The President and Foreign Policy: The Significance of Running the Distance

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

When President Obama ran for office in his first term, his platform focused on “change” – while critics would question what change he was advocating, the general implication was a change in approach to address a series of unfortunate domestic issues from the end of President George W. Bush’s years. President Obama’s focus in both his first and second term continued to center on domestic issues – particularly stimulating the US economy and passing/implementing “Obamacare.” These efforts may have had their reasons and rationale, but they required a high degree of resources and effort both from Congress and from the White House, and resulted in highly politicized and divisive domestic policies and programs. While the cost of these efforts is high domestically, the cost may be even higher globally. Especially with recent global events including the barbaric terrorism of ISIS and the series health threats of Ebola, foreign policy and geopolitics is proving to have increased significance and growing demands for the Obama Administration.

U.S. Presidents who run on platforms focused on domestic issues may win the election, but may not win the literal and figurative “war.” President Obama’s ability to communicate and reach the emotional and practical aspects of citizens voting interests is certainly a central reason for his election win in both terms. However, especially during the second term, his approval ratings and his impact have been affected by the strains of foreign policy. Indeed, foreign policy is the stuff that makes or breaks presidential administrations.

Throughout US history, the ability of Presidents to make an impact and imprint on global events often has been the defining elements of their presidency. Consider President George Washington, he not only was a nationally revered leader, but was held in high regard by leaders from many nations throughout his presidency. His leadership in the Revolutionary War was both respected and emulated – even influencing the French Revolution. President Abraham Lincoln’s leadership in the Civil War also made him an international hero for the abolition movement. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s late but great impact in World War II secured the U.S. as the world’s Superpower for generations that followed. Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal marred his presidency domestically, but his effectiveness in foreign policy opened China to the U.S. President Ronald Reagan is known best for his strong stance in the Cold War and significant role in ensuring the fall not only of the Berlin Wall but more importantly the U.S.S.R. And, the George W. Bush presidency, despite the economic crises that erupted at the end of his term, will forever be defined by 9/11 and the foreign policy that followed.

And, in this post-9/11 era, issues such as terrorism, armed interventions, the plight of refugees, international arms, drug and human trafficking, global public health concerns, and large scale natural disasters have increased, not decreased. While the U.S. likely should not be the world’s military, police, or purse – it is often the world’s first source for policymaking, coalition building, security, and resource allocation. What the U.S. does or doesn’t do in foreign policy has significant bearing on what results both here and abroad.

Although President Obama’s experience and focus has not been on foreign policy, he now has an opportunity to be defined by the global events that surround him. He can have a direct affect on whether his Administration is defined in a positive or negative light by how effectively he and his cabinet understand, interrelate, and impact foreign relations. However, the record thus far does not bode well for how history may remember his

administration. The scandals of NSA and Benghazi are not only very real but very serious breaches of national security and global interests. The U.S. dynamics with Russia, and particularly its President Vladimir Putin, and limited response to the conflicts in Ukraine, have caused the global community to question the U.S. strength and resolve. The current acknowledgement that the Administration was not prepared for ISIS is troubling given the amount of global intelligence on terrorism. And the first instance of Ebola identified in the U.S. raises another set of global public health concerns and significant implications.

Of course, every U.S. President has faced battles foreign and domestic as well as scandals – but the significance of the current set of foreign policy issues is weighty. Certainly World War I & II and key events such as 9/11 may have a broader significance historically, but the global events of today are significant in shaping the direction and course of international relations to come. In that regard foreign policy is no less important during this administration as it has been in previous administrations. Regardless of the significant domestic issues we face in the U.S. today, the Obama administration’s foreign policy will likely dictate whether it has solid feet to run the distance on pressing global issues or a severed Achilles heel that painfully prevents progress.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.