11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Idealism to Grand Strategy: The Next Challenge for Obama

After the simplistic crusading of Bush and the cautiously incoherent foreign policies of Clinton, President Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday was everything a good progressive could want. An American leader has laid out a worldview that is dedicated to liberal internationalism while also appreciating the world's prevalent conflicts of interest.

What Obama must do now is translate this into a new grand strategy that matches the desire for international engagement with the limits of America's power. Only then can we avoid the fate of myriad ambitious Democratic foreign policies: initial optimism followed by over-extension, public disappointment and Republican electoral victories.

As I have said before, Obama's stirring speeches can overwhelm even the deepest pessimism. In his speech, Obama declared America's interests in nonproliferation, peacekeeping, environmental protection, and economic development. This included pledges of specific actions and a call for the rest of the world to demonstrate their commitment to these ideals.

Yet, this was not based on Bush-esque unilateralism but a recognition that global problems cannot be solved without diplomacy. Moreover, Obama realizes that while we will defend our interests with or without other states' approval, America can act only in concert with others when dealing with global issues. This worldview is not mere cheap talk: these sentiments--progressive ideals, pragmatic engagement, and multilateral efforts--have long been present in Obama's foreign policy views, as seen in his 2007 Foreign Affairs essay.

Such sentiments have rarely been presented as powerfully or coherently. Indeed, we would have to look past Clinton and Carter to LBJ's muscular internationalism. This comparison, however, is telling. LBJ's foreign policy combined idealism and power, but became bogged down in domestic fights, was overextended internationally and led to Republican domination of the national security debate. This was not a product of Vietnam, however. Wilson's presidency followed a similar course, with exuberance over World War I leading to public rejection and the election of Harding; also, while Truman crafted a powerful internationalist foreign policy, discontent with the Korean War ushered in eight years of Republican rule. The idealism of each of these Presidents proved short-lived; the problem, though, was not with the ideas, but their application.

The lesson, then, is that Obama's ideals are not enough. Obama must craft a grand strategy that matches his idealistic ends with appropriate means, and is sustainable in terms of public opinion. This involves both identifying the major threats America faces and developing pragmatic strategies to address them. Fortunately, guidelines for both tasks are available in the speech. The first step involves finding what Charles Kupchan has called "fault lines," or the major divides in international relations that will drive conflict. This could be a state, a coalition of states or even a hostile ideology.

As Obama argued, the primary threats we now face are global: nuclear proliferation, civil strife, environmental degradation, and economic deprivation. The fault lines, then, encompass not discrete rivalries but global divisions and have the potential to break open at any time. Our grand strategy should focus not on a threatening culture or the rise of another state, but on managing these fault lines and avoiding any sudden eruptions of conflict along them.

The means to achieve this end are also present in Obama's speech. Obama stressed the importance of multilateral efforts to solve global problems. He also realizes that Americans are weary of military efforts and hesitant to support further commitments. We must work with other states to deal with these global issues while avoiding over-extension and negative domestic reactions.

Obama's emphasis on cooperative engagement--working with the international community as long as the rest of the world shoulders its portion--can achieve this. Obama should attempt to form a concert of states that will manage global problems in a multilateral manner, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed in a July speech. This would encourage other states to take ownership of these issues, make America's contributions manageable, and ensure the progressive ideals that have been crucial to American identity since its founding are not abandoned.

Despite the short time he has been in office, Obama has already made significant gains in foreign policy. He altered plans for a missile defense system in Europe that was unnecessarily antagonistic towards Russia and recently gained backing from both Russia and China for greater nonproliferation efforts. The trick now is to capitalize on these gains and develop a grand strategy that will be as effective as Truman's, without losing public support in the process.

Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy established a new foreign policy for America, the consequences of which we are still enduring. If Obama continues with the worldview he presented Wednesday, hopefully the 2010 National Security Strategy will be equally significant.