Friday, May 30, 2014

Obama's Foreign Policy (Or Lack Thereof)

In his commencement speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama addressed much of the criticism that has been thrown his way recently regarding his inability to project American dominance on the rest of the world in the same way his predecessors have done before him. Most people would agree that Obama has been leery of armed conflict since taking office in 2009, and justifiably so, after the two costly wars former President Bush thrust the U.S. into in the early 2000s. And certainly in certain contexts, isolationism can be an overarching framework that helps shape a country's foreign policy decisions - one has to look no further than the United States leading up to the Second World War, after World War I left such an awful taste in its mouth. However, President Obama has not used isolationism as his foreign policy framework; rather, he has no framework. And as his tenure as Commander in Chief winds down over the next few years, it's that very lack of framework that will come to haunt his legacy, and possibly set the global political arena on a path the United States will wish it had avoided.

Getty Images

President Obama's first term in office saw several smart foreign policy moves. Although he had to concede to sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan early on, he sped up the timeframe for bringing troops home, following through on one of the campaign promises that had gotten him elected. With the war in Iraq winding down, he was symbolically finishing the job that former President Bush had started, but had not been in a position to finish on his own. The Arab Spring also showed great promise for the Middle East, and Obama's outline of a plan to restart peace talks between Israel and Palestine signified a potentially monumental change in how the entire region operated and perceived the United States. And finally, Obama's handling of Libya arguably could not have been better executed. Without putting American troops at risk, Obama provided NATO with the American support it needed to stabilize - albeit temporarily - the country and help set it on a path to democracy.

Since 2011, things have not gone as smoothly. The war in Syria has not only continued, but worsened with each month, with a death toll of over 160,000 today. President Obama's "Red Line" regarding the use of chemical weapons would be laughable if the repercussions had not be so tragic. Despite continued talks of aiding the rebels, very little aid was distributed, and now it appears that it's too late for any real support, as the opposition is so fractured it's hard to tell who is an honest Syrian citizen fighting for independence, and who is an Islamic radical taking advantage of the instability to sow seeds of hatred against the West.

Many proponents of Obama are chalking the crisis in Ukraine up as a victory for Obama - himself included, in his speech at West Point. Indeed, the solidarity that Western nations showed in dealing with an aggressive Russia was impressive, and seems to have temporarily subdued President Putin. However, economic sanctions are not the answer to everything, and shouldn't be treated as such. Before Putin backed down, he was essentially given carte blanche to storm into Crimea and seize it, in a display of showmanship that the world has scant seen since the mid-20th century. It set a poor example for other countries in similar situations, such as China, who is looking to project their power and has nationalist interests in Taiwan and Tibet; or the Kurds scattered among Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan who have long sought after an independent state. Essentially, it was another instance where President Obama floundered and chose to implement his usual policy: don't really do anything, and hope for the best.

Courtesy of Telegraph UK

Obama asserted in his West Point speech that the new threat to America was terrorism - not necessarily al Qaeda, but in a broader sense, the diverse and widely scattered factions that exist all over North Africa and the Middle East today. His announcement to push for funding to go towards counterterrorism training in the countries where these threats exist was meant as an indicator that he is being proactive in facing the modern problems of the world. However, this statement comes at an interesting time, as the United States has kept its distance from the crisis in Nigeria, where weeks ago a militant faction known as Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolgirls who remain in their captivity. Obama's surreptitious use of drones for the past few years have probably done as good a job as possible of mitigating the spread of terrorist cells across the region known as MENA, but now that he has vocalized the threat these cells pose to American interests, he will have to significantly ramp up the efforts that are made public to address them.

That's besides the point, however, because terrorism is not the only threat in today's world. China is grossly projecting its power onto the surrounding region, causing a rise in tension that will undoubtedly affect the United States' relationships with Japan, South Korea, and other nearby allies. To his credit, Obama has long spoken of a "pivot" in military power to the region, but that has not necessarily come to fruition; meanwhile, his Trans-Pacific Partnership has yet to fully materialize, also damaging the image Obama sought to display of American power in the region. Israel and Palestine have yet to reach a peace agreement; Iran nuclear talks have stalled; unrest in Venezuela has not reached a fever-pitch in the same way the Ukraine did months ago, yet persists; and above all, disagreement worldwide (and domestically) on climate change is leading the world collectively over the figurative cliff, at which point there will be no turning back and the ramifications will be devastating. To say terrorism is the threat we must now address head on and invest new resources in seems more of an avoidance tactic than anything else.

Many presidents in the past have worked within a framework that helped guide all decisions on foreign policy, dating back to President Monroe and the Monroe Doctrine, which fundamentally shifted U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. While at points appearing to try, President Obama has not developed such framework of his own. Careening forth from crisis to crisis, he has managed not to be too disruptive to the world order, although American dominance has certainly waned. For the next two years of his Presidency, Obama must assert himself not through military force, as many war-hawks are arguing, but through concise and well thought out uniform foreign policy - his legacy as president depends on it.


  1. The inability of Obama to project American dominance might be because America just isn't that dominant anymore. Just this year China surpassed the US in GDP as it relates to purchasing power parity and by 2020 should pass us in nominal terms. We are approaching a time where American dominance is waning and there is a nation with 4x as many people that work 2x as hard ready to take the US spot.

    International power always comes down to economics as evidenced by the effect of US sanctions on Russia. What if China put sanctions on the US for helping say, a Japanese or South Korean ally? Could we survive without cheap Iphones, probably yes. But China is the electronics manufacturing hub of the world and modern life wouldn't work the same without the computers, routers and other systems that we simply do not have the skills to manufacture.

    Obama, and the US to some extent, is acting from a position of weakness especially in the China-US relationship. As the world moves away from the US dollar in international trade the effects will become more apparent. Already we see beef and pork prices skyrocketing not because of inflation, but because of demand pull from China and the fact that the renminbi/yuan (sp?) is worth more internationally. The South China Sea will be conceded completely to China similar to how the US asserted dominance over the Caribbean in the 1700-1800's. The US will continue to be a rich country but the days of global dominance and prosperity for all are long gone.

    1. I agree with you to some extent and disagree with you to another extent. Your assertion that economics is the real power of today is demonstrably false: United States’ sanctions on Russia forced them into a multi-billion dollar natural gas trade deal with China, and just this weak forced them to establish an economic partnership with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which will surely act as a counter to the E.U. In my opinion, that is a step backwards, not forwards for the U.S. We should have let Russia implode on its own due to its lack of flexibility in terms of human rights issues and its oligarchical stronghold over its economy.

      In terms of China, I think the U.S. has skirted its potential in the Asian seas, although to slightly contradict myself, they have maintained a reasonable partnership with Chinese leaders. China may outpace us economically, but militarily, they are still far behind – I’ll see our 11 aircraft carriers to their one any day.

      To sum it up, yes, we have lost our ability to project dominance across the world predominantly because we lack said dominance in the current global arena. That does not mean we should abandon the idea of an established framework that our Administration uses to guide itself in foreign policy decisions. Rather, I think it calls for a new framework; something that has not been tested. We have technological power, in the sense that, for example, China is eager to benefit from our hydrofracking technology. Our clean environment developments may be seen by some as trivial, but are leading the world in terms of reducing carbon emissions, and are sought for emulation. Where we may seem weak economically, I think we are outrageously dominating in issues that are tenfold. What we must do is harness that dominance, and use it to our advantage in a new foreign policy agenda that utilizes all of our tools and quits relying on either an absence of military power, or a surplus of drone warfare (or both).