Obama’s foreign policy so far has had disappointing results. But if he made a shaky start, more blame lies with others
When was the last time you heard anyone enthusing about Barack Obama’s foreign policy? When was the last time you did so yourself? Over the last year, his outstretched hand of friendship has been bitten or brushed aside by China, Russia and Iran. His administration has just been snubbed by Israel. It is not at all clear that his surge in Afghanistan is working, while Pakistan still teeters on the brink. European governments’ passion for the new US president has proved fickle. His eloquent opening to the Islamic world seems to have run into the sand. The Copenhagen summit on climate change fizzled out in mutual recrimination between the US and China. Once upon a time, the world thrilled to the Obama chant of “Yes we can!” Now it seems to be shouting back: “No you can’t!”
Beyond improving the US’s popular standing in the world – no mean achievement, to be sure – Obama’s foreign policy has so far produced no clear, significant success. Why? Here are some of the explanations offered. Disappointment was foreordained: those messianic expectations of his presidency could never have been met by any mere mortal. Rather than being a messiah, Obama is a first-term president with little personal experience in foreign affairs. As his predecessor showed, the experience of your aides cannot always make up for your own lack of it.
Republicans claim that his “liberal”, rational, compromise-seeking approach invites these snubs from Beijing to Jerusalem. As he himself remarked in a speech in Moscow last summer, quoting a Russian student: “The real world is not so rational as paper.” Democrats retort that his real problem is the unholy mess bequeathed by George Bush: Iraq, neglected Afghanistan, alienated Muslims and American unpopularity abroad; massive debts, financial crisis and recession at home.
Others point to problems accumulated over a longer period: American consumers who for years have been encouraged to live beyond their means; domestic infrastructure neglected in favour of imperial expenditures; a dysfunctional system of government. Meanwhile, the political middle ground where compromises used to be forged has disappeared in an increasingly polarised politics. Most fundamentally, it is argued that historic power shifts mean we are entering what Fareed Zakaria calls a post-American world. In this multipolar order, or no-polar disorder, the US will find it increasingly difficult to get its own way against the will of rising great powers – above all, China.
These explanations are not mutually exclusive. If you examine any particular foreign policy issue and ask why Obama has not done better, you have to look at the interaction of several of these causes. Take Iran. I do not think the Obama administration has hit upon the best policy here. Last year it focused too exclusively on the offer of nuclear negotiations, while a huge opportunity for political change was opening up and then partly closing down inside Iran. (Iran’s green movement is definitely down, but not out.) Snubbed by Tehran on the nuclear front, Washington is now investing too much political capital in the pursuit of sanctions that are unlikely to bring the current Iranian regime to a negotiated renunciation of its nuclear programme, even if China and Russia were to agree to those sanctions.
But if you ask why Iran spurned Obama’s outstretched hand, then you have to look at the legacy of the Bush years, including the way in which the Iraq war strengthened Iran’s position in the region. If you ask why China is so hard to get, then you have to recall the underlying power shifts, as well as a growing Chinese economy’s thirst for Iranian oil. If you ask why the Obama administration is playing it this way, then you have to look also at the pressures from Congress, and the fear that Israel might take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. In turn, the priority given to Iran helps explain why Washington has not pushed China and Russia harder on other fronts, including human rights.
The results of Obama’s first year of foreign policy are thin, but it is much too soon to despair. America is never again going to enjoy the position of near-supremacy that it experienced after 1945 and again after 1989 – using it well in the first case and badly in the second. But all the rising great powers have great problems too, not least China. America has its time of troubles now. Theirs will come. The United States will probably emerge from this economic crisis in better shape than Europe. It has power resources which few can match, combining scale, flexibility, enterprise, a capacity to tap the creative energy of immigrants, technological innovation, a popular culture with global reach and, not least, individual liberty. Obama personifies those strengths.
Many other administrations have had a shaky start. Bill Clinton’s first term was not great either, not to mention George W Bush’s. There may be some truth in the criticism that Obama played a bit too much softball at the beginning, making prior concessions to China (postponing his meeting with the Dalai Lama) and Russia (abandoning the missile defence shield in east central Europe) without getting anything in exchange. He is learning the hard way. Welcome notes of firmness have been heard in the relationship with China. In the last few days, the administration has reacted with rare public anger to an affront from Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.
Through trial and error, the Obamaites can pull together the security-led “realist” agenda that has dominated this first year, their concerns for development, democracy and the rule of law, and their interest in an open global economy (also one less distorted by Chinese currency manipulation). Complex multilateralism will always take longer than mindless unilateralism, but it can be more effective in the end. If some version of healthcare reform goes through and the economy recovers, Obama could win a second term in which to reap the harvest of strategic policy choices. That second term could realise some of the hopes with which the first began.
There are many “ifs” in there, but the largest single obstacle along the way has nothing to do with Obama’s character, ideology or team, nor with the rise of China, India or Brazil. It is the American political system. This 21st century perversion of a magnificent 18th century invention now gives powers to interfere in foreign policy, unmatched in any other major democracy, to a legislature that is both deeply divided along partisan lines and a shameless aggregator of special interests.
The biggest problem for American foreign policy today is not called Obama, or Bush, or China; it is called Congress. Whether you look at trade, climate change, China or Iran, it is the US Congress where policy becomes entangled, distorted and stymied. If the United States really wants to meet the hopes of a world in which its own relative power is undoubtedly diminished, it should introduce four-year terms for members of the House of Representatives, reform political finance and curb the lobbyists who enjoy “power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. Effective foreign policy begins at home.
Posted by Ariana Mirus, 106