The Briefing

How to Succeed in Foreign Policy Despite Really Trying

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In four important areas, the White House set new foreign policy priorities: nuclear non-proliferation with the objective of ridding the world of nuclear weapons; a shift in emphasis from the traditional, Atlanticist orientation of the United States to a recognition of the growing importance of China as a potential collaborator; a reversal of the hostility felt by Muslims in the Middle East toward the United States; and progress in the wars on terror by quitting Iraq and surging in Afghanistan.  In each of these areas, the president made important addresses and initiated policy approaches; and in each area, he was disappointed while the diplomatic overtures of the last four years have been generally quite positive, indeed more positive than at any time in the last decade.

Non-proliferation.  This subject played out in two principal arenas, US-Russian relations and the effort to stem the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.  With respect to Russia, the White House inaugurated a “re-set” in the hope of overcoming Russian hostility in the aftermath of NATO enlargement in central and eastern Europe and the promise of defensive ballistic missile technology to former Soviet clients.  The result has been disappointing as the Russian regime has moved studiedly in the direction of anti-US propaganda (anyone watched the RT channel lately?), attempting to lead a motley coalition of anti-American states, ratcheting up anti-Washington rhetoric and defining its own claim to leadership in Moscow by its resurrection of a distinctly Russian, vaguely paranoid  anti-Western profile.  We are, I am not sorry to say, quite a ways from worldwide nuclear disarmament.  At the same time, however, the New START Treaty was smoothly negotiated and skillfully shepherded through Senate consent.  Although it eventually led to resentment, US diplomacy did win Russian approval for the Security Council resolution that served as the basis for intervention in Libya.

With regard to Iran, the overtures of the White House were brusquely rebuffed by Tehran, and the appeals of sweet reasonableness sarcastically rejected.  Resolutions in the UN Security Council, however, have been tougher than at any time since 1979 and the deft management of sanctions has, finally, begun to undermine domestic support for the theocracy in Iran.  It may well be that this has only been possible because the White House initiative failed, and was seen to fail in good faith, by our European allies.

The shift to Asia. While the Bush 43 administration came into office rejecting Bill Clinton’s focus on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and proclaimed the more adult—in their view—perspective of great power conflict and seized upon China as the next adversary, the Obama White House sought to bring China and other rising powers into the realm of cooperative, global leadership.  The G-20 replaced the G-8, Europe’s financial crises were largely ignored, and fresh initiatives to win Chinese friendship were tested.  The result has been an even greater wariness on the part of the Chinese, who now see the US as increasingly enfeebled and surreptitiously working to undermine China’s global role. (Something similar has happened in India.)  Efforts to get China to act as a partner, whether through increased global aid to third world countries, or action in the UN, or moderation of North Korea’s provocative actions, or significant recalibration of China’s currency have all been met with suspicion and intransigence.  At the same time, however, US diplomatic relations with Japan and Korea have seldom been better, and the State Department can take some credit for the liberalizing climate in Burma.  Britain and France now maintain the fourth- and fifth-largest military establishments in the world, and took the lead in the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  A routine speech by the US ambassador to NATO last week, urging greater European efforts in funding NATO operations now that the US is turning more to its Pacific duties, was front page news in London.

Reversing Islamic anger toward the US.  The Cairo speech by the president was the most dramatic of his foreign policy addresses, and built on his widespread popularity abroad.  But a review of the most recent Pew polls of Muslim public opinion in the Mideast shows that the US is once again the object of  levels of anger and frustration hitherto seen during the administration of George W. Bush.  The American position was not enhanced by the White House claim that it would stop the expansion of Israeli settlements, a promise it could not fulfill.  But at the same time, US diplomacy has moved decisively to support the Arab Spring uprisings and has helped midwife the vision of a Sunni coalition of states, led by Turkey and Egypt, that is probably our best long-term bet for stability in the region.  Iran’s last ally in the area, Syria, seems certain to collapse with positive consequences regarding the insidious role of Hezbollah.

The wars on terror.  Despite an impressive early address at the National Archives, President Obama has never quite found his footing in linking the various theatres that together compose the wars on terror.  The U.S. quit Iraq owing to our failure to win the status-of-forces-agreement we had ardently sought and we are now in the process of inflaming Pakistan—a source of terror much more threatening than the Taliban could possibly be—as a prelude to declaring victory in Afghanistan and leaving in 2014.  Still, at the same time, cooperation with other states to identify and isolate terror groups operates more smoothly than at any period during the more overtly muscular Bush 43 period.  We are finally confronting piracy in the Indian Ocean, where predation has steeply declined as a result of the increased Western resistance.  Official renditions and extraditions are up, perhaps in part because the United States is perceived to be more respectful of legal norms.

The week of a presidential inauguration is the most obvious time for such a retrospective, but it is far too close to recent events to allow much perspective.  Let me conclude in this way: there have been important successes in the last four years but the way we got them cannot be repeated.  We must have an affirmative strategy in the White House that succeeds on its own terms, as these are articulated for our people and our allies.