Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:09 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 16:09 | SYDNEY

Kagan can't spare any change for Obama


Michael Fullilove


13 March 2009 16:28

So Robert Kagan believes Barack Obama's election heralds no change to US foreign policy. Under the new administration, he argues in The Washington Post, 'the basic goals and premises of US policy have not shifted.' He ends his article with the ironic cry: 'Viva la revolucion!'

Kagan's article is quite misleading. Of course, any country's foreign policy always contains strong elements of continuity, generated by its history, geography, wealth, population and position in the international system. But within that broad structure of continuity, changes of government cause significant alterations to international policies (or why else would someone like Kagan himself have signed up as an adviser to John McCain?)
This past presidential election is certainly an example of a foreign policy change election. As I argued recently: 

Shortly after his inauguration, [Obama] instructed the US military to draw up a plan for the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq and set in train the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration will bring a new approach to Afghanistan, end America's macabre dance of climate change denial, scepticism and delay, engage directly with US adversaries, interact strategically rather than tactically with the UN, sever Bush's link between freedom and force and do all this with global goodwill rather than opprobrium.
Will the US decommission its army and adopt a foreign policy that is appropriate for, say, a small Scandinavian country? No. But compared with most historical precedents this is most definitely change we can believe in.

Apart from being wrong, Kagan's argument is also familiar. In 2000, he published another op-ed in The Post titled, spookily, 'Vive what difference?'. In that piece he asked gloomily: 'When it comes to international affairs, is there really any difference between Bush and Gore?' Kagan seemed doubtful at the time, but the answer to the question is surely 'yes'.

Very early on, on issues from arms negotiations to climate change, George W Bush's presidency acquired a unilateral cast which has never been detectable in Al Gore's behaviour. And although we can never say for sure, it seems highly unlikely, based on his contemporaneous comments and his worldview, that Gore would have responded to 9/11 by invading not only Afghanistan but Iraq. Surely Kagan would agree that the invasion of Iraq has had non-trivial consequences for the US and the world!

Like Bush in his first term, Obama is shifting policy in interesting and meaningful ways. The process may not constitute a revolution but it is important — and it should certainly not be waved away.