12/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama to the World: Yes We Can

Forget what Obama has said about foreign policy in the past (or what his surrogates have said in his name). In his acceptance speech on Tuesday, Obama succinctly outlined his vision of the future of America's relationship with the rest of the world:

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

To those -- to those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This represents a fundamental break not just with Bushism, but Clintonism as well. The Bush team had a clear idea of what it wanted (for example, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a much friendlier regime), but had absolutely no idea what it should do once it achieved its core goal. It had a coherent grand strategy but profoundly incoherent tactics. Its central concept -- preemption -- was based on preventing threats before they happened without giving any thought to the consequences of its subsequent actions. As a result, it often blundered into disastrous outcomes, particularly in Iraq, and largely ignored entire regions in the name of monomaniacally pursuing its radical vision of American dominance.

In contrast, the Clinton Administration did pretty well in responding to most of the crises it faced (Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor), but never really connected those responses into anything resembling a vision of America's role in the world. It had no central concept, except perhaps reaction: it allowed world events to define policy (and allowed Clinton's fear of the military to define action). As a result, it often responded to crises only after they had spiraled out of control, and in some cases, such as Rwanda, chose to ignore world events in order to avoid military action. If Bush was the world's proconsul, then Clinton was the world's fireman, responding to alarms only after they happened and frequently getting there too late (or with the wrong equipment) to prevent the house from burning down.

In retrospect, neither of these approaches makes much sense. Bushism represents mindless action, while Clintonism represents mindless reaction. The former discourages independent thinking in favor of robotic (and often fear-based) implementation of policy, while the latter encourages freelancing and turf-building.

In contrast, an Obama administration is likely to pursue a foreign policy based on sound strategic principles and coherent tactics. If that's the case, realism will trump ideology, and principle will trump interests. Call it pragmatic idealism, if you must apply a label.

An Obama administration also is likely to recognize the need to repair America's disastrously dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus: it will provide the State Department with the resources it needs; streamline foreign assistance; reestablish a robust and proactive public diplomacy; and clarify the overlapping (and often confusing) roles of State, NSC, Defense, and Homeland Security. It will emphasize both innovation and results, rewarding creativity and encouraging critical thinking.

This approach is not unprecedented in American history. It is not unlike that of the first Bush Administration (which helps explain why a number of G.H.W. Bush's senior foreign policy advisors either endorsed Obama or remained on the sidelines). It also reflects the creativity and flexibility of the postwar Truman Administration, which, under the leadership of men like George Marshall and Dean Acheson, had to build new foreign policy and national security institutions virtually from scratch.

It therefore is possible that, to use Acheson's famous phrase, we are once again "present at the creation" of a new paradigm, one that focuses on what the United States can do for the world, not what the world can do for the United States. This may take more time than originally envisioned, in large part because the financial crisis will draw away important resources from the task. But in the end, Obama has the opportunity to remake the way the United States pursues its interests in the world, and to restructure the institutions he needs to make it happen.

Obama to the world: yes we can.

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