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The Obama Revolution: From Hustings to Reality

Commentary, 5 November 2008
The Obama campaign turned American politics upside down. His approach to campaign financing revolutionised the rules of the game, stirred unprecedented interest, and a larger, more informed electorate. Obama has transformed American politics, but will he revolutionise American foreign policy?

The Obama campaign turned American politics upside down. His approach to campaign financing revolutionised the rules of the game, stirred unprecedented interest, and a larger, more informed electorate. Obama has transformed American politics, but will he revolutionise American foreign policy?

By Lisa Aronsson, Head, Transatlantic Programme, RUSI


The Obama campaign turned American politics upside down. His approach to campaign financing revolutionised the rules of the game, and his use of the Internet and mobile web stirred unprecedented interest, brought people to the polls for the first time and produced a larger, more sceptical and informed electorate. Barack Obama portrayed himself as transcending politics, as a national reconciler, and as the harbinger of change in a disaffected country. No doubt President Obama has transformed American politics, but will he revolutionise American foreign policy as well?

Considering the nature of American politics, we may not be able to predict the tenets of President Obama’s foreign policy until after his official inauguration and after he has appointed the key decision-makers in his administration. What we do know is that campaign rhetoric rarely turns into presidential policy and that Obama’s policy will depend, of course, on how events unfold in the coming months.

Foreign Policy Change

Few Presidents-elect have stirred so much emotion in America and risen to prominence with such high international approval ratings. Obama is a great symbol of change and progress in America, and his message is especially powerful considering the American and global public’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. As such, President Obama is likely to respond to these expectations early in his presidency with a series of highly symbolic foreign policy decisions. He will shift the rhetoric away from Bush’s first term unilateralism and excessive reliance on military might. Obama’s first decisions will aim to repair America’s foreign relations and its reputation in the world. He will decide to close down Guantánamo Bay detention camp, end America’s policy of torture, reconsider extraordinary rendition and re-engage America as a leader in multilateral negotiations for a global climate regime.

Such decisions will be easy for Obama to promise and they will earn him much applause around the world. When the applause dies down however, challenges will abound. Closing Guantánamo will require him to jump through a complex set of legal and political hurdles, while concluding negotiations on climate change will require unprecedented co-operation between the big emitters as well as leadership and vision. Obama’s campaign provided few signposts for a new direction in foreign policy. Generally speaking, he will define the war on terror more narrowly and he will broaden the foreign policy agenda to include human security concerns, climate change, public health and organized crime. In a symbolic shift, the war on terror will no longer dictate the means and ends of American foreign policy. In a sense, his approach recalls the Clinton years – which focused on globalisation and humanitarian concerns – and the post-Vietnam era, when Republicans clung to Cold War thinking and Democrats acknowledged the Sino-Soviet split and the environmental agenda.

The Economy, Stupid, is Back

As a first priority, Obama will have to restore confidence and organise policy to manage the economic crisis, stimulate the economy and get the nearly $1 trillion deficit under control. It will not be Obama but urgency that will dictate the contours of reform of the economic institutions. The process will already be underway through emergency sessions of Congress and the G-20 summit, events which will take place well before Obama’s inauguration. Secondly, the US simply has neither the money nor the flexibility to follow through on all of Obama’s plans. After bailing out Wall Street at an unknown cost, and with Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and a defence budget exceeding $500 billion, it is becoming clear that in the very near future, something has to give.

The defence budget is ripe for review, but Obama is not prepared to disengage from international affairs or to be considered weak in security politics. As neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan pointed out, Obama is actually more interventionist than many people realise, and he is likely to appoint a few former Clinton officials with arguably interventionist approaches, such as Anthony Lake and Susan Rice. As Kagan notes, Obama embraces elements of Bush’s mandate to 'spread freedom' in Iraq but hopes to balance it with capabilities-building measures, reconstruction and development. He will not be able to pursue every agenda, but defence cuts could have significant political consequences for him.

We all know that President Bush’s abysmally low approval ratings are common knowledge, but many forget that Congressional approval ratings are even lower. A newly elected Democratic Congress will play an important role in shaping upcoming legislation, and the victory might be interpreted as a full mandate for leaders to push their projects forward. They will push health care reform and a left-leaning social agenda that could hearken back to President Johnson’s Great Society. If Congress rushes to pass an avalanche of new regulation, it might end up being considered anti-business by the right. On top of foreign policy concerns, this agenda threatens to break the budget. President Obama might find himself constrained to ensure that new regulations are not too much, too soon.

Inheriting Iraq and Afghanistan

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Obama called for a shift in focus away from Iraq and back to the greater Middle East, but transforming this rhetoric into reality will be challenging. Obama has promised to end the war in Iraq ‘responsibly’ and to redeploy troops within sixteen months. He has also committed to promoting national reconciliation, advocating UN-led Iraqi constitutional convention and addressing the refugee crisis. In Baghdad, however, the sheer numbers of US troops and unprecedented numbers of private contractors make the logistics of withdrawal complex. Even if Obama started today, withdrawal could take years. Moreover, the politics of withdrawal could lead to escalated violence between elements of Iraq’s Shia national government, misuse of official institutions, political assassinations and the rise of criminal mafias. Of course, the nature of the American presence in Iraq requires major transformation, a date must be set for redeployment, and the withdrawal must be managed with skill and sensitivity. Obama will have to step up to the plate, but because of logistics, his withdrawal might end up resembling the Bush Plan anyway.

Turning the tide in Afghanistan presents another major challenge. Obama will move troops into Afghanistan as soon as he can, but delays should be expected and he will continue to press for more troops from NATO allies without caveats. The mission is also suffering from a severe lack of civilian resources and poor co-ordination efforts and Obama will have to call for more attention to reconstruction and development to bolster the stabilisation package. Building a political alliance between NATO, the Afghan and Pakistani governments against a common enemy will be exceptionally difficult. These are necessary moves and Obama will follow through on them, but a delayed surge will not solve all of his problems. Obama will have to confront hard-hitting questions about whether or not the current strategy in Afghanistan is working. Questions remain about how to integrate civilian and military efforts, about how to balance the provision of security with development and about how to build capacities, establish governance, and build an effective justice system.

Confronting a Nuclear Iran

Because of Obama’s campaign rhetoric, the national assumption is that he will do everything possible to avoid a military showdown with the mullahs, and that he will not accept a nuclear Iran. Obama has made it abundantly that a nuclear Iran would have disastrous consequences for the region. Not only would it essentially re-write the rules of the game in Middle East politics, but it could spark an arms race in the region. Obama will conduct talks with the Iranian leaders while continuing to isolate Iran economically and he will try to coordinate with European leaders to prevent Tehran from exploiting intra-Western tensions. In all likelihood, his policy will involve ‘tough presidential diplomacy’ without preconditions, but as Obama has acknowledged, it is becoming clear that a credible threat of military force must not fall off the political radar.

Neither the Western economies nor the Iranian economy can afford a new Middle East crisis. Iran has been deeply affected by falling oil prices. If they continue to fall, Obama’s diplomacy might begin to have an impact but Iran’s response to changing prices is unpredictable. Obama will begin with diplomatic efforts but if they fail, they must be followed by sanctions and then, potentially, war. Otherwise, he will have to manage the consequences of a nuclear-weapon equipped Iran and its implications for proliferation around the world.


As Obama conducted his campaign, so he will emerge as president – as a national reconciler and moderate political figure. His foreign policy agenda will focus on defeating Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, on securing nuclear weapons materials, energy security and investing in alliance relationships. Whether or not we agree that Obama should continue the policies of the second Bush administration it is likely that he will. This is because of constraints engendered by the urgency of the financial crisis, the soaring deficit, Congressional politics, facts on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hurdles Obama will have to jump to close Guantánamo and conclude an agreement on climate change.

At the end of the day, no president that began with a list of objectives has ever been remembered as having followed through on all of them. Like every president in American history, President Obama will be faced with unexpected crises. He will have to rise to the occasion.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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