So how do the first two weeks of the Obama administration’s international policies look? Too soon to pass judgement on the administration and its approach, too soon to tell very much, but not too soon for opinions and the commentariat is already full of them. In a provisional sort of way, let’s join in.
The volatility of hope
After all, as a candidate Barack Obama stirred up an extraordinary surge of hope and expectation among so many people. As a matter of ordinary human psychology, that surge of optimism is necessarily volatile: hope is not the inevitable prelude to disappointment, because perhaps the performance will fulfil the promise – but very often, high hopes that are not quickly met feed a tendency to be disappointed – one might almost say, to find disappointment – where in actuality it’s not justified.
In politics, of course, there are many players who are committed to feeding what can be virtually an expectation of failure and disappointment. And two aspects of standard practice in the news media take things in the same direction. First, as we are perhaps more aware in the UK than almost anywhere else, there is strong habit of building up only in order to knock down; it happens to celebrities and sports stars and to political leaders too. Second, in the news business real news is more often bad than good. Reports that Obama has fulfilled his undertakings will not get front page headlines for very much longer – yes, it will be mentioned in editorials, analyses and deep down in long political reports, but not above the fold on the front page. But the smallest hint of failing to live up to his campaign rhetoric is in itself headlines news. Negatives make bigger news; it’s why, after the first signatures on peace agreements, peace processes tend to be reported on only when they fail – “Another peaceful day in Mozambique/Northern Ireland/Cambodia/Guatemala” is not the stuff of which banner headlines are made.
Is there any antidote to the temptation to rush to judgement? In the Obama administration itself, there must be whole teams devoted to pointing out he does not leap mountains in a single bound, to briefing about how complex are the problems and the contexts in which they must be addressed. But that can only go so far before an ever sceptical media, seeking some negatives, starts to depict the management of expectations as simply another form of spin.
So perhaps it would be helpful if others who are wholly unconnected from the administration (e.g., not even American) join in the discussion. I am going to come back to this topic at regular and fairly short intervals. My aim is not to keep a score card on Obama but to keep a reasoned, informed and continuous conversation going. Whether Obama wholly succeeds in fulfilling his campaign promises, wholly fails, or, as is almost certain, ends up by the time he campaigns for re-election with some fulfils, some disappoints, and some hits and misses on issues that weren’t even live in 2008, I think that our international political discourse will benefit from such a conversation.
I’m not going to look very much at the administration’s domestic policies and I’m certainly not going to keep track opf nomination successes and failures. In keeping with the goals of this blog, I’m focusing on international policies and especially on what they show us about the use of power.
So, in that light and in that spirit, how did the first two weeks look?
Standards of judgement
Well, before that, what are the standards by which we might ultimately judge the Obama administration’s international policies. In a post on my previous State of the World blog on 5 November, I outlined what I thought was a realistic expectation for the newly elected President. The headline criterion I proposed was legitimacy, in contrast to the wilful and visibly self-defeating uniltaeralism of the Bush administration. That insistence on the US being able to act the way it wanted to, in what the neo-conservatives defined as US interests, without being constrained by international agreements or opinion or, indeed, international standards on human rights, was the part of the Bush agenda that was dearest to the neo-con heart, and was also where the worst errors were made. From an outsider’s perspective, a new administration that was willing to act on the basis of international legitimacy would be new indeed.
And as I argued when reviewing trends in US power more recently, by acting within the international system, the Obama administration can work more efficiently and effectively in the US interest than the Bush crew was ever able to manage. It is because international legitimacy is in the US national interest that I thought it made a reasonable standard by which to judge the Obama administration.
So, in that light and in that spirit, how did the first two weeks look?
The first two weeks
The decision to close Guantanamo is, of course, excellent although the devil is in the details as virtually every commentator has said. And it looks as though the CIA can still carry out extraordinary renditions though it cannot torture suspects. Equally obviously, however, the missile attack in the border regions of Pakistan, killing 22 people including a majority of civilians, is more dubious. It cannot really be expected that President Obama will withdraw US forces from the war in Afghanistan; indeed, all indications are that the planned draw-down in Iraq will permit a planned build-up in Afghanistan. So there are going to be numerous actions by US forces whose legitimacy will be questioned by political leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and if the legitimate authorities of both states are genuinely objecting to US actions, the status of those actions is open to serious question.
This is where the criterion of legitimacy gets trickier than it first looks. Because legitimacy is pliable; it is influenced by politics. For example, how governments vote in the UN is determined by politics and in turn determines whether an action such as invading Iraq has the blessing of legitimacy (which is different from arguing whether, regardless of the law and the vote, it is right or not). Over the long run, whether US actions in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan are legitimate or not will depend a great deal on the success of the new administration’s efforts to persuade other governments, especially Muslim governments, especially in the region, that they are legitimate. It is very much a matter of perception and politics as well as of performance.
That is why it was important in the Inauguration Address to speak about how the new administration intended to speak to Muslim governments and people. The language of respect was welcome – it is also practical politics. But the big picture of US policy as it unfolds in the coming months is going to be what decides whether the Obama administration can gain more Muslim governments’ open support for its policies in Afghanistan. Will it overall be interventionist and claim the right to influence and even direct affairs in the Middle East – or not? Will it continue to support Israel with only an occasional wagged finger to indicate that not everything the Israeli government is right or even smart – or not? The appointment of Senator George Mitchell as special envoy for the Israel/Palestine conflict is welcome in view of his fine record on Northern Ireland, but will he be allowed on behalf of US policy to grasp the nettle of talking to Hamas and acknowledging the simple fact that, regardless of whether you condone their actions or philosophy, Hamas won the most votes in the Palestinian elections of 2006 – or not?
The silence of the Obama team before inauguration about the tragedy unfolding in Gaza was widely noted and has already raised the bar as far as gaining legitimacy for actions in the Middle East and in the neighbouring regions such as in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the radically new language that has been used about Iran has visibly rattled President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who is presumably concerned by the departure of the Bush administration whose threats consistently gave him his best cards for the political game both within Iran and in the Middle East as a whole. His unsettled reaction, as evidenced by a major speech on 28th January in Kermanshah, suggest that, beyond the superficial tactical questions, he is concerned about legitimacy, with a US gain in it equating to an Iranian deficiency.
A more studied and subtle reaction to the same sort of gentle challenge was visible in Russia’s action to the quiet signals Obama has given that he is not going to go through with the thoroughly pointless strategic missile defence scheme in which the Bush administration invested money and prestige . Russia had responded to the missile defence system by, among other things, threatening to deploy nuclear missiles to Kaliningrad. This was strange, in that it was apparently going to retaliate by mounting the threat with which the Bush administration misleadingly justified the defence system. As in the Cold War, each was starting to gain retros[pective justification from the other side’s miscalculated escalatory move. Russia is probably relieved to be able to desist from going ahead with a pointless and self-defeating response to a pointless American initiative .
The Obama stance on missile defence is wise and has been productive – more evidence of how legitimacy pays off practically – but the Russian response offers a subtle challenge for the Obama team, which has yet to craft an overall approach to Russia and articulate the terms and the tone of its relationship. The new administration needs to avoid the three-cornered mistake its predecessor made of both underestimating Russia in practice while overestimating it in rhetoric and thus annoying and alienating it off on both counts.
So the first two weeks of Obama in power are not surprisingly mixed. I believe it will remain like that. If it does we will from time to time see much that justifies criticms, but on balance we will continue to think that the November 2008 vote went the right way. Watch this space for more.