Presidents are often (unfairly) judged by their accomplishments in the first 100 days of a new administration. Rarely are any real policies enacted during this period. Far more important is the tone that the new administration sets.
In this respect, the new Obama administration is off to a solid start.
President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech—the full video and text of which is available through the BBC website—set the stage for a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy. Obama’s address played up themes of liberalism and idealism, of collective defense and security. In the speech, Obama observed,
that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
In terms of policy, we’ve seen some similar shifts away from the neoconservative realpolitik that dominated the Bush administration to a more liberal foreign policy already. In his first 36 hours in office, Obama has already issued orders to close the detention facility at Guantánamo and suspend the use of military commissions. For the new administration, this move is likely seen as part of a larger plan to improve the standing of the U.S. in the global community.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first day on the job was marked by similar overtures. She noted that
I believe with all my heart this is a new era for America…We will make clear as we go forward that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States.
But to be clear, the goal has not changed. Obama’s speech was still clearly focused on the war on terror. Obama still faces the same challenges Bush faced—global climate change, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and a global economic crisis with the potential to rival the Great Depression—though he may choose to deal with them differently. Only time will tell if Obama’s foreign policy represents a return to the liberalism of Wilson and Roosevelt.