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September 07, 2012

Obama v. Romney on Foreign Policy - A Guide for Iowans
Posted by David Shorr


Many thanks to the Des Moines Register for publishing -- on a day Obama and Biden are in Iowa -- my latest in a series of commentaries on the 2012 foreign policy debate. You can see it on the DMReg web site, but the text is below. 


The presidential campaign has been heating up and the foreign policy debate along with it. As the opposing camps’ arguments about national security go back and forth, Iowans should distinguish between two debates.

One is a phony argument over America’s fundamental strength as a global power and leader. It’s an unnecessary fight, part and parcel of this year’s toxic politics. Our country’s unrivaled military and economic might is beyond question, and the idea of either candidate lacking faith is just silly. Our armed forces outmatch any potential adversary by a considerable margin.

If anything, the lesson of the past decade is the difference between overcoming an opponent in a traditional conflict — also know as “kinetic” operations — and molding the social and political order in a country like Iraq or Afghanistan.

And that is the point of the second, more substantive, foreign policy debate this year. Can the United States achieve all of our international aims through brute strength alone?


Take the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, for instance, a top item on President Barack Obama’s international agenda and a hot topic in the campaign. As much as Mitt Romney and the Republicans talk about Iran, they always leave out a crucial fact: Obama has put Iran under the toughest sanctions and strongest international pressure it has ever faced.

The Obama administration has marshaled this pressure by taking a different approach from President Bush — steadily building a broad united front with other nations, instead of just issuing demands and expecting others to fall into line.

Obviously the problem of guaranteeing Iran is kept from building a nuclear weapon remains unresolved. The point is that Obama’s attempts at negotiation, tests of Iran’s good faith, continued pressure and international coalition-building give the best chance to reach a peaceful solution and avoid war. Romney and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan love to talk about tough choices, yet on Iran they refuse to choose between supporting going to war or specifying what they would do differently from Obama.

I often quote a favorite line from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (a Republican, by the way) that captures the essential challenge to America as a global power: “The United States does not need the world’s permission to act, but it does need the world’s support to succeed.” Because of our military and economic power, America has unique leverage — and responsibility — that is, indeed, essential to our foreign policy.


As we saw during the George W. Bush years, however, when America is too heavy-handed in using that power, it can stir up a lot of hostility around the world. By the end of the Bush term, we had drawn the lesson that in today’s interconnected world: America cannot afford to have the world regard us with suspicion.

Most Americans understand that our credibility had to be restored after we invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. For so many of the biggest challenges we face — fostering economic recovery from the 2008 global meltdown, averting severe disruption from climate change, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and preventing terrorist attacks — success hinges on recruiting the help of others. On all those fronts, Obama has sought international support and obtained it.

It’s not clear what lessons Romney drew from the Bush years — or whether he learned anything at all, for that matter. Listening to the Republicans’ rhetoric this year, we hear a lot more tough talk than tough choices. A lot more platitudes about American leadership than practical proposals for how to exercise it.

To put it another way, the issue this November is not whether the United States will be a global leader, but whether it will be an effective leader. As the saying goes, a leader without followers is just someone who’s gone out for a walk.

September 06, 2012

The Post-Post-9/11 Era and Strategic Initiative
Posted by Bill R. French

This post was coauthored with Lauren Haigler

Digital_worldTonight, the Democratic National Convention will highlight national security policy. While it’s unclear the extent to which national security will gain attention in an election preoccupied by economic concerns, a transformation of U.S. foreign policy is underway that deserves careful thought. Senator John Kerry captured that transformation in a recent article in Foreign Policy when he wrote, “we are entering a post-9/11 era full of unchartered waters.” While the statement may appear innocuous, its content effectively implies the essential structure of the challenges and opportunities facing the United States in the coming period: as we free ourselves from the entanglements of the past decade, how should policy makers seize the strategic initiative and to what end?

The Post-Post-9/11 Era

The coming era is not “post-9/11” in the same sense President Bush had in mind when that phrase was meant to inspire paranoia or fear. Instead, we live in a post-9/11 era in the sense that the most immediate and consuming – but by no means all – of the security challenges associated with the September 11 attacks and the Bush Administration’s response to them are coming to an end. The war in Iraq has concluded. Regular combat forces are on course to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. Osama bin Laden is dead. Since May 2011, 22 senior operatives in the Al Qaeda network have been killed or captured and successful attacks by Al Qaeda have dropped by 16%. It is therefore credible when President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta claim that the defeat of Al Qaeda is “within reach.”

As a result, the United States has the opportunity to more fully regain the strategic initiative and set a forward looking national security agenda. While Senator Kerry is correct to refer to this opportunity as “uncharted waters,” there are first draft maps and plans already in motion to consider. In its efforts to capitalize on this opportunity, the administration has charted a course of strategic rebalancing, whereby the United States has shifted focus from the Middle East and Central Asia – including the two massive stability operations there over the past decade – to challenges that have gone underdressed as the international environment has evolved over the past decade.

Rebalancing Where and What

A renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific has thus far been the flagship of this initiative. While this blog has previously written on the hard power components of American Pacific power, the deployment of other aspects of U.S national power should not be ignored. For example, the State Department has bolstered its institutional engagement with ASEAN as part of a broader strategy of shaping the region in a way that is consistent with American interests and made accession into the Trans Pacific Partnership a top priority to increase American exports.

But strategic rebalancing should be regarded as involving broader changes in American national security focus. It is not just ‘where’ American focus is shifting, but also to ‘what.’ That is, rebalancing is both geographic and functional. Here, cybersecurity is an illuminating case.  Like the rising significance of the Asia-Pacific, cyberspace had gone underdressed despite its increasing value and demonstrated vulnerabilities. In a step in the right direction, the administration has released the first comprehensive International Cyber Strategy, an agenda for cybersecurity initiatives and increased efforts to generate military cyber power. President Obama also forcefully supported the Cybersecurity Act, portions of which may now be implemented by executive order.

In both above illustrative cases, the United States has achieved much but more is needed.

Continuing to Seize the Strategic Initiative

How the next administration should build on the groundwork for ‘charting the waters’ ahead? This is an open question. However, the most basic answer is that the next administration should continue the transformation to our ‘post-9/11 era’ already underway and identify what opportunities are best addressed – and what challenges are best met – by continuing to seize and apply the strategic initiative.

In this sense, possessing the initiative may be regarded as acting on states of affairs in the world while their outcome is still in question – i.e., acting on events before they develop sufficiently to  ‘act on you’ or ‘shaping events’ in the language common to National Security Strategies. In selecting which events to shape, those associated with trends that will have a greater consequence on the structure of the international system should be preferred. By focusing on such affective events and trends, initiative is directed strategically in that its consequences feedback into structural changes of the system, thereby effecting the future events within the system that may impact American interests in the future. 

The administration’s rebalancing towards cybersecurity and the Asia-Pacific are both early examples of what a foreign policy agenda driven by seizing the strategic initiative might look like. Yet how to set that agenda more fully is a matter to be determined. Fortunately today we have the breathing room for its consideration – a real opportunity.

September 03, 2012

President Obama's "Responsibility Doctrine"
Posted by David Shorr

360px-Detail2_-_Rockefeller_CenterIn an article in the new issue of Foreign Service Journal, Nina Hachigian and I highlight a major thread of Obama foreign policy we think has been underappreciated:

Under a responsibility doctrine, foreign policy is driven by the need to solve global problems and strengthen the multilateral norms and structures on which a viable 21st-century, rules-based order depends.  The aim is not simply to establish a balance of power, but to bring about a dynamic framework through which to practically address global challenges.  The strategic premise is that emerging major and middle powers can become significant contributors to global peace and prosperity — whether co-opted or pressed into accepting responsibility along with influence.

A lot of of observers have weighed in on the question of whether Obama actually has a strategy. Much of the commentary has noted, correctly, President Obama's emphasis on interests the United States shares widely with other key international players. While the focus on common interests is a close cousin of the Responsibility Doctrine, it doesn't convey the Obama administration's persistent effort to rope others into doing their part.

The strategy is not about the United States stepping back but others stepping up.  The U.S. must continue serving as leader, guarantor of the system and a catalyst of collective crisis-management, and Washington’s traditional alliances with nations sharing democratic values remain a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy.  Yet there is a compelling case for bringing diverse emerging powers, including the BRICS countries, into closer alignment on global challenges, despite geostrategic rivalries.

Translation: never mind the ridiculous debate over so-called "declinism." Nina and I don't claim that cooperation is bursting out all over, but we do argue that Obama foreign policy is nudging others toward a new dynamic. 

If the responsibility doctrine succeeds, emerging powers will internalize the duties that come with being a stakeholder.  Here in the early stages of the process, these players are gradually gaining a sense of ownership over the major challenges confronting the world and a dawning awareness that shared problems must be solved.  The internal debates in China, India and elsewhere about those nations’ global roles are positive signs.

To be sure the Responsibility Doctrine is about sharing the burden, but it's also about sharing ownership. I like to think of it as a matter of fulfilling civic duties "adhering to international laws and norms, contributing to global problem-solving, and enforcing norms when others flout them." That's why then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's 2005 definition of a responsible stakeholder remains highly relevant to this day. 

But as they say, read the whole thing

Image: Hede2000

September 01, 2012

The Romney-Obama Foreign Policy Debate -- Of Campaigns and Caricatures
Posted by David Shorr


While Tampa was hosting the Republican convention this week, hosted its own battle of the expert surrogates -- particularly an exchange between Obama supporters Bruce Jentleson and Charlie Kupchan and Romney supporter Peter Feaver. The debate this campaign season over national security has been a pretty high-temperature contest, and Feaver calls 'foul' on how Democrats have been waging it:

But it is simply false to then claim, as Kupchan and Jentleson do, that Romney's worldview "...reveals a basic misunderstanding of the role of power in international affairs" or that he clings "to the notion that the more often the United States flexes its military muscles and demonstrates bravado, the more readily the rest of the world will have to get in line...." That is a caricature that exists in the minds of Democratic spinners, not in the reality of how a President Romney would wield American power and influence.

Spinner sounds awfully crass, but regular Democracy Arsenal readers know I have hammered away at this critique -- highlighting Republicans' propensity for bluster and faith in the magic of the Resolve FairyTM. Okay then, I'm perfectly willing to step back and have a meta-debate. Today's topic: simplistic Republican worldview, characterization or caricature?

Before I dive in, though, a few more words about what Prof. Feaver asks of his political counterparts. In the same piece where he decries unfair stereotypes, he also argues that President Obama only achieved foreign policy successes by acting more like a Republican, while 

in almost every case where Obama followed his own instincts, he undermined the success of the policy or made the situation worse. 

Wait, it gets even better. Feaver also wrote an additional post in which he gave himself a big pat on the back for being so generous and laudatory toward the Obama administration. Then he dared Obama supporters to admit policy failures and not let ourselves muzzled by an Administration that is "exceptionally thin-skinned." Feaver goads us by saying that he knows admitting any kind of error is "dangerous for Democrats to do." On twitter I believe they call this concern trolling

I can't speak for Bruce or Charlie, but the relentless, mendacious, shrill campaign against President Obama -- not just this election year, but the last three years -- just hasn't put me in much of a mood to provide self-criticism at the other side's request. Besides, Feaver has already chalked up all of Obama's successes as validations of the Republican approach; what kind of foreign policy debate is this, any way?

Now returning to the question at hand, is the idea of Republican foreign policy as muscle-bound and blustery a fair representation of how a President Romney would wield American power? For all Feaver's cries of "spin" and pride in the Romney campaign's foreign policy white paper, let's stick to the arguments and ideas that have been put before the American people.

Nearly the entire Republican foreign policy platform is a variation on the same theme of President Obama not having been sufficiently firm and unyielding in the pursuit of America's international aims. I have seen virtually no admission that US foreign policy has to be calibrated to interests, positions -- realities for that matter -- other than our own and thus see no reason why Democrats should give credit for it. This has put the Romney campaign in a box of its own making and sometimes led to the odd spectacle of the Romney camp trying to criticize the Obama administration while arguing for things the administration is already doing.

To bang on another drum I've been beating a lot, there's an Obama foreign policy success that Republicans mention even less than the killing of Osama Bin Laden: putting Iran under the toughest sanctions and strongest international pressure ever. And I'd argue this success stems directly from President Obama's instincts about playing to the court of international community opinion -- testing Iran's good faith, earning the moral high ground (rather than presume it), and quietly obtaining broad diplomatic support. 

But rather than merely assert that the Romney campaign has been singing the same simplistic note about how American power works, the rest of this post will consist of passages from the Republicans' most significant statements on foreign policy... 

Continue reading "The Romney-Obama Foreign Policy Debate -- Of Campaigns and Caricatures" »

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