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Obama’s Foreign Policy: Continuity or Change?

Free Research EssaysIn the world practice, a new president continues the foreign policy of the predecessors, keeping country’s image on the political arena. However, Obama’s foreign policy has been different in many spheres. He has made many reforms, but his foreign policy has been very different from that of his predecessor. Obama has received much criticism of the policy toward Iran, sanctions, the bombing of Libya, provoking civil war in Syria, “Arab Spring,” and the active promotion of radical extremism. It is possible that both Bush and Obama are opposites in their policies, but they can complement each other. Bush was in the right place at the right time. Obama is also in place in the current period. Bush planted the seeds of revolution. Obama is reaping the benefits of doing it with all his usual caution. The similar situation has already happened in the recent history in the form of successful tandem leaders who had opposing views. It is not so conspicuous as both the Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush belonged to the same party. It should be understood that the general direction of the U.S. foreign policy remains the same. The U.S. cannot allow China to become the dominant country in the world. The position of Russia becomes critical for the United States.

Short History on the U.S. Foreign Policy in the 20th Century

Already during the First World War, the United States was making efforts to ensure that they were acquiring the leading position on the global political arena. In 1914-1917, the United States pursued the policy of neutrality, which had had a positive impact on the economy. In the 1920s, the United States fought for political expansion in Latin America, buying land and providing loans through their companies. Some countries in the region were directly controlled by the U.S. finance and customs, in some cases reinforcing its presence by the army. Before World War II, the doctrine of isolationism had been very popular among the U.S. ruling elite. Victory in the Second World War and atomic bombing of Japan in August 1945 rapidly changed the role and importance of the U.S. in European and world politics.

Financial assistance. Very successful implementation of the plan for 1947-1952 on economic assistance to the countries of Western Europe, known as the Marshall Plan, allowed the U.S. to acquire finally a dominant economic and political influence on Western Europe and other regions of the world. Financial assistance to other countries or the international development assistance is one of the priorities of the U.S. foreign policy. In 1961, the Agency for International Development was established. Every year, the U.S. gives 0.5% of the federal budget for international development assistance. The U.S. assistance is aimed at development of nearly 100 countries located in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean area, and the Middle East. The U.S. is the world leader in the provision of official development assistance (ODA) in absolute terms. The volume of ODA from the United States in 2007 was 21,787 million dollars, 23,532 million dollars in 2006, 27,935 million dollars in 2005, 19,705 million dollars in 2004.

Military assistance. The United States also provides substantial military assistance to its allies. At the end of the fiscal year 2011, in the framework of intergovernmental agreements on programs of military aid to foreign countries, their governments were supplied with military products worth 28.3 billion dollars. Additionally, 6.5 billion dollars of military products were delivered within the framework of various agreements on security. The list of the top ten recipients of the U.S. military aid included Afghanistan ($5.4 billion), Taiwan ($4.9 billion), India ($4.5 billion), Australia ($3.9 billion), Saudi Arabia ($3.5 billion), Iraq ($2 billion), the United Arab Emirates ($1.5 billion), Israel ($1.4 billion), Japan ($0.5 billion), Sweden ($0.5 billion).

The United States has provided substantial financial aid to Israel since its emergence in 1948 (Sharp, 2015). In addition to the military support, Israel has been receiving the so-called ‘economic assistance’ from the United States: the money goes to pay the debt of the Israeli military loans taken from the United States before 1985. Since 1986, the total amount of aid comprises about $3 billion annually (Sharp, 2015).

Sometimes, the U.S. refusal of assistance is used as an instrument of pressure. Consequently, the military aid supply to 35 countries has been stopped. Moreover, the United States refused to sign an agreement not to extradite the U.S. citizens to the International Criminal Court: the agreement on the establishment of the court was signed first by the U.S., but then the country withdrew its signature.

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The U.S. obviously acquired the ‘hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.’ Since the 1940s, when the Roosevelt Administration rejected the policy of non-intervention, the United States were the initiators of many armed conflicts and military coups around the world, including the revolution in Iran in 1953, operations in 1961, the war in Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively. The former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the U.S. foreign policy “aggressive in terms of attitude to challenges and problems.”

Diplomacy and democracy. The foreign policy of the United States is implemented by the President and the State Department, headed by the Secretary of State. The United States conduct a complex foreign policy, the basic principles of which has proclaimed building safer world and spreading democracy in favor of the American people and the international community. The United States play an extremely important role in international relations, having the world’s most developed network of diplomatic missions. The United States of America was the founding member of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Alliance and a member of the UN Security Council. The U.S. diplomacy takes an active part in the resolution of almost all international conflicts and disputes.

One of the directions in the U.S. foreign policy is the policy of ‘soft power.’ Soft power is the ability of the state (or the union coalition) to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through persuasion rather than repression (imposition, coercion). Soft power is valid if it encourages others to observe or seeks to comply with their own consent with, or make profitable observance of certain norms of behavior and institutions on the international arena as a result of its speakers’ endeavors to achieve the desired outcomes with virtually no coercion. This concept belongs to the well-known American political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. The policy of soft power is the invisible and intangible distribution of sympathy for America in population.

Democracy is one of the fundamental objectives of the U.S. foreign policy. According to the U.S. State Department report, the examples of the success of this model can be considered as the ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine, political changes in Serbia, including Kosovo, and Montenegro (John McCain says he’s “ashamed” of the U.S. and himself over Ukraine. n.d.). Some nations negatively assess the process of ‘exporting’ democracy by the U.S. However, at the same time, the opponents of the hegemony of the United States often use the term ‘democratization’ to refer to the desired, in their opinion, changes in the international system (John McCain says he’s “ashamed” of the U.S. and himself over Ukraine. n.d.).

The U.S. security is determined by the nature of the regimes in other countries. The concept of expanding democracy has evolved in the ideological mainstream of Wilsonian liberal universalism, which is traditionally combined with pragmatic national interests of America and the ideas of the American ideological mission, which is to bring the liberal democratic principles to the world. The fact that the United States identifies itself with democracy is vital to the U.S. interests.

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Membership in the international organizations in the 20th century. The United States is the founder and permanent member of the UN. The U.S. participation in the UN strengthens the member states’ national security by promoting basic American values, and supports the global institutions and infrastructure, on which the economy of the 21st century depends. The U.S. will not abandon its leading role in the UN. On October 13, 2011, the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives approved a bill that limits the participation of Washington in the financing of the United Nations, explaining that only reduction in funding from the United States is able to influence the United Nations in relation to the question of recognition of Palestine (Hiatt, 2014). The bill provides voluntary transfer of the UN financing. Therefore, the United States invested 7.7 billion dollars in the UN in 2010, accounting for 22% of the budget of the organization (Hiatt, 2014).

The second organization where the U.S. has a leading role is NATO. The military and political alliance of NATO was established on April 4, 1949 and included 10 countries in Western Europe and Canada led by the U.S. Until 1991, the alliance had grown to 15 members, including the entire Germany, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. Initially, NATO was created to prevent the potential Soviet aggression against Western Europe. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact under the leadership of the Soviet Union was created in Eastern Europe with the similar purpose. Therefore, Europe was divided for more than 30 years.

NATO Charter suggests that aggression against any party of the contract is equal to aggression against all the countries of the alliance (common defense). It should be noted that while the United States declared its neutrality in the British-Argentine conflict and opposed Argentina indirectly, it gave substantial support to Great Britain.

In 1991, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and the Cold War was officially declared as discontinued. Therefore, the root that had caused the emergence of NATO disappeared. NATO’s attention shifted from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Since 1993, NATO aircraft have been actively involved in the Bosnian war. 1999 was a turning point in the history of NATO. The U.S. reneged on the 1991 Gorbachev promises to stop the expansion of NATO: in 1999, the alliance accepted Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic; in 2004, 7 more states of Eastern Europe, including the three former Soviet republics such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, became members of NATO. By this time, the United States has already announced its war against terrorism. In 2001, NATO troops were introduced in Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks (Barack Obama and the Afghan War, 2014). However, in 2003, some European NATO allies refused to join the war in Iraq. Currently, the governments of seven European countries, such as Georgia, have an active Atlanticist foreign policy and want to join NATO.

Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

Barack Hussein Obama is the 44th President of the United States of America. Barack Obama became the only candidate from the Democrats after Hillary Clinton officially announced her stopping the race on June 7, 2008 and endorsed Obama’s candidacy.

After unsuccessful attempts to run in 2000 in the U.S. House of Representatives, Barack Obama ran for the US Senate in January 2003. After winning the primary elections in March 2004, Obama gave the main speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004. He was elected to the Senate in November 2004, gaining 70% of votes. As a member of the Democratic minority in the 109th Congress convening, he helped create legislation on the regulation of conventional armaments and increase transparency in the use of the state budget. He also made official visits to Eastern Europe, including Russia, Middle East, and Africa. While working in the 110th Congress meeting, he participated in the creation of laws relating to fraud during the elections, lobbying, climate change, nuclear terrorism, and demobilized American service members.

Obama announced his desire to run for the presidency in February 2007; and at the 2008 presidential primaries, he was officially nominated by the Democratic Party in the Democratic National Convention as a presidential candidate, along with the candidate for the post of Vice-President, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden. During the 2008 presidential election, Obama was ahead of the candidate of the ruling Republican Party, John McCain, gaining 52.9% of the votes and 365 Electoral College votes against 45.7% and 173 by McCain, respectively.

October 9, 2009, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people.” During the presidential election of 2012, Obama defeated the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, gaining 51.1% of the votes and 332 Electoral College votes against 47.2% and 206 votes for Romney. According to the Associated Press, after Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential elections, the U.S. has experienced the increase in the number of cases of religious and racial intolerance. Obama’s victory sparked euphoria in some countries, which is a phenomenon called ‘Obama-mania,’ the symptoms of which began to appear as early as during the election campaign. It was particularly strongly observed in Kenya and some other countries in Africa and the Middle East (Hiatt, 2014).

In the world practice, the new president continues the foreign policy of the predecessors, keeping country’s image on the political arena. However, Obama’s foreign policy has been different in many spheres. He has made many reforms, but the most obvious has been the U.S. prevalence of soft power toward the world community.

Nevertheless, the previous U.S. Presidents were authoritative examples of those periods of high maximalist obligations that caused more damage to America’s position in the world than the periods of contraction. Sharp changes in the foreign policy were malicious, and that is what has been observed during Obama’s presidencies. Internal political response to the global idealism of Woodrow Wilson led the country to strong isolationism, which affected the delayed response to the challenge presented by Hitler. The escalation of the Vietnam War under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson led to a change in foreign politics in the 1970s. Moreover, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on misinformation led to the reduction of the current policy.

Iraq and Afghanistan. As a presidential candidate, Obama said that the war in Iraq was a mistake of the Bush Administration and Afghanistan should become the central front in the fight against terrorism. He stated that Afghanistan is “slipping into chaos and threatens to turn into a narco-state” (Barack Obama and the Afghan War, 2014). In middle of 2008, Obama advocated that until the summer of 2009, the US combat units would leave Iraq. The interesting fact is that at the stage of pre-election intraparty struggle for the nomination for the post of the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, the supporters of the Iraq war grouped around Clinton (she voted for it in the Senate), and Iraq war opponents grouped around Obama. He also said that after the inauguration, he would give the order to bring the war in Iraq to its end. However, after becoming a president, he has changed his views regarding the dates of the war, having said that the military operations would be finished in 18 months.

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In 2009, Obama strengthened the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In February, he sent 17 thousand soldiers there (Barack Obama and the Afghan War, 2014). In December, the U.S. president announced sending 30 thousand soldiers, emphasizing that the U.S. has no intentions to occupy Afghanistan. Currently, the American military contingent in Afghanistan has about 70 thousand people (Barack Obama and the Afghan War, 2014). “It is comparable with the number of Soviet troops at the height of the war the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (about 109 thousand people)” (Barack Obama and the Afghan War, 2014).

Due to the escalation of the U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan and fight for stabilization of the Iraq situation, the U.S. losses in Iraq were twice as big as in Afghanistan in 2008. The following year, the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan changed in the opposite way in relation to Iraq. In general, the U.S. forces in Afghanistan experienced the highest losses since the start of the mission there. Basically, the number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the first six months of Obama’s presidency was equal to the number killed during the two terms of George Bush Jr., from the start of the war until 2008. Nevertheless, the U.S. losses are far lower than the number of Soviet troopers killed every year between 1979 and 1989.

Foreign policy during the second presidency. After winning the elections, instead of the expected calm which would make it possible to implement the president’s goal, adverse events started happening one after another, leading to a decrease in the rating of Barack Obama. In general, the majority of American leaders elected for the second term performed much worse than the first time. Many events led to deterioration of the image of Barack Obama and the decrease in his popularity, for example, the situation around the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, problems with the launch of the health care reform, and the fluctuations in decision-making around the situation with the chemical attack in Syria. More disadvantages were presented by the information that the tax authorities allegedly harassed right-wing organizations, clandestine access to telephone conversations of journalists, and the scandal surrounding the revelations of Edward Snowden (Hiatt, 2014). Ineffectual methods of the Obama Administration to resolve the Syrian crisis forced the Middle East to seek support from those leaders who are able to offer effective solutions. At some point, the countries in the region have realized that cooperation with Russia gives more chances for stabilization in the region than hope for the rehabilitation of the U.S. policy.

In 2013, Obama’s rating steadily declined every month by 1-2 percentage points (Li, n.d.). In 2014, the situation worsened in April and September. The degree of validation of Obama reached its minimum: 51% of Americans had a negative attitude toward the president’s policy. According to the survey in 2014, 33% of respondents considered Obama the worst American president since the Second World War (28% voted for the so-called George Bush ‘Younger’) (Li, n.d.).

However, in April 2010, Obama signed an agreement with Russia on reducing strategic offensive arms, which was approved in December by the U.S. Senate. In May 2010, he passed a law requiring the State Department to provide more information about press freedom in the annual reports on human rights globally. In September 2010, Obama announced the suspension of military operations of the U.S. troops in Iraq; however, about 50,000 U.S. troops remained in the country. Since March 2011, the United States have been participating in the military operations in Libya. In the spring of 2011, Osama bin Laden was eliminated in Pakistan. On December 17, 2014, Obama became the first U.S. president who held talks with the leader of Cuba after the revolution in 1959. After talks with Raul Castro, Obama said that the United States would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Critical Interpretations

According to Robert Kagan (2011), the Obama Administration “is actually returned to the Clinton formula” of indispensable nation (Kagan, 2014). Kagan believes that the goal of the U.S. foreign policy is the revival and strengthening of the global liberal order, and the current administration is moving in this direction. According to him, there is not an urgent need to promote democracy as its protection at present; the point is not in the crusade but rather in the question of consolidation and democratic solidarity (Kagan, 2014).

At the same time, the United States does not take real effort to democratize theocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait. In Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope (2006), he wrote: “From the very beginning, I spoke in the Senate in a consistent and sometimes very harsh critic of Bush administration policies. I think tax cuts for the wealthy citizens are not only ill advised, but questionable from the standpoint of morality” (Obama, 2006). Obama did not define himself in clear ideological terms; however, his track record and the program show that he is somewhat more left from the center.

There was criticism from the Congress of the Administration of Barack Obama: it accused the U.S. in that diplomats in Benghazi were not provided with adequate protection. The former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader called Barack Obama a war criminal and criticized his foreign policy. Nader said, “The sovereignty of other countries does not mean anything for Obama. His drones can kill anyone, as it happens, for example, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. It is a war crime.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, hiding in the Embassy of Ecuador in London and using the video, gave a speech at the meeting of the UN General Assembly. In his speech, he criticized President Barack Obama for attributing an important role in the “Arab Spring” to himself and urged the president to stop the persecution of WikiLeaks.

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The prominent Republican John McCain, who actively supported Ukraine, harshly criticized Obama’s refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine and called such actions of the administration shameful. He also criticized the policy of the U.S. President Barack Obama toward Iran. The U.S. administration made the nuclear deal with Iran du to the assurances from Barack Obama, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and others that this agreement would open a new era in relations between the two countries. However, it seems that the opposite is occurring. Iran has sent hundreds of armed groups to collaborate with Russia and support Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran plans to buy soon the Russian anti-aircraft missile systems S-300, one of the most advanced in the world. McCain urged Barack Obama to abandon the “failed policies” of concessions to the Iranian authorities and begin to resist it (John McCain says he’s “ashamed” of the U.S. and himself over Ukraine. n.d.).

There are concerns that the United States should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Obama said that the United States should use military force on its own initiative unilaterally if there is a threat to its security or the security of its allies. If there is such a threat, it urges the country to act morally. In case, there is a dictator who kills a large number of its citizens, the United States should not interfere in it alone and should use force only if there is a good prospect of success. These are reasonable principles, but the limits of their application are unknown. The United States should avoid invasion and occupation. In the age of nationalism and socially mobilized population, foreign occupation, as Eisenhower said in 1950, should cause indignation. In the Middle East, where the revolution may last for generations, it is particularly difficult to create a reasonable combination of hard and soft pressure.

What is more, the U.S. government works ineffectively regarding foreign policy issues. Americans should be concerned about the fact that the exclusivity of their country turns into a detachment. The United States cannot maintain its global leadership if other countries see that the Congress permanently blocks international cooperation agreements. Apparently, all calls for bipartisanship will remain only beautiful rhetoric. The looming reality is very different from the political slogans. Moreover, both Obama and the Republican Congress have their own agendas, and both sides of the conflict are going to take steps to implement them.


In its foreign policy, the United States has quite a strong desire to impose the greatest impact on the rest of the world, which supports the national interests of the state and reinforces the national dignity. The U.S. applies a dominant principle in its foreign policy. However, Barack Obama has changed this position and weakened it by applying the changed U.S. foreign policy.

Leaders of the strongest country in the world are very important for the definition of global public values. Unfortunately, due to internal political deadlock, America often blocks such issues. Years ago, Barack Obama promised a change and that his domestic and foreign policies would be fundamentally different compared to President Bush’s vision of the future. However, in domestic politics, promising to refocus the country with the richest of its citizens to the majority, Obama has pursued a policy that any Republican would lead. In terms of foreign policy, compared with Bush, Obama’s campaign was based on the opposition to the Bush’s aggression. Nevertheless, the American contingent in Afghanistan has increased by 35 thousand soldiers. If Bush had planned to place ten interceptor missiles in Europe and a pair of radars, according to Obama, the missile defense system would already have had a four-stage structure. The unprecedented pressure on Iran and the crippling sanctions, the bombing of Libya, provoking civil war in Syria, “Arab Spring,” and the active promotion of radical extremism showed that the candidate who built his campaign on the peace proposal was much more aggressive than his predecessor. Moreover, one of the most important promises of his campaign was to close the Guantanamo prison and end torture; Obama also failed to comply with it.

The President Obama has given little attention to foreign policy; as a result, such not entirely democratic states as Russia, China, and Iran seek to occupy a dominant place in the world. The passive position of Obama has a detrimental effect on the country where the compromise is seen as a defeat. Avoidance of military intervention inspires those who believe it is the sign of readiness of the West to tolerate everything. The erosion of the West’s commitment to democracy and protection of borders of the countries provoke Russia and China to change their foreign policy, wanting to gain world leadership. These countries believe that they can fill the vacuum, expanding their sphere of influence to recreate eventually the lost empires, which may have disastrous consequences for freedom and democracy around the world.

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