Barack Obama's plan for American foreign policy, laid out in the pages of Foreign Affairs, has certainly earned its share of earnest affirmations. I find this unsurprising, as it is bursting with the megawatt dosages of forward-looking intellect that have made Obama's campaign into the political event of our time. But the piece has also earned it's first big-name detractor – communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni has taken Obama to task on the virtual pages of the Huffington Post. Etzioni finds Obama's offerings insubstantial:
Obama's favorite term, repeated ad nauseum, ad infinitum, is vision. What we need, the Senator writes, is "vision." We need a "visionary leadership" and "a new vision of leadership." This is, of course, all too true but also tells us very little as to which vision of foreign policy this new leader would ask us to follow.
Where Obama's broader strokes appear vacuous to Etizioni, he is also underwhelmed by the specific topics Obama tackles in the lengthy article, dismissing each of Obama's concerns as betraying a “random shopping list approach” to foreign policy. Indeed, Etizioni isn't looking for “lofty goals” or “wonkish specs”, rather he would like to see Obama articulate a “worldview”. Goals and specs out, worldviews in. Now who's being vacuous?
The precise thrust of Etzioni's critique is hard to discern. But reading his brief piece leaves the impression that what Etizioni wants from Obama is an ideology. He looks favorably upon the neo-conservative movement, for instrumentalizing democracy in the provision of security, and even upon neo-liberalism, for taking economic development as the central component of a secure geopolitical sphere. But Obama's vision of leadership gets written off by Etizioni as lacking in "substantive vision" because it does not ask that America orient itself to the world in the name of any single principle. Instead he looks backward, to what he sees as the proudest moments in American foreign policy under the leadership of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. Then, from that footing, he moves to discuss the issues he sees as critical in our time.
Perhaps I am too eager to stake Obama as a philosophical compatriot, but his politics seems to be animated by a non-ideological pragmatism that I can only endorse. He tackles each vital issue – global warming, the war on terror, the proliferation of democratic societies, the struggle with poverty – with justice and freedom in mind, but refuses to marry himself to a single conceptual cure-all. Contrary to the bizarre optimism of the world's Fukuyamas and Friedmans, history has not ended and the world is not flat. The political, military and economic hegemony of the United States, whether set to baptize an Iraqi democracy with bunker bombs or simply to ensure that CAFTA allows our multinationals the cheap labor-force they demand, has only made incremental inroads against totalitarianism and poverty. And in so many places, our ideological commitments have blinded us to the misery that unfolds as a direct result of our foreign policies.
As for vision, Etzioni may disagree but I think a worldveiw is precisely what is at stake when a leader like Obama addresses the injustices of the status quo. Obama's vivid oratory (or in this case, prose) is not mere rhetoric. If, as constructivists say, international anarchy is what states make of it, than political hesitance and moral recidivism need not be the logical consequences of an American foreign policy and geopolitical context fraught with injustice and danger. Obama's calls to optimism, vigilance and leadership that take justice and democracy seriously are themselves moves to construct an international politics in which Americans can acknowledge that up to this point we have failed, and failed greatly, but may still hold out hope that our actions can give rise to greater things. Obama's vision is one to guide America between apathy and despair, between belligerent pride and defeated cynicism. It is a rich vision, and it would be a grave mistake to demand ideology in its place.