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The Foreign Policy Challenges (Not) Facing Obama

With the economy reeling, a broken health care system and a widening budget deficit, President Obama inherited domestic challenges rare for any modern American president. On top of this, political commentators and pundits noted he also faced unprecedented foreign policy challenges. Entire books -- like David Sanger’s The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power -- have been written on the subject.

Challenging? Yes. Unprecedented? No. Compared to the majority of American history, our international position is quite unremarkable and relatively tame.

At the dawn of our nation, the question confronting America was whether or not it could survive. The old nations of Europe still wielded massive armies and territorial ambitions. We went to war with Britain a few short years after ratifying our constitution--and our capital burnt to the ground for the first and last time. America was wilderness, the vast majority of our continent had not been explored, much less tamed.

Sixty years later, our position had hardly improved. An unpopular President, Abraham Lincoln, confronted the gravest crisis in our nation’s history. Arguably a domestic issue, the Civil War was primarily a military engagement. When he took office, the country was already splitting at the seams and war was unavoidable. In less than five years, over 600,000 Americans would die, 300 times the amount of people who died on 9/11.

During the first half of the twentieth century, America faced consecutive World Wars, a Global Depression and the creation of nuclear weapons. Included in this time was one of the few attacks on American soil by a foreign power, to say nothing of the millions of military dead.

Since World War II, the succeeding presidents dealt with a situation far more dangerous than any previous international situation: nuclear extinction. When Richard Nixon took over in 1968, the country fought in the midst of a war that would kill 60,000 American young and threaten the stability of Indochina. At the same time, thousands of missiles with the capacity to destroy the entire world sat in bunkers armed ready to destroy the entire world at the press of a button. The world literally stood on a precipice until the fall of the Soviet Union.

We stood through those times and survived to now.

If America believes in one thing, it is in its own exceptionalism, a feeling that our time, national character or era is somehow special. Post 9/11, we justified extraordinary methods and actions because of our perilous national security situation. In a long view of our nation's history our current times do not seem so perilous.

two comments

What are you trying to argue with your last paragraph? That America has overreacted? That we don’t appreciate our history? That we have such a short memory as a nation? Something else?


@Will-
Actually we have two distinct different points. One, was that we do practice exceptionalism and we frequently forget that current times are not always the most important.

Two, we don’t believe our current times are the most dangerous our country has ever faced. They could be much better, and terrorism is a threat, but not the greatest threat.