Obama Year One Shows Constructive Global Engagement Has Won the Foreign Policy Debate

As President Obama heads to Capitol Hill tonight to deliver the State of the Union address, one thing is clear: in both rhetoric and deed, President Obama has fundamentally shifted the direction of American foreign policy.  He has summoned bedrock progressive principals to re-calibrate America’s role in the world. Through a policy of engagement with international institutions and cooperation abroad, the administration has racked up an impressive set of foreign policy achievements after just one year. Oh — and in the process, Obama has shown the uselessness of an arrogant go-it-alone foreign policy that was the hallmark of American foreign policy just a couple of years ago. 

Some of these achievements have been relatively high profile, others behind the scenes. On the non-proliferation front, the Obama administration “reset” American policy with Russia and is engaging in a new round of nuclear arms reduction. When North Korea launched a nuclear test in May, the Obama administration led the Security Council in passing the strongest set of sanctions in Council history. In September, Obama chaired a Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation—the first time in history that an American president has done so. The meeting resulted in the unanimous adoption of a resolution that imposed new provisions to deter countries from withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the endorsement of stricter export controls and safeguards, among other measures. The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences cited these efforts in its decision this month to move back the “Doomsday Clock” to six minutes to midnight.

On climate change, the United States reversed eight years of American indifference to international efforts to curb global warming. President Obama joined other heads of state at a UN summit on Climate Change in September. And then, in December, he became personally involved in negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

On some less high profile issues, the administration has also made some significant headway. The administration reversed Bush administration’s policy to support a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the outlaw of homosexuality. The administration is also supporting the International Criminal Court’s action against Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who is accused of genocide in Darfur. And, for the first time in eight years, the United States participated (as an observer) at a meeting of the ICC.

President Obama has done more to support UN peacekeeping than any American president in recent history. Over 100,000 peacekeepers, only a handful of which are American, are deployed to 17 global hotspots. These peacekeepers share the burden of maintaining global peace and security and are sent to places (like Darfur, the Congo) where the United States cannot or will not deploy. UN peacekeepers were in Haiti long before U.S. Marines arrived last week and will remain there long after  in Haiti long after the marines depart. To its credit, the administration has made strengthening UN peacekeeping a centerpiece of its work at the UN. Back in Washington, this means putting our money where our mouth is and Obama has pressed congress to pay back America’s arrears to the UN and restore full funding to UN peacekeeping and the United Nations as a whole.

The administration has also supported international women’s issues and international family planning. The Secretary of State convened a Security Council meeting that resulted in the unanimous adoption of a resolution on sexual violence in armed conflict, which called on the Secretary General to appoint a high level representative to lead international efforts to combat this scourge. And immediately upon taking office, President Obama reversed the so-called global gag rule that prevented American assistance to NGOs doing important international family planning work. On top of that administration restored American funding to the UN Population Fund, which provides family planning and health services to assistance to women in the developing world.

There are a number of other examples, big and small, that show the extent to which the Obama administration has demonstrated a committment to the premise of constructive global enagement.  Individually, each of these steps — and others — have helped to restore the United States to its rightful place as a global power that is respected not only for its military might, but for its moral leadership. To be sure, the administration’s record is not perfect; the future of Afghanistan remains unclear and the process of closing Guantanamo has taken longer than expected. But that should not obscure that in one year, the Obama administration has marshaled progressive foreign policy principals to deliver tangeable gains for the United States. 

It has has shown that a little global cooperation can go a long way.