The Obama Revolution

Obama revolution

The Barack 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 more informed electorate. During his campaign, Barack Obama portrayed himself as transcending politics, as a national reconciler and as the harbinger of change in a disaffected country. No doubt President-elect Obama has already 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 unexpected events unfold in the coming months.

Already, the 2008 campaign period has defied all expectations. In terms of foreign policy, analysts had long predicted that the Iraq war would dominate American politics in the run-up to the elections. By August, the focus fell on the Georgian crisis and the West’s relationship with an increasingly assertive Russia. No one expected that foreign policy would be relegated to the back burner or that debates about values, abortion and minority rights would slip off the radar in the crucial period before the elections, especially considering the African-American candidate and a conservative woman on the Republican ticket. Barack Obama managed to remain calm and ‘presidential’ despite the unexpected events of his campaign. The President-elect now faces a complex transition to the White House and after that, a difficult world.

Foreign Policy Change

Few Presidents-elect have stirred so much emotion in America and abroad, and risen to prominence with such high international approval ratings. Obama is a great symbol of struggle, success, change and progress in America, and his message is especially powerful considering the global public’s dissatisfaction with the George W 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. The fact is, the CIA has ‘sobering intelligence claims’ against many of the detainees,[1] and closing the camp presents a difficult choice between sending them home, which could backfire, or charging them on American soil in civilian or military courts with limited evidence. In any case, the process will require new legislation. On climate change, concluding negotiations will require unprecedented co-operation between the big emitters as well as much leadership and vision. On top of that, the Doha Round of world trade negotiations, the WTO more generally, and other struggling economic institutions will need international attention. After the initial post-inauguration gesture, the contours of Obama’s foreign policy remain somewhat of a mystery to analysts, since his campaign provided few signposts for a new direction in foreign policy.

Generally speaking, President Obama 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 organised crime. 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. In a symbolic shift, the President-elect will transform the discourse of foreign policy and a narrowly defined War on Terror will no longer dictate the means and ends of foreign policy.

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 the debate and plans to reform the economic institutions. The process will already be underway through emergency sessions of Congress and the G-20 financial summit on 15 November, events which will take place well before Obama’s inauguration. Secondly, as New York Senator Chuck Schumer pointed out, the US simply has neither the money nor the flexibility to follow through on all of Obama’s plans.[2] 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 it is not clear what can be cut or by how much. Obama is not prepared to disengage from international affairs with a 1930s-style isolationism, or to be considered weak in international security politics. As neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan pointed out, Obama is actually more of an interventionist than many people realise,[3] 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 much of Bush’s mandate to ‘spread freedom’ across Iraq and much of his idealist assumptions, but criticises it for not going far enough. Obama would like to balance that agenda with more capability-building measures and specific plans for reconstruction and development. After deposing a dictator, the efforts require more money to build a legislature, design an effective judicial system, train a police force, and invest in civil society.

Obama will not be able to pursue every agenda, but defence cuts could have significant political consequences for him. A missile defence budget cut, for example, would have important repercussions for US-Russia and NATO-Russia relations. Will we see a return of the 1970s Atlantic burden-sharing debates? Will Europe be ready to make more meaningful contributions? Is it possible that President Obama might end up being considered soft on terrorism? The financial crisis will continue to spark instabilities across the world, and it has arguably made the world a much more difficult place to manage.

President Bush’s abysmally low approval ratings are common knowledge, but many forget that Congressional approval ratings are even lower, having hit 9 per cent on two occasions this summer.[4] Many Americans are unhappy with the idea of a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress and only 34 per cent believe that ‘one party rule’ is good for America.[5] The President-elect might end up being tested by his colleagues: the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid. A newly elected Democratic Congress might interpret this victory as a full mandate. They will play an important role in shaping upcoming legislation and they might want to push some of their pet projects forward, including health care reform and a social agenda that could harken 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. They might also launch a perceived war against drug companies, new regulations on credit and tobacco, and new measures for the banking and mortgage sectors. Obama’s proposed stimulus package grew from $60 billion to $175 billion and some Washington Democrats are talking about a $300 billion package.[6] 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. He will need to remain a moderate political figure, and must not ignore the fact that the Republican Party still represents a sizeable portion of the American electorate.

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.

In Iraq, Obama has promised to end the war ‘responsibly’ and to redeploy troops within sixteen months. He has also committed to promoting national reconciliation, advocating a 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 because of a rise in Afghan nationalism, they must only be there temporarily. Moreover, Obama will have to expect delays in the redeployment process because of complications in Iraq. He will be forced to continue pressing NATO allies for more troops and fewer national caveats. Nevertheless, replicating the surge would be a mistake.

The mission is also suffering from a severe lack of civilian resources and poor co-ordination efforts; 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, however, and Obama will follow through on them, but they 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 clear 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 Eastern 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 co-ordinate 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 Eastern 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 fissile nuclear material stocks, 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, 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 he will have to jump to close Guantánamo and conclude an agreement on climate change.

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.


Lisa Aronsson

Head, Transatlantic Programme




1 William Glaberson and Margot Williams, ‘Guantánamo Cases Will Challenge Next President’, International Herald Tribune, 3 November 2008.

2 Senator Chuck Schumer, quoted in Douglas Schoen, ‘Democrats Shouldn’t Over-interpret a Victory Mandate’, The Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2008.

3 Robert Kagan, ‘Obama the Interventionist’, The Washington Post, 29 April 2007.

4 ‘Congressional Performance’, Rasmussen Reports, 27 August 2008.

5 ‘Just 34% Like One-Party Rule in Washington’, Rasmussen Reports, 30 October 2008.

6 Debra Saunders, ‘Questions about Obama’, Rasmussen Reports, 27 August 2008.

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

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