In 2007, early in the improbable presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the young first-term senator began a series of foreign-policy speeches that seemed too general to provide a guide to what he might do if elected. Aside from making it clear he was not George W. Bush and would get out of Iraq, the rest read like liberal boilerplate: “We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology….The conventional thinking today is just as entrenched as it was in 2002….This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war, but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place.” In 2008, he visited Berlin and told an enraptured crowd: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world…the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.”
In Obama’s fifth year as president, it is increasingly clear these vague phrases were not mere rhetoric. They did, in fact, accurately reflect Obama’s thinking about America’s role in the world and foreshadow the goals of the foreign policy he has been implementing and will be pursuing for three more years. Obama’s foreign policy is strangely self-centered, focused on himself and the United States rather than on the conduct and needs of the nations the United States allies with, engages with, or must confront. It is a foreign policy structured not to influence events in Russia or China or Africa or the Middle East but to serve as a bulwark “against the habits” of American activism and global leadership. It was his purpose to change those habits, and to inculcate new habits—ones in which, in every matter of foreign policy except for the pursuit of al-Qaeda, the United States restrains itself. ...
In the beginning came “engagement.” In his first State of the Union speech in February 2009, Obama told us that “in words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun.” A few days later he delivered a speech about the Iraq war and said again that “we are launching a new era of engagement with the world.” There would now be “comprehensive American engagement across the region.” In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2009, he repeated the phrase: “We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect….We have sought, in word and deed, a new era of engagement with the world.”
What did the word engagement mean in this context? The message here was that people around the world hated us for our heavy-handedness and our militarism, which were the product not only of George W. Bush’s policies but long-standing patterns dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. This would now change. Our new president, the first to recognize fully the regressive quality of activist American foreign policy, would in the service of this goal be willing to meet even with Iranian leaders, indeed almost any hostile dictator. The days when we snubbed and demonized other nations were over. With Russia and other nations there would now be a “reset”—the term that, along with “engagement” and “global citizenship,” came to represent Obama’s foreign policy in his first year in office.