Obama’s First Hundred Days: Foreign Policy

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

Editor’s note: This article appears in Thirsting for Change: Obama’s First 100 Days, a report published by the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Bush administration transformed the way the United States dealt with the world. It invaded two countries, began a war on terror that had no geographic or time limits, boosted military spending, acted unilaterally, and ignored international law. Although his second term was more pragmatic than his first — with an important reversal on North Korea policy and rapprochement with Libya — George W. Bush generally emphasized military force over diplomatic negotiations, acting more like a cowboy than a statesman.

Barack Obama promised a different foreign policy: more diplomatic, more modest, more in keeping with international institutions and international law.

On some issues, such as torture, nuclear weapons policy, and climate change, he has made an early down-payment on his promises. But whether he’s adding to an already gargantuan Pentagon budget or sending more troops to Afghanistan, the president has also maintained some disturbing continuities with Bush-era policies.

Perhaps the most important change the Obama administration brought to the White House has been its new tone. The president has reached out to the Muslim world, giving his first press interview to al-Arabiya and telling Turkish audiences in his first trip to a Muslim country that the United States “is not and never will be at war with Islam.” He has indicated, in general, a willingness to use diplomacy over force. This change in tone extends to a more positive attitude toward multilateral treaties and institutions.

While visiting Prague in early April, Obama pledged to seek the abolition of nuclear weapons, a break with several decades of U.S. foreign policy. This commitment, if followed up with vigorous negotiations with Moscow and support for multilateral agreements like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, would go a long way toward making the United States a responsible global actor. At the same time, however, the president renewed his conditional support for missile defense, a still largely hypothetical system that has undercut past efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals.

On his first European trip, Vice President Joe Biden made a speech at the Munich conference on security promising European allies a “new era of cooperation.” But he also warned that the United States would “work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must.” This phrase echoed the Clinton administration’s commitment to “multilateralism when we can, unilateralism when we must.” In other words, the Obama administration will continue to act unilaterally in situations where it can’t get international support.

In another promising change towards multilateralism, the United States is poised to reverse the Bush administration policies on climate change. The U.S. Congress, both houses of which are controlled by the Democratic Party, is likely to introduce a cap on U.S. carbon emissions for the first time. Obama is leaning toward a cap-and-trade system, by which the government auctions off carbon emission permits and raises an estimated $650 billion that would offset the higher energy costs to consumers. While a straightforward carbon tax would avoid the many problems associated with cap-and-trade, the administration at least wants to bring the United States into compliance with the Kyoto Protocol and, more importantly, advance efforts to replace Kyoto with a stricter treaty.

On other multilateral issues, the administration lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international groups that perform abortions. It has supported the Six Party Talks in Northeast Asia. And although U.S. ratification of the Rome Treaty isn’t in the offing, Obama has pledged to work more closely with the International Criminal Court.

Military Spending

The U.S. military budget increased more than 70% under the Bush administration. At a time when the federal government is scrambling to locate enough money to bail out banks, stimulate the economy, and maintain current social services, the Pentagon budget would seem to be a perfect target for reduction. The United States is currently spending more than $700 billion a year on the military, which is roughly equal to the economic stimulus package. Yet, when the new administration released its first budget figures, the Pentagon still got a raise. For 2010, the Obama administration is requesting $20 billion more in military spending than Congress allocated for 2009. Pentagon chief Robert Gates was overjoyed. He had expected the budget to grow “only at the pace of inflation,” and instead he did better than that.

In early April, Gates did take aim at a couple weapons systems — such as the F-22 Raptor and the DDG-1000 Destroyer — which is an important step toward ending the Cold War force posture. But the overall Pentagon budget will, for the time being, remain high.

Global War on Terror

In his first decisions as president, Obama fulfilled his election pledge by recasting counterterrorism policy. In a series of executive orders, the new president mandated the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility in Cuba within a year, outlawed the use of torture in interrogations, and put the CIA out of the secret prisons business. Obama announced that he wanted to “send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be as just as our cause.”

After 100 days, the Obama administration has righted the most egregious of the Bush administration’s wrongs in the realm of foreign policy. But whether it’s the surge in Afghanistan, the ever-rising tide of military spending, or the continued commitment to missile defense, the new president hasn’t yet escaped the long shadow of his predecessor.

These immediate changes were part of an overall effort to signal a change in U.S. image in the world. During the eight years of the Bush administration, U.S. popularity in the world plummeted to new lows. U.S. reputation suffered tremendously because of the violations of international law committed at Guantánamo, the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, and the extraordinary renditions by which the CIA secretly abducted suspects and transferred them to third countries without trial. The Obama administration restored a good deal of confidence by bringing U.S. policy in line with the norms of international law.

Although the Obama administration acted courageously with these executive orders and retired the aggressive phrase “global war on terrorism” in favor of “overseas contingency operations,” it didn’t fundamentally change U.S. counterterrorism policy.

On the civil liberties front, for instance, the administration retains the right to use renditions, a policy introduced by the Clinton administration. Also, the inmates at the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, which holds more prisoners than Guantánamo, and the thousands held in Iraq won’t get the case-by-case review accorded to their counterparts in Cuba.

Even if Obama holds to his word on torture, closes Guantánamo within the year, applies the same yardstick to detainees at Bagram and in Iraq, and eliminates extraordinary rendition, the larger framework of the war on terrorism remains. The Obama administration has maintained the policy of airstrikes within Pakistan that have killed numerous civilians and enraged Pakistanis for the violations of their sovereignty.

Then there’s Afghanistan, which will be the new epicenter of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The Obama administration has backed a “surge” in U.S. troops in Afghanistan and is trying hard to persuade its NATO allies to also increase troop levels. In Iraq, although the administration announced the withdrawal of soldiers, as many as 50,000 “non-combat” troops will remain in the country. We’re still selling arms to Indonesia, Israel, and Colombia as part of an overall counterterrorism approach. The Pentagon’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM) still looks at counterterrorism through a military lens.

In short, the United States is still using terrorism as a justification for the maintenance of a worldwide network of military bases, a set of alliances sustained by a high level of military assistance, and a set of strategic relationships with often unsavory regimes around the world.


  • Executive orders on closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center and ending torture
  • Declared commitment to nuclear abolition
  • More respectful tone and more diplomatic approach
    coming from the White House


    • Increase in troops sent to Afghanistan
    • Increase in military budget by 4%
    • Falling back on the International Monetary Fund to bail out the global economy

So how did IPS experts rate Obama on foreign policy? Read our report to find out.

FPIF, April 24, 2009

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