TFF logo TFF logo
Jonathan Power 2008
POWER Columns Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art
Publications About TFF Support our work Search & services Contact us

Next step: Obama's foreign policy



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

November 12, 2008

LONDON - "Come home, America" said U.S. presidential candidate George McGovern during the Vietnam War, whilst going down to a bad defeat against Richard Nixon. But these are the words President-elect Barack Obama should be uttering today, if he wants to live up to his credo, as enunciated in his books.

The Republicans - and some Democrats - will try to tear him apart for this, tarring him with the brush of isolationism. But it is not isolationism. If handled with perception and commitment for the long haul it is engagement with the world and its problems. It is merely a different way of going about the cause of greater political order and more individual freedom.

It can be characterized as a policy of substituting the carrot for the stick but this is to simplify it. The carrot should be offered but with it a reciprocal sense of self discipline and a commitment by the opponent to measure progress against the Charter of the United Nations and the resolutions of the Security Council, for when the Security Council agrees it represents a formidable consensus of world opinion.

This kind of engagement has a long American tradition going back to 1916 with President Wilson´s aim to create a League of Nations. He failed not because of his idealism, or his commitment to solving disputes without major war, but because his tactics with regard to Senate ratification of the treaty were unnecessarily stubborn. Wilson also decried the European balance of power system (a favourite geopolitical cause of Henry Kissinger): "Now, revive that after the [First World] war is over and, sooner or later, you will have just such another war."

We can go even further back, although not many commentators do, to the time of Theodore Roosevelt. He successfully mediated the Russo-Japanese war, for which he received the Nobel peace prize. It was he in fact, not Wilson, who was the first president to propose a league of nations. He called it the "World League for the Peace of Righteousness", a title which would have him laughed out of court in today´s cynical world.

"Coming Home to America" means getting out of Iraq, probably Afghanistan too, and not getting into Iran. But it also means stressing to antagonists the good that America can do with private investment, aid and the development of a common security whereby both sides´ right to individual political postures is recognized as long as they are non-threatening to others. In return for peace, America can offer recognition and security.

It also means being more serious about the role of the United Nations and trying to recreate the benign veto-free period of former President George Bush and the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It means re-adopting a policy, never followed up on, of President Bill Clinton to offer the UN peacekeeping troops that could operate under the command of UN generals.

If this is isolationism the problem is not with the articulator of such a purpose but those who cling to the status quo, usually older male leaders, stirring up a false patriotism at the cost of young lives.

This time round, Obama won the election which McGovern never did. The temptation will be to compromise to assure that victory is not undermined, as were the pacific policies of former president Jimmy Carter by a more macho Congress and press. But he mustn´t, even though his opponents will throw at him all sorts of problems that they believe might at some point require the use of America´s mighty force - so mighty in fact that American military spending dwarfs all the rest of the countries of the world added together.

They will throw at him Iran, Taiwan, China, North Korea, a resurgent Russia, unrest in Saudi Arabia and the oil producing nations of Nigeria and the ex-Asian Soviet republics, not to mention Israel and Palestine. It seems a long time since Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could say "I´m running out of enemies".

In Harvard´s quarterly, International Security, Professor Harvey Sapolsky published an article on the theme "Come Home, America: the Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation". It was published in 1997 but it needs to be read again. Much damage to the world could have been avoided if its prescient observations and prescriptions had been followed."The U.S.", he writes, "can spend much less than it does today and still be much more secure than it was during the Cold War. It is not at all clear what, if anything, Americans are getting for their extra defence dollars."

Beginning with Europe, NATO should be dismantled. The threat that NATO was created to deter disappeared when the Soviet Union collapsed. Let the European Union take the strain, by trade, investment and political intimacy, the hallmarks of the Union. U.S. soldiers and nuclear missiles should be withdrawn from European soil. Expanding NATO not only broke a solemn American promise to the Soviet Union, it unnecessarily created an uncooperative Russia.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?

Then please support TFF and this homepage

Likewise most American troops in Asia should come home. No Asian ally faces an overwhelming threat and what dangers they face they can handle themselves - as, say, Taiwan is doing with its mixture of a superior air force and clever diplomacy. Japan faces no serious threat, and China wants Japanese investment more than anything else. North Korea´s nuclear bomb is now being confronted, late in George W. Bush´s day, with sophisticated diplomacy which - if applied earlier - could have avoided the bomb and probably halted North Korea´s urge to produce plutonium and enrich uranium.

American oil interests are at the centre of America´s Middle East policy. But for any other nation to conquer the majority of territory containing Gulf oil would require an enormous army to cover a vast area. Who can do that? As for Israel it is more than capable of defending itself and it out-spends and out-equips in military hardware all the Arab nations combined together. As for an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war it would be a terrible thing but it makes no sense for the U.S. to get in the middle.

One could go on and on with such examples. Wars on distant continents will only threaten American security if the U.S travels overseas to join in.

An Obama foreign policy cast on these lines would show the American public that reconciliation is cheaper and more effective than confrontation.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


Last   Next


Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail:

Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



Tell a friend about this column by Jonathan Power

Send to:


Message and your name

Get free articles & updates

POWER Columns Sitemap Areas we work in Resources Columns and art
Publications About TFF Support our work Search & services Contact us

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997 till today. All righs reserved.