'The world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place': Obama explains his foreign policy

A definitive detailing of president Barack Obama’s foreign policy shows how much the president’s thinking has changed from the hope-centric rhetoric of his early days in office.

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president contended that while the US should still promote democracy and human rights, it’s hamstrung by the fact that the world is “complicated,” “messy,” and “mean.”

Goldberg’s story offers an intimate glimpse into Obama’s foreign-policy worldview. The president talked through how he approaches major international challenges with a remarkable degree of candor.

But some of the most revealing parts of Goldberg’s story have to do with Obama’s outlook on the state of the world and humanity in general. It’s unusual for a sitting president to give such a raw blow-by-blow assessment of his time in office, as Obama does in the course of discussing his decision not to attack the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after an August 2013 chemical weapons attack. But Obama’s willingness to delve into the nature of reality and human existence is perhaps even more disarming.

At one point, Obama explained his view on what he believes American power is incapable of accomplishing, despite its world-spanning reach and unmatched military and economic scope. The president described himself as an “internationalist” and an “idealist,” while identifying aspects of the human experience that inherently limit any nation’s success in reshaping the world.

“I am very much the internationalist, and I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values,” Obama told Goldberg.

“I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy,” the president continued, explaining that “in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted.”

The statement is a far cry from the optimism of Obama’s 2008 campaign, the ambitious rhetoric of his 2009 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, or, more recently, his soaring 2013 eulogy for former South African president Nelson Mandela.
After two terms in office — a period that’s seen the rise of one of the history’s most vicious jihadist groups in ISIS, the return of Cold War-era power dynamics in eastern Europe, and the Syria conflagration — Obama has a foreign policy outlook grounded in a sense of what’s possible in spite of the essentially complicated and messy nature of the world.

Throughout Goldberg’s article, which was based on hours of interviews with the president, Obama offered little of the rhetoric of transformation that characterised the outset of his presidency. In 2016, Obama defers to what he sees as the inherent limitations of his position.

At the same time, Obama did not give off the image of being totally disillusioned by reality. The world may be “full of hardship and tragedy,” as he said. But Obama still appeared to hold an inevitably positive perception of human nature.

“Look, I am not of the view that human beings are inherently evil,” Obama told Goldberg. “I believe that there’s more good than bad in humanity. And if you look at the trajectory of history, I am optimistic.”

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