“Multilateralism regulates hubris” — a Pearl of Foreign Policy Wisdom from President Obama

There is a lot to appreciate in Jeffrey Goldberg’s long exploration of President Obama’s foreign policy views. But perhaps nothing so succinctly sums up president Obama’s understanding of American power in the context of the United Nations as these two quotes from Obama:

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

This concept has a rich intellectual lineage. In one form, it’s known as “strategic restraint” which is the basic idea that the USA, as the world’s leading power after World War Two, created an international system, including the United Nations, which deliberately imposed constraints on the USA’s ability to act unilaterally. But, in accepting these constraints for itself, the USA in fact created an international system that enabled the USA to remain a dominant world power for the foreseeable future. Should the USA ignore the rules of the road it created and more or less unilaterally, the USA could undermine its standing in the world and it’s relative ability to project power. The Iraq war is a good example of this. Nothing so deeply punctured the mystique of American power as the hubristic invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The second quote is equally instructive, and perhaps a corollary to the idea that the USA should remain a restrained, retrenched global power. Engaged American leadership, says Obama, is absolutely necessary for progress on some of the most important and urgent global challenges.

“I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said. But on the other hand, “if we don’t set the agenda, it doesn’t happen.” He explained what he meant. “The fact is, there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been president where we are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results,” he said. “That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.”

American leadership is both indispensable, and America should not go it alone. Wise concepts to live by.