international analysis and commentary

Obama’s foreign policy: time to deliver

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Last spring I was invited to give my assessment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy at a predictably superb conference run by Aspen Italia. Despite the fact that I am a moderate Republican, I had just happily voted for the new President. But even then, just after his first trip to Europe where, despite the ringing speeches, few of his foreign policy aims were realized, I was gloomy as to his likely effectiveness. So soon after his historic election triumph, my agnosticism was met by horrified scorn from true believers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Their generic narrative went something like this, “It’s far too early to assess what Barack Obama’s foreign policy will amount to. Yes, the President has little to immediately show for his welcome change in tone, but that will come. George W. Bush has left behind so many messes it will take time for the new administration to clean everything up. President Obama, in engaging both friends and enemies alike, will soften global opposition to America’s foreign policy goals, just as he unites allies who are generally with America, but have chafed under the awkward bullying of the past administration. You’ll see. Soon the new approach will bear fruit.”

A year on, there is very little sign of this. America gave way to Russia on missile defense, and seems to have gotten not very much in return. Iran has been engaged, but just last week turned down the West’s offer over its nuclear program. During his trip to China, the President got no firm commitment from Beijing to revalue the yuan, or to get tougher with Tehran. Nor, despite the fireworks of the Cairo speech, has Middle East peace moved one jot closer. The Palestinians remain hopelessly divided between Fatah and Hamas, and the Netanyahu government remains obdurate over the settlements issue.

But isn’t it great that everyone likes America more?

Missing the Big Picture
Mind you, I am not a fan of missile defense; I’ve long questioned the science, the cost, and the geopolitical benefits of the program. I’ve also long thought the Bush policy of not formally talking to Iran was a great mistake, merely costing the West vital time while the centrifuges spun. Likewise, the yuan needs to appreciate if a more sustainable global economic balance is to be reached, and Beijing should help wield sticks as well as carrots in dealing with Iran. The Arab world should certainly be talked to more respectfully, and the Israelis should be pushed to halt settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which has the effect of pouring gasoline on the open fire of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All this is true, but all this is not enough.

For the defenders of the White House have been both right at the micro level of foreign policy, and very wrong at the macro level. What the administration has offered so far is a welcome reversion to more sensible tactics, rather than supplying what is ultimately required; a convincing new global strategy. For example, making foreign policy trade-offs with other great powers such as Russia is a good tactic, but in that case you must know what you ultimately want in return, ask for it and get it.

Not publicly humiliating your banker (China currently holds $800 billion in American government debt) about your distaste for his human rights record makes good tactical sense. However, it is even more crucial to point out that common Sino-American interests underline the need to recalibrate the economic relationship – with the Chinese ultimately spending more and saving less, and the Americans spending less and saving more – and that this process also involves the appreciation of the yuan. Winning Hu Jintao over to this position is strategically necessary.

Engaging Iran does have the added tactical advantage of making it theoretically easier to reach a deal (if one is to be had) as well as improving the chances of crafting a global coalition opposing Iran’s pursuit of a bomb. But the spadework, the statecraft of diplomacy, has to be carried out intensively throughout the process to make this possible tactical opening a strategic reality. It is not enough to engage Iran, see the mullahs reject the American offer and confidently predict the other great powers will find it self-evident that we must all get tougher with Tehran. Russia and China’s differing interests regarding Iran have to be considered in far more detail than this. At present, after playing the engagement card, there doesn’t seem to be much of a Plan B for the White House in dealing with predictable Iranian intransigence; and that is beyond comprehension.

As for the Middle East, larger strategic questions have gone begging: Is any sort of settlement truly achievable in even the medium term? Should we devote so much effort to a peace that neither side seems to want as much as we do? What would a comprehensive settlement look like? Who among current leaders would be prepared to push for such an agreement? Without clear answers to these larger questions, it merely looks like the White House is fiddling, while the global Rome burns.

When hope is not enough
I do not bring up some of the many difficulties Obama has run into in his foreign policy with any sort of gleeful vindication. Rather, as a matter of urgency, it is easy to point out that his defenders at that spring meeting of almost a year ago, when confronted by the empirical failures since, have absolutely nothing new to say; they are merely able to (with decreasing confidence) repeat what they said then. Spirited defense of the new administration is in danger of moving into the realm of apology and cheerleading. When I pressed a good friend of mine who works for the Obama team with these points, he exploded: “Well, Bush left us with this mess.”

Quite right, but G.W. Bush is no longer running anything. All presidents, indeed all leaders, inherit the circumstances in which they find themselves; that is how history works. Given the gravity of the current situation, it is no longer enough to blame hapless George W. Bush for the foreign policy mess we now find ourselves in, nor is it enough to laud the present White House’s more sensible tactical gambits. Instead, and at last, a broad, strategic argument is necessary, a new global strategy must be articulated and unfurled, leading to clear follow-through at the statecraft level. The time for excuses is over; it’s now time to deliver.