Getting Obama Foreign Policy Wrong - Part II
Posted by David Shorr
The theme this week is the various ways that our foreign policy wonk colleagues distort the Obama Administration's record to fit their own preconceived notions. Yesterday the culprit was Mark Lagon, as he championed the so-called "values agenda" of democracy promotion and human rights. Now we shift to the Realist end of the spectrum, beginning with a World Politics Review piece by Nikolas Gvosdev. (You may need to go through RealClearWorld to read the whole thing.)
Like any self-respecting Realist, Nick judges foreign policy on the basis of America's geostrategic position: are we playing smart geopolitics, in terms of alignments and power balances and the current constelation of forces? He isn't nearly as harsh as Lagon in his assessment of Obama and does challenge the Republicans to do better. As a key to how Nick's view diverges from my own, the following passage caught my eye:
The U.S. presidential election could be an opportunity for the incumbent and challengers to present their contrasting visions of how the U.S. should prioritize its interests, commitments and partnerships. Last week, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney took a stab at doing just that when he identified the United Kingdom, Israel and Mexico as the key relationships that the U.S. needs to preserve and enhance.
So for Gvosdev, you define your priorities through your relationships. I'm not so sure. For one thing, taking stock of what are considered key relationships doesn't tell you all that much about political or policy differences in our domestic debate. I didn't care much for the Romney speech, but if you asked me to name the countries with which the United States has the deepest affinity, I'd say the UK, Israel, and Japan. Then I'd quickly stress relations within North America, Canada as well as Mexico. On the question of the most consequential relationship: China. Most fraught and vexxed? Pakistan. And my guess is that a wide political spectrum of foreign policy specialists would view those questions roughly the same way. Does that mean we have a latent consensus about strategic priorities?
But personally, I think a foreign policy defining characteristics are the ojectives toward which it is aimed and its 'theory of the case' for achieving them. Relationships with friends and frenemies are an ongoing matter of care and maintenance -- hardly simple or easy, but surely we expect foreign policy to steer nations' alignment and policy stances to build the kind of world we want to see. Or maybe this itself is an orientation. And part of Nick's column is quite fairminded at judging Obama foreign policy on its own terms. He wonders if the toxic political atmosphere:
...will disincentivize any administration, whether a re-elected Obama team or a GOP replacement, from engaging in bold gambles. The Obama administration has taken a number of such gambles since 2009: that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would become more powerful and secure a second term in the presidency; that China would be receptive to a G-2 dialogue; that a combination of sanctions and dialogue would jump-start negotiations to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff. None of these gambles has paid off as much as was hoped. The question now is, to what degree will a new administration in 2012 be willing to depart from Washington's "conventional wisdom"?
True enough, the administration has had to adjust its expectations in terms of progress with China and Iran. Even so, a fair reading of the record shows success in steadily moving the ball down the field, even if the earlier high hopes have been disappointed. (I've actually been working with a colleague to write an assessment at this level.)
Surely it's too harsh to definitively declare President Obama's policy "reactive, unfocused, and ineffective," which was the verdict of Jeremi Suri's New York Times op-ed last week. Like Gvosdev, Suri argues for prioritization and stresses that trying to do too much undermines the ability to do anything. And he goes the extra step of suggesting the correct priorities for foreign policy: bolstering the position of the dollar as the global currency, stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and preserving good relations with China.
What's really strange is that for all his disdain for Obama foreign policy, Suri's some of prescriptions are hard to distinguish from what the administration is already doing. For beginners, compare Suri's recommendation re China to Gvosdev's assessment. To which I'd add that the substance of dialogue between Beijing and Washington has been focused on administration priorities such as nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea and macroeconomic rebalancing -- which bear close resemblance Suri's two other priorities.
For instance, I stare and stare at the following graf about the nuclear threat and cannot find anything that the Obama administration hasn't already been doing, and energetically so:
Securing facilities and supplies must receive high-level attention and funding, despite defense budget cuts. Supporting a rigorous international system that penalizes proliferators (especially Iran and North Korea) must dominate Washington’s activities in the United Nations and other international bodies. And the president must do more to build support for multilateral enforcement, including possible military action.
As to the position of the US dollar, I think Obama is absolutely right to be emphasizing economic growth globally, the same way he is domestically. Now it's true that Suri pins a lot of his argument to the need to put down some of the balls we're trying to keep in the air. But again, read Suri's prescription and tell me how different it is from the president's policy:
Washington no longer has the resources or the political mandate to act in ways that make a positive difference in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.