have more in common than they have differences," Obama said last week, shortly after meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in the Kremlin. At an April press conference in Trinidad, the President elaborated on his thinking, describing the more collaborative approach to diplomacy as one that can clear away "old preconceptions or ideological dogmas." "Countries are going to have interests," he said, sounding very much the community-organizing theorist. "And changes in foreign policy approaches by my Administration aren't suddenly going to make all those interests that may diverge from ours disappear. What it does mean, though, is at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate."

3. Pragmatism Should Often Trump Idealism
Compared with the relatively Panglossian vision of George W. Bush, who sought to remake whole parts of the world under the banner of American moral authority, Obama brings a more conservative, cynical view to the question of when nations should act on idealistic impulses. At a press conference on Friday, the President was asked how he resolves the theoretical conflict between respecting state sovereignty and intervening to defend the universal rights of oppressed people. "The threshold at which international intervention is appropriate, I think, has to be very high," Obama said. "There has to be strong international outrage at what's taking place. It's not always going to be a neat decision." That same pragmatism is evident in Obama's approach to negotiating. As a rule, he has sworn off the Bush practice of punishing foreign misbehavior by cutting off diplomatic ties or threatening an end to direct conversation. Weeks after the bloody crackdowns began in Iran, the President says he still hopes the nation's leaders will meet with him at the negotiating table before September to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

4. America Is One of Many Nations
The U.S. continues to boast the largest, most powerful military in the world and a gross domestic product nearly twice as large as the next biggest national economy, China. But Obama has made a point of noting, stop after stop, that America's fate is tied to those of developing nations. He also says repeatedly that despite America's commitment to open societies with democratic governance, the U.S. will not seek to impose its views or form of governance on other countries. In Strasbourg, France, in April, Obama described this view, asserting that it takes nothing away from America's extraordinary position in the world when he says the U.S. will not always lead. "The fact that I am very proud of my country — and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world — does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise, and that includes us," he said.

5. Young People Matter
As President, Obama has adopted the mantle of chief youth inspirer. At almost every stop, Obama makes an appeal to young people, often addressing them directly through television cameras. "You get to decide what comes next. You get to choose where change will take us," he said in Moscow. "In places like Ghana, young people make up over half of the population," Obama said on his African stop. "The world will be what you make of it." The same refrain was repeated in Cairo and is a feature of his rhetoric elsewhere. Addressing the youth is a well-worn trope in politics. But for Obama, it points to a bigger hope: that the change he speaks about will ultimately be generational and therefore more lasting.