Obama in power (6):policies clarifying, pattern still hazy

By the time Obama was inaugurated, he had promised so much, there was a risk that he could only disappoint. Let’s not get too carried away in these tough times, but there is some much needed good news: perfect his administration is not, but the first signs in foreign policy are far from negative. This extended post surveys the key issues.

This early, much remains unclear but events in the first two weeks of April have made the rush to condemn from such as Prospect magazine’s Bartle Bull look ridiculously premature and one-eyed. Even The Economist‘s more balanced admonitions a few weeks back seem a little too focused on process (which has been uncertain and slow, especially in the Treasury and in the general and awkward business of slowly checking and putting forward nominees and then seeing ten of them withdraw, which is where a lot of critical fire has concentrated) and a little too unimpressed by substance.

Of course, these are only the first steps and first steps are, you know, only the first. But however you develop the analogy (flying start, long journey, whatever) it is surely important to get them right. Both rhythm and direction emanate from the first steps. The test, it seems to me, is not so much how poised these first steps look but their direction – they cannot be expected to complete the journey but are they going the right way?

Getting out of metaphorical mode: Is there substance, are real problems being seriously addressed? And beyond judging the specifics, and moving to a more demanding level, is there strategy to go with the substance? Because if there is, then the individual policies and initiatives are more likely to be sustainable.

So how is the Obama administration’s foreign policy measuring up? It can be helpful to divide up the kind of challenges the Obama team has faced in its first months. Others will doubtless use different categories; for me, five come to mind:

  • High priority policy issues whose particularities at this point are decisively shaped by the legacy from the Bush administration – for example, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan;
  • Perennial issues, also high priority, whose basic dimensions are not Bush-shaped, such as nuclear weapons, Israel-Palestine, relations with Russia and responses to North Korea;
  • Issues that revolve around systemic challenge and change, such as the potentially changing world order, especially including the role of China, the global recession and climate change.
  • Sui generis  issues and one-offs such as piracy and the violence in Mexico;
  • Everything else, not much of which will ever feature in a discussion in the Oval Office except as a means to an end (for example, relations with the EU in order to get a worthwhile deal on climate change or more troops in Afghanistan).

These categories are not crisply distinct. A one-off could turn into a long-term policy issue and perhaps, in time, even into a systemic challenge. But rough and ready divisions like these allow us to impose some tidiness on an inherently and always untidy thing called international politics.

Another rough and ready categorisation of US policies over the past century has been between its Wilsonian liberal moments and its Realist moments. Wilsonianism is not always what current day liberals would understand by liberalism, and Realism is not always very realistic; the distinction is between an approach based n principles and ethics (Wilsonian) and an approach based on perceived national self interest (Realism). Both are approaches rather than specific policies and both offer a range of different shades. And both have often been re-named by this academic or that politician, but they remain the two magnetic poles of US foreign policy that, with variations, encompass the range of choice that American Presidents of the past 100 or so years have enjoyed.

Let’s see how we go with applying these two lenses to trying to understand Obama’s foreign policy so far.

War in Iraq and Afghanistan

On Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has probably disappointed many liberals, progressives and leftists who long for him to be transformative. A strategy that candidate Obama said was failing in Iraq is now the basis on which as President he hopes to get troop numbers in Iraq down by two-thirds in 18 months and all out by the end of 2011. At the same time, he is increasing US forces in Afghanistan and, as he signalled during his campaign, is prepared to take the war into Pakistan, more or less regardless of opinion in Pakistan itself. Agree or disagree, these policies are clear and consistent. They are in line with a widely accepted position that the war in Afghanistan was and is legitimate in a way that the war in Iraq was and is not, and that the Bush neo-conservatives’ obsession with Iraq diverted them from a necessary war in Afghanistan. This is a traditional, Realist approach to US foreign policy, at the hard-nosed conservative end of the range.

Engagement with Iran and Russia

On Iran and, among the category of perennial issues, on Russia, Obama has made a more decisive switch to a policy of open-minded engagement. It is at the most liberal and dove-ish end of the Realist foreign policy spectrum.

The more conservative voices will dislike this approach but it is reaping benefits. Iran is ready to participate in anti-Taliban strategy in Afghanistan (the Iranian leadership has always opposed the Taliban and always will, and would always have co-operated with the US in Afghanistan if Bush hadn’t provoked them so badly with his axis of evil rhetoric and bombing threats). As I write, we are waiting to find out what new approach if any Iranian President Ahmedinejad may be ready to announce, Obama having just dropped the blocking condition for talks that Iran suspends uranium enrichment before the talks start. Russia is also ready to offer more co-operation on Afghanistan because Obama is less obsessed with a pointless and technically (and inevitably) flawed system of missile defence than Bush and co were.

Engagement is not an easy option. It demands persistence in the face both of the interlocutor manoeuvring for advantage and political critics back home saying you’re naive, the other side only respects strength and it’s going to cheat on any agreement. But it is a more effective way of building a stable international system than throwing your weight around all the time. As the history of the Bush administration shows, the more you throw your weight around, the more likely you will lose your balance so that more light-footed and even lightweight adversaries can make a monkey of you.

The nuclear-free idealist

Also among the perennial issues, on nuclear weapons, Obama is a liberal Wilsonian idealist. He has had the courage to articulate his vision of a nuclear-free world even once in office. The last President to voice this ambition was Ronald Reagan. Whether Obama can make practical international politics out of this is far from clear. His political approach consistently manages to combine the visionary, the strategic and the practical so perhaps he will find a way.

However, North Korea’s missile test and decision to walk out of talks about its nuclear technology immediately displayed part of the challenge Obama faces if he wants to make serious progress towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Iran’s nuclear ambitions also pose a challenge, especially now that Binyamin Netanyahu is ensconced as Israel’s prime minister and threatening a bombing raid on Iran to stop it achieving nuclear weapons capability. He asserts that this will happen later this year – an assertion not universally accepted and subject to much chiselling about what the word ‘capability’ means. And then there are India and Pakistan and their nuclear weapons, not to mention the arsenals of Britain, China, France and Russia. The US and Russia can probably negotiate their arsenals a long way down together. Of the others, only the UK has so far said it would negotiate reductions in its own arsenal if Russia and the US agree to deep nuclear cuts.

Uncertainty on Israel-Palestine

Netanyahu’s gung-ho nuclear attitude indicates – encapsulates, even – another perennial on which Obama is yet to unveil any new policy – Israel-Palestine. By appointing George Mitchell, who contributed significantly to achieving the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, as special envoy on Israel-Palestine, Obama signalled a change of tone from Bush and even Clinton. But nothing else has been forthcoming so far. That’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself, but most things that Obama wants to achieve anywhere in the Middle East as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be influenced by action or inaction on Israel-Palestine: it is notoriously a litmus issue.

In an earlier post I argued that the motive of Israel’s then-government in its assault on Gaza in December/January was probably not to solve the Gaza problem or to gain short-term domestic political advantage, but rather a combination of security concerns and a desire to put the soon-to-be-inaugurated Obama administration in a jam, so that it could not seek a new way of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It achieved this by offering Obama a choice between two equal evils: condemn the assault and alienate opinion within the US, or don’t condemn it and alienate opinion in the Middle East. Obama chose the latter evil and perhaps the absence of public initiatives in this area is the price he has paid.

A new Middle East initiative may nonetheless be forthcoming any day, but at the moment the Obama administration is in the US default position of not publicly disagreeing with or challenging Israel. If that lasts, it will trip Obama up elsewhere in the region; it could be in relations with Iran or Saudi Arabia, or if there is a new violent upsurge in Lebanon, or if the Mubarak succession in Egypt (which presumably must occur during the first or second Obama administration – Mubarak is 80) turns out to be a trigger for instability.

This uncertainty is neither Realist nor Wilsonian – it is, in fact, nothing at all.

Engagement again – on the world order, the recession, climate change

On the big systemic issues, Obama is rightly focused on engagement. These are issues that, virtually by definition, can only be addressed through co-operation based on a patient dialogue that engages with a wide range of different interlocutors. Neither a unilateralist approach nor some version of a ‘coalition of the willing’ (or, as John McCain argued, a ‘League for Democracy’) has enough heft to generate productive approaches. Indeed, the potential change in the world order as the US becomes less powerful and the power of states such as India and China grows is enough to make a good argument that an approach based on anything other than broad engagement will fail. It is not possible to get a deal on climate change, for example, without the active agreement of and therefore engagement with China and India.

I think the shift in power is going to be much less dramatic across the next decade than many commentators seem to believe but I think it is also clear that the world is changing and the US cannot base its policies on the sort of one-sided advantage in everything that it seemed to enjoy during the 1990s.

On the recession, Obama threw himself into G-20 politicking and diplomaticking and he has also committed the US into the climate change negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Furthermore, the content of the policy that has been publicly enunciated on both climate and the economy (though on climate there is much details that needs to be filled in) strikingly avoids self-centred national advantage and rightly looks for co-operative approaches and solutions.

If this is Realism it’s at the far liberal end, indistinguishable from Wilsonianism.

Hard-line on piracy (so far) and cooperation with Mexico

If we look at the other important issues that have so far arisen, two stand out. There is piracy off the coast of Somalia, where the action taken this week was decisive and forceful. And there is Mexico, where Obama has acknowledged the scale of the problem of violence and crime that that country faces and has acknowledged America’s interest and responsibility in helping to face up to it, because of the size of the US market for illegal narcotics.

It is highly probable that the policy on piracy will have to evolve away from simply responding at sea with patrols and attempts at releasing hostages, and will have to go further than trying to roll up the criminal cartels that fund and profit from the piracy. The real issue is that there has been no effective state of Somalia for virtually two decades. There is now a government of sorts but there are countervailing powers and outside interests at play. Without progress towards a legitimate and effective state in Somalia, anti-piracy actions will always be short-term responses to crisis rather than actual solutions.

On both of these issues, US policy will ultimately need to combine Realist and Wilsonian elements.

Overall patterns

What this quick survey highlights is that while Obama has now begun to clarify policies on major issues, the overall pattern is still hazy. Some of his policies are traditional, Realist and even hard-nosed and hard-line. Others are more liberal, Wilsonian and even idealistic. The Wilsonian/Realist dichotomy is not cleanly distributed between the different categories of issues that the administration faces. Within the same group of issues, the approach is of one kind on some and of the other kind on others.

I have a suspicion that this is going to be characteristic of the Obama years. Perhaps this will end up simply looking like inconsistency. The risk then is that there is no overall strategy, so other actors on the international stage find it hard to be forewarned about what kind of reaction the US will produce in the face of any particular action. And when others do not have a sense of how you will react, they can be uncertain about what to do, which induces instability in the overall relationship and the international system as a whole. Boringly, therefore, it’s a good idea to have a  US leader (and  Chinese, Russian, Indian etc leaders) who are broadly predictable in the overall patterns and approach, even if not in the detail of policy.

But perhaps Obama will be the President who at last supersedes the old Wilsonian/Realist dichotomy and invents a new synthesis for foreign policy. Perhaps.


3 thoughts on “Obama in power (6):policies clarifying, pattern still hazy

  1. Pingback: Obama in power (7): when disappointment gets plain silly « Dan Smith’s blog

  2. Pingback: So far, new US strategy seems odd mix of continuity and change « Dan Smith’s blog

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