Democracy promotion under Obama: how far is it from Bush’s imposition of democracy?, by Maria Helena de Castro Santos & Ulysses Teixeira

In the foreign policy literature interests are largely considered to predominate over values in decision-making. In the article Interests and Values in Obama’s foreign Policy: Leading from Behind? published at the latest issue of Revista Brasileira de Politica Internacional (Vol. 58 – No. 2, 2015), we propose they do not tell the whole story. We argue that it is difficult, despite the many efforts in this direction, to explain the American foreign policy toward the Middle East or the American defense policy against terrorism referring only to the material interests of the United States. By the same token, they believe it is not possible to explain Obama’s foreign policy toward the Middle East or his defense policy against terrorism by referring only to the  material interests of the United States. Obama’s policy becomes more intelligible – not to say intelligent – once one takes into consideration the American Liberal Tradition (Hartz, 1955) and how liberal values are pervasive in American foreign policy.

After examining 350 speeches of President Obama and his Secretaries of State and Defense, besides several other documents, in search of motivations for the military interventions in Obama’s administration, we found that in fact security concerns prevailed among them.  Nevertheless, neither the prevalence of security was overriding (55%) nor justifications based on American liberal-democratic values were neglectful (28%). As a matter of fact, when we consider together the reasons based on humanitarian aid and on American values, they added up to 45%, a pretty close proportion for justifications based on security interests.

A first important conclusion therefore was that if it is true that security worries were the main motivation for Obama’s foreign-policy actions in the target countries, it is not less true that American liberal-democratic values occupy a significant place among the justifications for those actions, and therefore they should not be neglected by foreign policy researchers.

We have raised a second argument. In fact, we have indicated that  preliminary analysis – based on the explicit and very much repeated contention that imposition of democracy by the use of force would be out of question –, suggested that interests and values were treated separately by top decision-makers in the Obama administration. That is to say, contrary to the policies of the post-Cold War Presidents before him, especially Bush, Obama did not consider the building of democracy as a necessary condition to reach local, regional or American security. To demonstrate this argument, we had to exam the President’s “leading from behind” strategy.

During the first years of his administration, the President concentrated his efforts on fulfilling the promise of his electoral campaign, i.e, on ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Security was the main concern. He narrowed the focus of Bush’s war on terror and targeted al Qaeda’s safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He implemented the transition of the responsibility for Iraq’s local security from American troops to the Iraqis police and Armed Forces. After the dismantlement of al Qaeda he did the same in Afghanistan. The two countries should be able to prevent al Qaeda operatives to regroup in their territories. At this point, his “leading from behind approach” seemed to be working well. In fact, after transferring security responsibility, Obama’s administration repeatedly indicated that the United States commitment would be limited to support, cooperate and work with local governments to build governance, liberal-democratic institutions, individual rights and market economy. Americans assured Iraqis and Afghans that these policies did not mean abandonment. On the contrary, they would be partners.

When the Arab Spring broke out, however, Obama’s strategy became tougher. It is fair to say that he could be reasonably faithful to his policy in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Notwithstanding, when it comes to Libya and Syria, despite numerous references to humanitarian aid, the President and his Secretaries of State and Defense frequently enough indicated rather assertively that the United States “wanted to see”, “wished” or “was not prepared to accept” a political solution other than the building of liberal-democratic institutions. Those were requirements applied to the moderate-opposition groups indicated by American intelligence. The United States would then work with these groups, providing support, arms and military training, and helping in their organization and unification. The pressure to oust from power Khadafi and Assad were paramount, in both cases with no support of the United Nations.

The military intervention in the case of Libya came by the establishment of a no-fly zone, backed by the UN Resolution 1973/2011. No ground forces were used. In the case of Syria severe sanctions were applied. In every instance the United States managed to have the support of the international community, the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Secretaries of State and Defense frequently travelled to the target countries, their neighbors, key Arab countries, “American allies, old allies and new allies”, exerting strong diplomatic pressure to increase their partnership with American military forces and to assure their support to the moderate opposition and democratic transition in those countries.

A second important conclusion of this article was then that in Obama’s foreign policy interests and values were brought pretty close to each other, and for that reason, his “leading from behind” approach is not very distant from the foreign and defense strategies of his post-Cold War predecessors.

Moreover, when ISIL came into stage, it strongly challenged Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy. In fact, it defied the strategies of local security transition and moderate-opposition support in Iraq. This country clearly was not prepared to halt terrorists and radical muslins, suggesting that American troops had left too soon. The major part of ISIL operatives are resentful Sunnis who were left out of the new Iraqi government, formed under American occupation and supervision. As for Syria, ISIL found a vacuum of authority in this country’s vast territories, indicating that the strategy of moderate-opposition support did not work there either.

So far, the United States has counted many victories over ISIL, with intense air strikes, occasional military incursions into the occupied territories with the approval of Congress. It remains to be seen if the 3 550 American troops sent back to Iraq will grow in number and if “boots” will in fact not be put on the ground if the war gets worse. In this case, Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy will probably not endure the new situation. After all, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is for sure the most threatening challenge the United States and its Western allies are facing by now. A more direct strengthening of the liberal values on the American foreign and defense doctrines, as proposed by Bush and his post-Cold War predecessors, might become the weapon of choice to counter this war of civilizations.

Read the article: CASTRO SANTOS, Maria Helena de; TEIXEIRA, Ulysses Tavares; Interests and Values in Obama’s foreign Policy: Leading from Behind? Rev. bras. polít. int., Brasília , Ano 58, n. 2, 2015 . Available from:

Maria Helena de Castro Santos, InstituteofInternationalRelations, Universityof Brasília,

Ulysses Tavares Teixeira, Institute of International Relations, University of Brasília,


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Mundorama. "Democracy promotion under Obama: how far is it from Bush’s imposition of democracy?, by Maria Helena de Castro Santos & Ulysses Teixeira". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais, [acessado em 18/01/2016]. Disponível em: <>.

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