Communication Currents

Continuing to be a Globally Assertive U.S.

February 1, 2009
Political Communication

During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was significant debate on what messages the U.S. was sending about our foreign policy. Some media pundits and international leaders felt as if we were communicating a message of disrespect for the rest of the world by taking actions such as engaging in the Iraq War or rejecting global climate treaties.  

In his inaugural address, however, President Obama took an aggressive line on foreign policy, which was not substantially different from the Bush administration. While his oratory was stirring, President Obama's statements on foreign policy are unlikely to substantially alter the ability of the United States to work with other nations on policies which are important to the new administration. 

The specific policies will change, of course. The Obama team has already ordered the closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and has discussed accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. A change of specific policies is a different thing, however, from whether the United States will be able to assert itself in the international arena as the president sees fit. For example, the U.S. sends diplomatic personnel to almost every country in the world, and the staffers at those diplomatic outposts remained engaged with their hosts for the entire Bush presidency.  

While President Bush did not win every international dispute and many will no doubt welcome a more open tone from President Obama, the rhetorical tone of an American administration is not what determines the willingness of other countries to interact with the U.S. It will only be when the U.S. is engaged in a specific dispute that President Obama's words or his silence will make a substantial impact on the policy agenda of the United States. 

President Obama's inaugural address was certainly an important speech, and he needed to communicate the way in which he intends to direct U.S. foreign policy. However, it would be a mistake to view this speech as a radical shift in the foreign policy priorities which the United States will actually implement. While President Obama needed to lay out his vision, actual changes will come as a matter of degrees. The changes to be achieved by the Obama administration will come in the vital messages they communicate on specific issues. Additionally, a great deal of the most important messages on foreign policy issues are delivered in private or are delivered by people other than the president. The value of the inaugural was in hinting at what some of those policies might be. 

In his inaugural address, the president certainly said that his foreign policy would take a different tone from the Bush administration's, noting that “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” This is not substantially different, however, from Governor George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign declaration that the U.S. would pursue a “humble” foreign policy if he was elected. Where President Obama called for “greater cooperation and understanding between nations” and said the U.S. would work with “old friends and former foes,” President Bush had once discussed his “coalition of the willing.” While President Obama allowed room for foreign governments to work cooperatively with the United States, their judgment to do so will still come down to their needs and interests in particular cases. 

President Obama did note some substantial differences with the Bush administration. He rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” He noted that the founding ideals of the United States “still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.” He was clearly departing from Bush administration policies in the War on Terror and announcing to the rest of the world his desire to work cooperatively where the previous administration might have used force. Nonetheless, President Obama did not promise the world a United States that would forsake its own self-interests. 

While making promises of cooperation, President Obama's inaugural address actually took a very aggressive tone in regard to foreign policy. He noted that the U.S. remains “the most prosperous, powerful nation on earth,” and that, “America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.” He promised that the U.S. would be assertive in combating terrorism, reducing the nuclear threat, and reducing “the specter of a warming planet.” Speaking generally, he noted near the end of his speech that, “This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” President Obama made it clear that the U.S. would continue to assert its will, saying that “we are ready to lead once more.” His inaugural address pointed out that the U.S. was neither a country about to shrink from the rest of the world, nor a government prepared to give up its international leadership role. 

Regardless of the rhetorical tone taken by President Obama in his inaugural address, not a great deal is likely to actually change in terms of our international relationships. Even after President Bush became unpopular, nations around the world continued to do business with the government of the United States. President Obama is certainly experiencing a groundswell of goodwill, and he may be able to use that to his advantage. The time will inevitably come, however, when he will make decisions which will disappoint our international partners. His words in those specific cases will matter much more than the words of his inaugural speech or his campaign. Regardless, the nations of the world will continue to work with the United States. 

Words have important impacts, and President Obama's oratory is stirring. His rhetoric holds the promise of an excellent foreign policy. Communication, however, is likely not the problem with the general direction of U.S. foreign policy. While the choice of presidential speech or silence is critical in specific instances, here it means little to the general thrust of international affairs. The Obama administration will continue to act in the best interests of the United States, and foreign governments will continue to assert the interests of their homelands.  

The words President Obama spoke in his inaugural address were the right words, and they help create a space for the United States to build international partnerships. However, the impact of presidential foreign policy communication is not in how it stirs a domestic audience. The impact is in how it stirs foreign states who will continue to assert their own interests. 

About the author (s)

William F. Harlow

University of Texas of the Permian Basin

Assistant Professor