There is a pattern I have noticed in much of the commentary on Obama’s foreign policy: what Obama says in his speeches is taken as definitive and meaningful for understanding his “doctrine” or real purpose, and then his deeds are interpreted so that they fit into the meaning that interpreters give to his words. There is an odd unwillingness to judge the statements against what Obama has actually done or not done. Thus you can have both Kagan and Hachigian asserting in different ways that Obama intends to manage American decline from its status of global primacy. Kagan thinks this is a disaster, Hachigian thinks it is a correct departure from the failed “primacy strategy” of his predecessor, but both mistake Obama’s efforts aimed at perpetuating and preserving U.S. primacy for something else.

Kagan and Hachigian rely on some of the same Obama phrases to support their incorrect analysis. Hachigian cites a larger portion of Obama’s remarks, which he first gave at Cairo and has since repeated elsewhere:

[G]iven our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game — progress must be shared.

As Scoblete says, this is part of the effort to “make American primacy more palatable to the rest of the world.” I said something similar just after the Cairo speech:

For a president who claims to prize empathy, he certainly failed to put himself in the other’s shoes when he composed that line. It should be obvious that many in his target audience see the present world order as the elevation of America and its allies over them. Indeed, many of the more accommodating, diplomatic parts of the president’s speech can easily be read as attempts to reconcile his audience to this unwelcome arrangement.

Kagan leans more heavily on Obama’s “zero-sum” remark, and he has written countless op-eds and articles detailing why he finds this intolerable. Doesn’t Obama know that states have divergent, sometimes conflicting interests? Like the sentence that preceded that one, we cannot take the apparent rejection of a “zero-sum game” in international affairs at face value. On most if not all policies, the practice of U.S. foreign policy has scarcely changed, and there is still the same presumption that Washington’s definition of U.S. interests matches up very closely what the interests of all other nations. There is still the same idea buried deep down that Washington is doing other states favors by meddling in their affairs, dictating terms to them and making demands that their governments do as Washington says.

What Kagan omits in his complaint is that the last two administrations blithely assumed that they were not elevating America over the rest of the world (they were providing “leadership”!), and they also assumed that they were pursuing policies that served the interests of all. Antiterrorism, nuclear proliferation and democracy promotion have been the triad of issues that Clinton, Bush and Obama all agree on in principle, and all of them take for granted that the first two are global threats that require coordinated international responses. Where Obama differs from them, or where Clinton and Obama differ from Bush, is in the execution. Moreover, all of them believe, or claim to believe, that American “leadership” is necessary to address every global issue of importance, which means that they understand the exercise of U.S. primacy as something that benefits the entire world.

The belief in Pax Americana was very real to Obama’s predecessors, as it is real for him, and this belief easily reconciles the perpetuation of U.S. primacy (or hegemony) with a conviction that nations have shared interests and should be engaged in cooperative action. Pax Americana is supposed to make competition between states, especially security competition, unnecessary and redundant. The frightening thing about hegemonists is that many of them sincerely think they are doing right by the world, and they are especially certain that they are helping those nations that their policies torment. For believers in Pax Americana, the only time when there are “zero-sum games” is when other states resist the supposedly benevolent intervention of the U.S.

Of course, Iran stands out as proof that Obama still makes policy on the assumption that there are “zero-sum” scenarios: Washington insists that Iran abandon nuclear ambitions and that it submit its nuclear program to rigorous oversight, and Iran must either accede to the demands or be punished. Obama has indeed given engagement with Iran a bad name, because Obama’s engagement pursuing the same unrealistic nonproliferation goal while offering Iran nothing in the process. Obama justified using a diplomatic approach as an effort to exhaust other options before inevitably penalizing Iran.

Methods, style and rhetoric may differ at times, but the real test is what Obama and his administration do. By this measure, they appear to be working to preserve U.S. primacy, and this involves conserving resources rather than recklessly expending them on matters of no importance. We will see whether Obama will choose to continue trying to preserve U.S. primacy or gamble it away in a fruitless, unnecessary confrontation with Iran.