Watching the twists and turns of American foreign policy while reading Christopher Clark's "The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914" is an unnerving experience.
Clark's history, unlike many on the outbreak of World War I, starts not with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, but a dozen or so years earlier. He examines the muddled internal politics behind the foreign policies of major and minor powers -- and how often they were incomprehensible to each other.
He also shows how different powers formed shifting and sometimes unlikely alliances, with fateful consequences. Britain ended her longtime enmity with France in the 1904 entente cordiale and broke with the Ottoman Empire to join her "Great Game" rival, Russia.
Have we been watching something similar in our own time? Barack Obama brought to the presidency a different approach than the post-Cold War stances of his two predecessors.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in different ways, maintained support for America's longstanding allies while gingerly seeking rapprochement with former enemies Russia and China.
With China they established strong trade and financial ties, while discouraging Chinese military aggressiveness. When China shelled the waters off Taiwan in 1996, Clinton sent in the 6th Fleet.
Clinton cooperated with Boris Yeltsin until he flamed out in 1999. Bush found that his initial faith in Vladimir Putin was ill-founded.
Barack Obama has put a radically different stamp on American foreign policy. Conservative critics perhaps exaggerate, but are on to something, when they characterize him as disrespecting America's traditional friends and truckling to longtime enemies.
The pattern has become more pronounced in Obama's second term. He is making good on his promise to Putin to have "more flexibility."
In his first term, he blindsided allies by canceling missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic to appease Putin. In this term, he didn't lift a finger when Putin successfully blocked Ukraine from establishing closer economic ties with the European Union.
In his first term, he one-upped the Palestinians by demanding that Israel stop building settlements (including additions on houses) in East Jerusalem. More recently, he supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt as a step toward democracy until it was toppled by the military.