Obama’s record on for­eign pol­icy

The Church of England - - Comment - Paul Richard­son

Barack Obama is un­der crit­i­cism for his for­eign pol­icy. In Syria he sup­ported the over­throw of the As­sad regime but failed to give help to the mod­er­ate rebels, al­low­ing the ji­hadists to gain in­flu­ence. He drew a red line over chemical weapons but took no mil­i­tary ac­tion when it be­came clear As­sad had gassed his own people.

Amer­i­can troops have left Iraq and the coun­try is torn apart by con­flict. In Egypt Wash­ing­ton has lit­tle lever­age when it tries to get the mil­i­tary govern­ment to re­spect hu­man rights.

Ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist there is wide sus­pi­cion in the Mid­dle East that the ‘lion has turned into a pussy cat’. Saudi Ara­bia and Is­rael both fear that the US will be un­able to stop Iran fi­nally ac­quir­ing a nu­clear ar­se­nal. Yet again the Mid­dle East peace process has stalled.

The list of fail­ures grows. Amer­i­can sanc­tions have failed to de­ter Putin in­ter­fer­ing in Ukraine. In Asia China’s claims in the East and South China seas are alarm­ing its neigh­bours. Ac­cord­ing to some eco­nomic in­di­ca­tors, China has now taken over a po­si­tion Amer­ica has oc­cu­pied since 1872 as the world’s largest econ­omy. Asian na­tions are con­clud­ing it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore China’s mil­i­tary might re­flects its eco­nomic power.

But it may be too soon to write off ei­ther Obama’s for­eign pol­icy or Amer­i­can dom­i­nance in the world. The Pres­i­dent has made mis­takes. He has not han­dled Syria well. Prob­a­bly the best so­lu­tion now is to try to patch up an agree­ment be­tween the mod­er­ate rebels and As­sad, even if this means As­sad stays.

Obama knows that fol­low­ing the Iraq War there is lit­tle ap­petite in Amer­ica for for­eign in­ter­ven­tion. Faced with Democrats who will not cut en­ti­tle­ments and Repub­li­cans who will not raise taxes the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been forced to re­duce de­fence spend­ing. When they look at what is hap­pen­ing in Ukraine, many Amer­i­cans won­der why it falls to them to act when Europe is un­will­ing to do its bit. Very few NATO mem­bers ful­fil their treaty obli­ga­tion to spend 2 per cent of GDP on de­fence.

One les­son of the Iraq war that seems to be­ing re­peated in Afghanistan is that it is eas­ier to win the war than win the peace. Na­tion-build­ing has not been a suc­cess in ei­ther Iraq or Libya. The ex­cep­tion is Kur­dis­tan where a flour­ish­ing semi-in­de­pen­dent state now ex­ists. Re­li­gious and tribal di­vi­sions and the ex­is­tence of ar­ti­fi­cial states cre­ated af­ter World War I are likely to make the Mid­dle East un­sta­ble for a long time to come. Obama’s cau­tion about get­ting too deeply in­volved is un­der­stand­able.

Iran re­mains a ma­jor prob­lem. Wash­ing­ton continues to in­sist no op­tion has been taken off the ta­ble but it is hard to see the US re­sort­ing to mil­i­tary ac­tion if the nu­clear talks fail. What Is­rael will do is an­other mat­ter.

While re­sist­ing mil­i­tary in­volve­ment, Obama has sought to build on Amer­ica’s great strength: its large num­ber of al­liances. As one ex­pert has pointed out, Amer­ica has some 60 al­lies while China has just North Korea. Amer­ica will re­main the world’s leading power as long as it can count on wide in­ter­na­tional sup­port. The rev­e­la­tions of Ed­ward Snow­den have cer­tainly an­gered many al­lies but Obama is find­ing ways to soothe re­la­tions.

At home the frack­ing revo­lu­tion has trans­formed the Amer­i­can econ­omy and given the coun­try a se­cure do­mes­tic source of en­ergy. What hap­pens in the Mid­dle East is now less cru­cial for Amer­ica al­though it re­mains of sig­nif­i­cance for the world econ­omy.

For­eign pol­icy ex­pert John Iken­berry has made a use­ful distinc­tion. Obama, he claims, is no in­ter­ven­tion­ist but he is an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist and cer­tainly not an iso­la­tion­ist. His in­ter­na­tion­al­ism can be seen in the way he tries to work with what Iken­berry terms ‘the wider spec­trum of part­ner­ships, in­sti­tu­tions, and diplo­matic en­gage­ments that make up the Amer­i­can-led or­der’.

There may be times when fail­ure to take mil­i­tary ac­tion un­der­mines con­fi­dence in Amer­i­can power (a point made by The Econ­o­mist but there may also be times when the wrong kind of mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion can erode in­ter­na­tion­al­ism (a point made by Iken­berry).

Iken­berry and other sup­port­ers of the Pres­i­dent are prob­a­bly right to ar­gue that Amer­ica’s im­age in the world has im­proved un­der Obama. What some see as weak­ness is the US learn­ing strate­gic lessons from the last decade and com­ing off its post-9/11 war foot­ing.

Obama’s hon­esty does not go down well with the pa­tri­otic Amer­i­can right but the rest of the world ap­proved when he was asked about Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism and replied: “I guess ev­ery na­tion is ex­cep­tional in some way.”

He also shows hu­mil­ity. In his No­bel ac­cep­tance speech he re­marked that: “Amer­ica can­not in­sist that oth­ers fol­low the rules of the road if we refuse to fol­low them our­selves.”

Obama’s Pres­i­dency still has three years to run. Big chal­lenges lie ahead, no­tably Iran, Ukraine and the quar­rels in the China Seas. Iken­berry de­scribes his strat­egy as one of ‘prag­matic in­ter­na­tion­al­ism’. Given that Amer­ica’s power is re­duced even though it re­mains pre­dom­i­nant and its lead­er­ship is still re­quired, that is the right strat­egy. ‘Leading from be­hind’ is not a bad idea if Amer­ica can get oth­ers to move in the same di­rec­tion.

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