Is the foreign policy of President Obama no different from that of George W. Bush? Bob Kagan wrote an article in the Post last week arguing just this.
Kagan, a foreign policy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, claims that in the most urgent foreign policy challenges facing the US -- North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, democracy and human rights -- the new White House is essentially continuing the trajectory of America's last administration. Kagan says that the only difference is in the rhetoric, where Obama has declared a new type of foreign policy.
But Kagan is wrong for two broad reasons. First, in some ways, Obama policy really has departed from Bush. For example, Obama is undertaking a different strategy in Afghanistan. Where Bush would not negotiate with the Taliban, Obama's team has made it clear that the Taliban are not one monolithic group and should be treated as such -- some militants can be reconciled through negotiation.
The second reason Kagan is mistaken is that he discounts the change in style as an unimportant. (Of course, as one of the leading realists in the world, Kagan may be irreconcilable on this issue.) True, rhetoric is not the same thing as action. But authority is not only derived from what you do. It is derived, in large part, through consent. Trust matters.
To the rest of the world, Iraq and the "War on Terror" under Bush was tied to America's larger disregard for international law and the interests of people from other countries. Iraq was an illegal war, "Axis of Evil" was an arbitrary justification for aggression, the "War on Terror" became a codified war on Islam, Guantanamo Bay took away the basic rights of hundreds, and torture was kicking dirt on the Geneva Convention. In the eyes of others, the US had become a bellicose, unilateral superpower.
Even though Obama policy, on the ground, has not changed drastically from Bush, Obama's symbolic overtures have made a profound difference in regaining America's moral authority around the world. Let's be honest, Guantanamo Prison now only holds a couple hundred people, so the closing of that prison is not affecting large populations. But the gains in authority around the world are profound. The same can be said for ending the practice of torture and committing to a more cooperative approach in foreign policy. By submitting itself to a more consensual system of international rules, the US regains authority.
And this authority will matter in significant ways in the future. Two examples: 1) countries are more likely to follow international law if the most powerful countries in the world are doing so. At the very least, it takes away an excuse for not abiding by law -- think Iran or Russia. 2) Fewer individual people may feel compelled to formulate grand, violent plots against Americans as a form of vigilante justice for the law-breaking USA. In other words, rebuilding authority would mitigate one of the contributing factors to terrorism.
In discussing the importance of symbolism and consent with one of my colleagues, I used the example of a book. Imagine you have a favorite book. Scenario one: an acquaintance takes the book from you and, after you fret over where it went for a few days, tells you that they borrowed it. Scenario two: an acquaintance asks you if they can borrow the book before you graciously allow them to do so. In both cases, the exact same thing is happening in regards to the book (it goes into the possession of the acquaintance), thus the prior consent for borrowing the book is symbolic. But in the first scenario, you will surely be more irritated because you did not give consent. The consent is what gives the acquaintance the authority to possess the book.
Without consent, America's actions eroded its authority for most of the past eight years. Would the effect of Iraq War not have been profoundly different if it had been authorized by the United Nations? Obama is not leading a revolution in foreign policy. But if his change in approach leads to a world in which others don't feel threatened by American power, then that is a clear departure from the feelings invoked by Bushian foreign policy.
Note: my thesis at The Ohio State University was on the subject of US authority in international relations. You can read it here.