Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy
The Limits of Engagement
London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
Paperback. vii+251p. ISBN 978-1780930374. £18.99 / $32.95
Reviewed by Roger Chapman and Kyra Kinnaman
Palm Beach Atlantic University (West Palm Beach, Florida)
This work is a sketch of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy during most of his first term of office. Robert Singh, the author, was going to deadline not knowing whether or not Obama would be re-elected, so consequently much of the material reads like a manuscript that was composed on a moving train. But since the author is no Howard Zinn, a certain level of neutrality has been achieved. Singh smugly suggests that as an academic in the UK he has an advantage in that, unlike most Americans, he can dispassionately evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration. Overall, the author is sympathetic to Obama while giving him mixed reviews on his handling of foreign affairs.
Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy begins with a brief summary of the meaning and emergence of the so-called “post-American” notion (chapter one) and then discusses the election of 2008, including foreign policy promises made by Obama at that time (chapter two). The third chapter offers a general summary of Obama’s foreign-policy strategy (“leading from behind”) prior to the date of the book’s publication. Chapters four through eight discuss America’s foreign relations with various individual countries or regions (Afghanistan, Pakistan and the “War on Terror”; Iran and Iraq; Israel, Palestine and the Arab Spring; China; and Russia). The conclusion (chapter nine) argues that Obama (during his first term of office) was restrained by four limits of strategic engagement: “strategic naivety; lack of conditionality; inattentiveness to the domestic setting of foreign policy; and a failure to consistently prioritize” . Each chapter begins with related quotes, which seems excessive given that the book is already quote-heavy. Each chapter is divided into an introduction, focused sections, corresponding subsections where necessary, and a conclusion. In addition, some chapters are augmented with pertinent tables and charts--such as a chart with a bar graph on different countries’ favorability ranking of the United States from 1999 to 2011  or a table of US-Iran security requirements . The structure of the book is its strength. The clearly organized format offers a succinct and easy-to-follow presentation. The chapters on particular countries or regions are a good reference for the particular settings. Endnotes and bibliography provide some sources for a quick “first draft of history.” Potentially this work will be something to compare and contrast with Obama’s second term of office, especially since during the entire first term the US State Department was headed by Hillary Clinton who after Obama’s reelection handed the baton to John Kerry.
Singh maintains that Obama’s foreign policy during his first term “reflected essential continuity” with the methods of his predecessor, George W. Bush . The Obama administration’s change in foreign policy, he claims, was not in the realm of action but only in the language used to symbolize it. Obama sought to change the tone in order to adapt to a shift in global relations from a post-Cold War unipolar situation in which America was the sole superpower to a twenty-first century multipolar world. Singh identifies four main aspects of Obama’s post-American foreign policy: the new “lead from behind” stance implemented by Washington; the use of “persuasion” over “coercion” in relations with other nations (the use of sanctions instead of military force; the improvement of relations with Muslims and Muslim nations; and the attempt to encourage the self-sufficiency of other nations, thus eliminating the need for the United States to act as a global cop). Despite the change to “soft leadership,” Singh asserts, America remains the leading nation in the world, providing the strength for the maintaining of important global organizations (such as NATO).
Singh inadequately addresses the chief ideological opposition to the post-American interpretation—the doctrine of American exceptionalism, which many Americans (and others) cling to. His failure to properly address such a critical topic weakens the validity of an already inconsistent interpretation. Although he acknowledges that Obama’s shift in foreign policy is often only rhetorical, Singh has not clearly demonstrated, only simply implied, the president’s abandonment of American exceptionalism in favor of a post-American approach. At different times throughout his presidency Obama has referred to the United States as “the one indispensable nation,” which anyone knowledgeable of American culture will readily recognize as a statement affirming American exceptionalism. Although American exceptionalism is referred to in certain passages of the book [e.g. 59], the term is not to be found in the index (an indication of how the author apparently discounts the importance of this belief with respect to those who carry out American foreign affairs).
The author synthesizes various points others have made before him, while offering little that is original. Singh’s Barack Obama’s Post-American Foreign Policy is largely a compilation of pre-existing views. The arguments are effectively explained, but the conclusions are those gleaned from other sources. Even the tables and charts are copied from other sources; not a single one is original to this author. Instead of offering a valid continuation of the post-American discussion, the book fails to do more than repackage opinions of previous writers on the subject.
Singh’s ability to provide a reliable interpretation of Obama’s approach to foreign policy is limited for several reasons. First, Obama is still in office, and thus Singh’s analysis is necessarily based on a severely truncated period of time. Second, the post-American thesis under discussion is primarily undergirded by references to the writing of one author, Fareed Zakaria. Further scholarly support would be needed to make his overall argument convincing. Moreover, he offers very few primary documents to support his thesis. One problem is that many such documents will not be made available to the scholarly community until the end of Obama’s term in office (not discounting WikiLeaks, which Singh uses sparingly and only cites via secondary sources). In place of such authoritative sources, the author uses news articles (many of which are opinion/editorial pieces), speeches made by government officials, and public-opinion polls. Any reader should keep in mind that Zakaria, the author of The Post-American World (2008), is a journalist and not a scholar. Even Dinesh D’Souza’s hatchet job on Obama, The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010), is used by Singh as a reference. In short, Singh’s source material constitutes a weak foundation for a serious academic work. Finally, the events and policies discussed in the book are still in motion, like a speeding train to an unknown destination. Since it remains to be seen what happens, rendering a verdict is tentative at best and foolish at worst. Moreover, the policy discussed is restricted to a limited part of the world and surely not representative of American global relations as a whole.
Singh perceives “irony” in the effects of many of Obama’s foreign policy decisions. Such an interpretation is not persuasive mainly due to its frequent appearance in the work. One or two ironic outcomes of foreign policy might seem reasonable; but if the author truly believes that so much of Obama’s action has had ironic results, it could very well be that the author is misreading events. On the other hand, the author may perhaps be unconsciously invoking Reinhold Niebuhr who, in The Irony of American History (1952), famously warned of the limitations of American power in global affairs. Various awkward references to popular culture disrupt the author’s intent to having a scholarly tone of the book. If the sources that were used as foundation to the book were more scholarly in nature, there would perhaps be a more professional tone communicated by the author. However, since the ability of the discerning reader to accept this book as a scholarly work is not possible, the informal references are only detrimental to the overall vision.
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