Obama’s Just Right Foreign Policy

By Daniel Wagner via IPD

A plethora of pundits, lawmakers and think tanks continue to criticize the Obama administration for presiding over what appear to be persistent failures in the foreign policy arena.

President Barack Obama speaking during a town hall. Chuck Kennedy/White House

President Barack Obama speaking during a town hall. Chuck Kennedy/White House

Whether it is Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Russia, or China, the administrations’ opponents are quick to attack the perceived lack of meaningful progress. What they tend to forget, of course, is that most of what they are criticizing the administration for is either partly, or completely, outside its control, that much of what is happening today has its roots in pre-Obama history, and that no single country or leader calls the shots in our G-zero world. The world no longer snaps to attention when America acts.

To no one’s surprise, the Israel/Palestine peace talks collapsed – just like all the bilateral talks that came before them. At least unlike during his first term, Obama made the issue a priority in his second term and John Kerry gave it a shot. Given the twists and turns of the Syrian conflict, one has to wonder where the U.S. would be today if the Administration had listened to the inside the conservative lawmakers who wanted to jump into the fray at the outset. Obama wisely refused to fall into that trap.

Saudi Arabia has been falling out of the U.S. orbit and into China’s bosom for years, and the Saudis have just publically displayed, for the first time, some of their intermediate range Chinese missiles. There is an element of inevitability about that, given the U.S. pivot away from foreign oil, and China’s global march to supplant the U.S. as the world’s largest economy and consumer of oil. China buys more oil from Saudi Arabia than the U.S., and has made its intention to continue to do so clear. No surprise there.

No matter which side the U.S. would have chosen in Egypt when the Arab Awakening arose, it would have stood to lose in the arena of global opinion. Obama’s cautious approach ended up serving the U.S. well, and while the situation in Egypt continues to be abysmal on many fronts, at least the U.S. can say that while it didn’t please all parties, it didn’t alienate all of them either.

The Obama administration’s approach to Iran has yielded some benefit – though not enough for many, and it is arguable whether there will be a happy ending to that story. However, the stranglehold that global sanctions had on the Iranian economy did have its intended effect, and it is indeed possible that the desired outcome will yet emerge. The jury will be out on that for some time to come.

The slow disintegration of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia certainly didn’t start on Obama’s watch, and he did try to reset relations in his first term. Much to the hawks’ chagrin, Obama provided an appropriate response to the Russian expropriation of Crimea, given the circumstances. What, in essence, could the U.S. have done to prevent it? Nothing. Was Crimea a vital strategic interest to the U.S.? No. Is the U.S. wiling to go to war over Crimea? No. Would it be in U.S. interest to impose such severe sanctions that they would negatively impact U.S. business in Russia and permanently close the door to a working relationship with Russia? No.

Obama is under no illusion that America’s pre-eminence as the singular global superpower in the post-Soviet age has a shelf life, and that China’s rise is unstoppable. So the Obama administration is doing what is sensible vis-à-vis China – engaging China while placing some boundaries around what it deems to be acceptable behavior, and backing it up with revitalized regional alliances. What else can it do?

That is ultimately the question. In a multi-polar world with a multitude of problems, and with financial resources and political will limited, the U.S. cannot solve every issue and right every wrong. The most it can do is attempt to steer the general direction of the ship. That is exactly what the Obama administration is doing. Mr. Obama may be rightly criticized for establishing red lines and not following through, but there are times when not following through is exactly the right thing to do.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a Connecticut-based cross-border risk advisory firm and author of the book Managing Country Risk. CRS provides a range of services related to the management of cross-border risk. He is also Senior Advisor with Gnarus Advisors.

Mirrored from International Policy Digest


related video:

PBS from a couple weeks ago: “Is Obama’s foreign policy doctrine working? “

13 Responses

  1. It’s amazing how even in a reasonable take like this one, there a background presupposition that the US foreign adventures of the postwar era somehow provide a model of strength that should only be regretfully abandoned because the world has now become such a different, multipolar place. The merely factual history of interventions, machinations, coups, wars, and ‘intelligence failures’ is almost unremittingly dismal. The rational onlooker might say: maybe it’s time to try something that could at least have a less direct relationship to disaster.

    • Agree with you. Look at how our decades of “involvement” behind the scenes in Latin America have turned out. An entire continent that we’ve lost. And the US criticized Chavez as a Communist because for the first time in that country’s abysmal political history poor folks actually had a say in their governance? Unbelievable!

    • I think the point of Bacevich’s work is that the American people are now the problem. He pointed to Reagan’s 1980 campaign speeches as the turning point in the American people showering gratitude on soldiers as though some sort of alien race, like Gurkhas or Kryptonians, who do our dirty work so we don’t have to understand how our empire keeps the goodies flowing. Most alarmingly to me, this “alien” race in practice seems intended by the Neocons and GOP to be white rural Christian extremists, forming a sort of Praetorian guard that will threaten to overthrow any President who is too liberal, and then retiring to armed mercenary/contractor jobs to serve the corporate empire or to their own financially ruined hamlets to rule as “big men”. Watch the movie “Winter’s Bone” to get a sense of this nightmare.

  2. Gilda Mundson

    Nick Burns says Obama has to fight “isolationist tendencies” on left and right. U.S. economy needs us to be world leader.

    • The way for Democrats in Washington to reestablish America’s economic leadership is to emphasize the economic failures of the far right while focusing on reinvigorating the American economy. To name a few steps:

      1) Stop pretending that fossil fuels will be relevant after another five to ten years. Also stop kowtowing to billionaires that guessed wrong about global warming, guessed wrong about the value of tar sands (very poor value), and vastly underestimated the potential of alternative energy. And also cut down to size the billionaires who still peddle paranoid nonsense about blue helmets taking over the country (or a half dozen other groups they know little about but absurdly fear).

      2) Subsidize research and production in alternative energy. Dozens of areas have potential, so much potential that it’s important not to squeeze out very promising ideas. Give these ideas room to grow and mature even as prices of alternative energy fall well below that of fossil fuels.

      3) Renew the funding and strength of broad-based research. Trim the sails of certain research areas that have not been productive for over twenty years (string theory could probably use some trimming). Strengthen experimental research by making sure universities have the necessary resources (theorists are supposedly cheap to support but in reality they need experimental results to sink their teeth in).

      4) Trim the NSA by 20%. Recruit, retrain and educate the more brilliant people of the NSA, whose talents are being wasted, for work in technology and science. Also close the Internet back doors and make our Internet reasonably secure. As Cheney and Rumsfeld have shown, intelligence should rely more on realistic field work and a great deal less on paranoia and imaginary unknown unknowns.

      5) Build allies once again like we did after World War II. by genuinely helping people around the world. One way to do that is to help poor people skip the oil age by going directly to the solar and wind age.

      6. Start blocking monopolies, price rigging and other trade practices that make our country weaker by undermining the middle class. The middle class won World War II and put us on the moon, not the plutocratic foreign and domestic policies left over from the Gilded Age.

  3. Gilda Mundson

    Many would disagree with Burns that U.S. intervening always and everywhere around world is good for U.S. economy. @RNicholasBurns

  4. Gilda Mundson

    Is Burns auditioning for role in potential future Hillary Clinton admin with his liberal interventionist critique of Obama?

  5. Lord Bishop

    Can’t believe Juan would ride for this. Surely Obama himself wouldn’t paint such a rosy picture if he were being honest.

  6. The world would be a better place if the United States cared for humanity’s interest rather than it’s own. But of of course, that’s not the state’s job, is it?

  7. There is no constituency for a barely-adequate empire. At least not in America, which has always rejected Balance of Power and Spheres of Influence as too cynical. This is why Kennan had such a low opinion of American democracy. We will either crusade for total disengagement from a world that “doesn’t deserve us”, or for total domination of the world for its own good. I think it just proves that Americans have always been too selfish to participate in any system where they have to share power.

    Our best chance would have been to wean Europe from NATO and force its nations to reassert their sovereignity, or come to the realization that they have to merge their sovereign rights in a genuine, Great Power state. Anything, whatever, as long as it’s democratic and prevents America from using its duplicitous claim to be the only democracy that matters to impose its Wall Street-whored values on everyone.

    Now it’s too late. The expansion of NATO went on too long, Russia is fighting back, Europe is scared, and demagogues have a new enemy to maintain the status quo. Either China ends up the new hegemon, or the world will be destroyed by military or environmental catastrophe.

  8. It is truly amazing that after the disastrous warmongering neocon policies of the Bush era some of them still have the audacity to criticize President Obama for not having started more wars. Looking at President Obama’s foreign policy, it can be argued that it has been understated but very effective. For a start, President Obama has repaired some of the damage that was done by the previous Administration to America’s global prestige and reputation. Most Americans do not seem to realize that many global polls describe the United States as the biggest threat to world peace. Surely, this impression is not one that the Americans would like to have of themselves and this does not augur well for any concept of American leadership. link to cnsnews.com

    As far as Russia is concerned, Obama’s non-violent policies have diminished Russia’s position and power in the world and in her own neighborhood. Ukraine had always been regarded as an indispensable and inseparable part of Russia. As the result of what has happened during the past year, Russia has lost Ukraine and has held on to Crimea that was arguably hers for the past few centuries. However, in return for gaining that small bonus, Russia has turned Ukraine into an enemy state, firmly in the Western camp. There has just been an election in most of Ukraine and an avowedly pro-Western tycoon with close links to the EU, the US, and the World Bank has come to power. How can this be regarded as a victory for Russia?

    Obama’s single most glaring failure has been in forcing Israel to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state and to put an end to her expansionism and the occupation of more Palestinian lands, but unfortunately he is in very good company in that, because the record of failure goes right back to President Truman and all his successor. Given the grip of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, it is clear that no U.S. president can play the role of an honest broker in that dispute and if there is going to be a solution to that conflict it has to come from the U.N. and other governments that are less beholden to Israeli lobbies.

    President Obama greatest foreign policy achievement has been to start serious negotiations with Iran after 35 years of mutual hostility. If he can pull this off, and it is still a big if given the attempts of the neocons and Congress to prevent it, he would have not only put an end to decades of unnecessary estrangement with one of the largest and most influential countries in the Middle East, but a rapprochement between the United States and Iran can also resolve many other problems in the Middle East, including Syria, and not least the looming and dangerous sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’is that would destabilize the entire region.

    Although President Obama has certainly not lived up to all the high expectations of those who wished for a real change in the direction of U.S. foreign policy, I would certainly give him a B grade for having prevented more disastrous wars. President Obama would do well to stress Thomas Jefferson’s dictum “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none” for the remainder of his term.

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