Obama’s insistence on international support may be his most Rooseveltian action yet.
As the crisis in Libya has unfolded, a number of commentators have criticized the Obama administration for the time it took to act. It has also been reprimanded for not taking the lead among the international community and for insisting, as the crisis intensified, that it would not act without the sanction of the United Nations Security Council.
Given the harrowing scenes broadcast from cities such as Zawiya, some of this frustration is understandable. But the process by which the administration arrived at the decision to intervene is significant, for it marks perhaps the strongest indication to date that President Obama wishes to return the United States to a more Rooseveltian foreign policy.
As an admirer of both Woodrow Wilson (for whom FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy) and Theodore Roosevelt, FDR entered the White House with a unique perspective on global affairs. While he appreciated and maintained a deep respect for Wilson’s idealistic calls for collective security and multilateral cooperation, he also understood — from his distant cousin TR — the important role and responsibility that the world’s leading powers had for maintaining the peace.
Frustrated by America’s neutrality laws and by the fact that the United States was not a member of the League of Nations during the inter-war years, there was little FDR could do in the 1930s except watch with alarm as the League failed to keep the peace in Asia, Europe and Africa. But this experience also proved significant, for once the United States entered the Second World War FDR became determined to establish a new world organization that would in effect combine the idealism of Wilson with the hard-hitting realism of TR.
FDR did so by organizing the new international body around a concept he called the “four” — later five — “policemen.” Originally made up of Great Britain, the United States, China and the U.S.S.R. (with France added near the end of the war), FDR sought to counter the ineffectiveness of the League by creating a stronger executive body. It was made up of these five powers plus a small number of other states, and would have the power — and the means — to act to keep the peace. His thinking along these lines can be traced as far back as January 1, 1942 when, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, some 26 governments signed a document called the “Declaration of United Nations” in Washington, D.C. Pledging to adhere to the Atlantic Charter and to the conviction that “complete victory” over their enemies was “essential” in the defense of “life, liberty, independence and religious freedom,” the list of signatory states was led by the United States, Britain, the U.S.S.R. and China, followed by the other 22 nations in alphabetical order. Hence FDR’s wartime alliance, commonly referred to as the “United Nations,” granted pride of place to the four powers he felt were essential to the maintenance of world peace.
On matters involving the social and economic well-being of the world community, FDR assumed that a more broadly based deliberative body composed of all member states would hold sway. In essence, then, FDR separated matters of security from other non-security issues, arguing that a small executive body that could act quickly (and was supported by armed forces provided by the member states) must be placed at the head of any new “United Nations Organization” to insure that the policing function of the organization was efficient and effective.
Today’s United Nations — with a Security Council made up of five permanent and ten rotating members, and a General Assembly made up of all member states — reflects this vision. So too do the many other multilateral institutions — the IMF, World Bank, NATO and WTO — that were created during and after the war. It is important to remember that these institutions were largely created under American direction in the firm belief that they would advance American — and world — interests. As such, President Obama’s decision to adopt a multilateral approach to the crisis in Libya and to pursue a Security Council resolution in support of military action does not represent a diminution of American sovereignty or an abandonment of American leadership. What it does represent is a move away from the unilateralism that characterized America’s foreign policy in the previous administration (and in the 1930s) and an embrace of the more traditional post-war multilateral expression of American power perhaps best exemplified by George HW Bush in the first Gulf War and by Harry S. Truman at the onset of the Korean War. In both cases, each president placed a great deal of emphasis on the need to obtain a Security Council Resolution and in building a coalition of powers — which in Bush 41’s case included Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others — before committing US forces to combat.
All this is not to say that there are not times when the United States can and must act militarily on its own authority. But the conditions and regional sensitivity surrounding the crisis in Libya make it imperative that we act in concert with other states in the region and with the endorsement of the international community as sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Doing so can be frustrating, but in the long-run we will be far better off having taken the time to gain the support of the world community in our efforts to help the people of Libya free themselves from the oppressive grip of one of the world’s most brutal dictators.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.