The text was originally published at Russia in Global Affairs
Elected to a new presidential term in 2012, Barack Obama received a clear mandate from the American people – move away from world affairs and set things in order at home. The failure of George W. Bush’s foreign policy spurred a growth of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. Only five percent of voters are concerned over international problems. For the others, it is more important to curb unemployment and stabilize the national economy.
However, dynamic changes in the Middle East, along with the need to finish the war in Afghanistan, deny nuclear weapons to Iran and strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, have prompted the United States to continue its intensive involvement in world affairs. This is hindered, however, not only by the absence of enthusiasm among the population, but by the related reduction of financial and military resources, as well as consistent rejection of American activism in the world, including some of Washington’s closest allies in Europe.
The White House has to adapt its global strategy. Leaving stated priorities unchanged, America seeks to find a more effective method of reaching its goals.
American global strategy: historical background
The strategy of the United States is characteristic of developed sea powers, whose prosperity rests on maritime commerce. This requires control of key maritime trade routes through permanent forward-basing of the Navy capable of operating in the open ocean, as well as the creation of a system of military alliances, guaranteeing its presence at distant points. The might of the Navy guarantees the impregnability of the American “island”.
The United States’ influence has spread in the world in several stages. Two important factors in this process were heated political discussions in the country between isolationists and expansionists over the purposes of American presence overseas, and the absence of vital security threats to the United States in the course of expansion. None of its opponents, aside from the Soviet Union, was a match for the United States in overall power.
In the 19th century, the United States’ sphere of interests was exclusively its immediate surroundings in North America and the Caribbean Sea. The principle of mutual nonintervention in each other’s affairs between the Old and New World was established in 1823 by President James Monroe:
“We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and [European] powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
Completing the movement of the continental frontier, the United States began to gradually become involved in global processes. At the beginning of the 20th century, Washington acquired its first strong points in the Pacific Ocean when it won not only Cuba, but also the colonies of Guam and the Philippines from Spain.
However, it was participation in European affairs that made American policy truly global. Whereas after World War I discussions continued in the U.S. over the expediency of American presence in the Old World, by the end of World War II the United States had firmly secured for itself the status of a world power.
Aside from the American military’s participation in the war against Nazism, its global status was strengthened by three processes: the creation of the UN and NATO as a system of containing the Soviet Union, economic support to Europe through the Marshall Plan, and the replacement of France and Britain as the primary guarantors of order in the Middle East.
Not all American politicians welcomed these developments. The leader of the isolationists in the mid-20th century, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, argued that the end purpose of foreign policy should be defense of the freedom of American citizens – first of all from abuses of power by the administration. He argued that false priorities prompted Washington to demand more from citizens than was necessary for the defense of the continent. At the same time, Taft believed that the Truman administration should have carried out a preventative strike against the Soviet Union in 1945 in order to eliminate the threat stemming from it. As “the time had been lost,” Taft proposed strengthening the defense of the United States’ borders. Although his views were criticized as outdated, the isolationist sentiment did not disappear from the political discourse.
In the second half of the 20th century, America strengthened its positions in East and Southeast Asia after it defeated Japan and became the main ally of South Korea following the Korean War. In 1951, the United States, Australia and New Zealand established a military alliance (ANZUS). During the same period, the U.S. strengthened and modernized its military base on the western Pacific island of Guam.
After the end of the Cold War, the United States’ global presence shrank in the Pacific but expanded in the Middle East. In 1992, the Philippine parliament ordered the closure of the largest U.S. bases in the region. In order to reduce the negative effect of that loss, the United States in the same year signed an agreement with Singapore for the use of a naval base on its territory. In view of threats from Iraq and Iran, beginning in 1995, the United States concluded agreements with Bahrain and Kuwait and received the possibility to maintain static presence in the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean and in the Persian Gulf.
The end of the Cold War was marked by the beginning of a new discussion about foreign policy priorities, in which isolationists had strong positions. The relative decline of the U.S. might in the late 1980s-early 1990s caused isolationists to warn against “imperial overreach.” Conservative American publicist and U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Jean Kirkpatrick wrote in 1990 that the era that demanded domestic mobilization in the U.S. had come to an end – a “normal time” had come for the U.S. to become a “normal country.” Kirkpatrick insisted that Washington focus on internal affairs:
“We will need to learn to be a power, not a superpower. We should prepare psychologically and economically for reversion to the status of a normal nation.”
Later, Kirkpatrick departed from the idea of isolationism and joined neoconservatives, who wanted to change the world in accordance with the American ideals.
The resource demands of a planet-wide presence are colossal. Those resources are symmetrically divided amongst the various components of American power – from military strength and cooperative international development programs to the export of pop culture and internet services. However, something more is required of the “leader-country.” First, it must guarantee the stability of regional order, even if its violation does not threaten its survival. To this end, it is necessary to soberly evaluate the regional situation and how one’s interests are connected with it.
Washington’s leadership experience in the North Atlantic Alliance in the second half of the 20th century had an array of peculiarities that did not allow the United States to effectively fulfill a leadership role on a global scale.
First, as a result of its confident but belated entrance into the circle of world powers, the United States did not have the classic European experience of conflicts and cooperation, which helps acquire judiciousness in international affairs. As a result, the process of Washington’s rational recognition of its own interests in regional conflicts is frequently distorted by ideological factors. Second, prolonged dominance in the Western community and the experience of unilateral decisions in the 1990s instilled in the United States a dislike of equality and mistrust towards international institutions. Finally, the economic prosperity and technological breakthroughs of the decade following the end of the Cold War strengthened the American establishment’s belief in its exceptional – transforming – role in the world, to which the laws and norms of international politics should not apply.
This makes the political and strategic experience of the United States imperfect. Maintaining world stability requires an understanding of the practical utility of sovereignty and the rules regarding the use of force and self-restraint. This, in turn, sets special demands on diplomacy. Regime change by force and the export of revolution as a strategy could work when the United States had overwhelming superiority; however, the heyday of such an approach has passed.
It is also difficult for Americans to realize that the main aspect of global politics – the subjective, human aspect – requires an understanding of differences between national societies and the ability for empathy, especially to manage these differences (as in Iraq and Afghanistan). Finally, contemporary American universalism – democratization – is anti-historical. The United States is artificially speeding up slow processes which usually take centuries to develop. Washington does not take into account the unpredictability of global development and frequently fails to see collateral effects of its activity. The U.S. also simplifies or ignores history, painting the future as carefree and profoundly different from the past. In reality, the victory of democracy on a global scale is not predetermined. In fact, the United States itself, according to Henry Kissinger, is still an open-ended experiment. In that regard, the practices of the George W. Bush administration are not new – presidents with a similar mindset have ruled the country before. The only thing that was new was the degree of freedom of action that the United States enjoyed in the international arena.
In the post-ideological world, where countries are guided by pragmatism, the space for missionary initiative to spread democratization is shrinking. Democracy ceases to be viewed as a unique feature of the United States and is becoming a universal human achievement and a condition of stable development. The Americans should be given much credit for it, but they have lost their monopoly on this institution. Now the Obama administration is to rethink the new circumstances in the international environment and the changed capabilities of the United States.
Algorithms of Obama's foreign policy
The administration of Barack Obama had to actively participate in global affairs amid the reduction of resources and against the backdrop of the catastrophic foreign-policy legacy left by the Republicans. In 2009, the post of Secretary of State was given to Hillary Clinton. On top of having to finish two military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, her tenure in this post was marked by a major crisis in the Middle East, in the settlement of which the United States had to play an active role. Moreover, in 2010 and 2012, the United States received two foreign-policy blows – a widespread leakage of secret State Department documents during the WikiLeaks scandal and the death of four American diplomats, including the ambassador to Libya. Washington had not found itself in such circumstances for a long time. They could be compared to the late years of the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1981), whose failures in Iran and Afghanistan cost him the presidency.
Although Clinton cannot be said to have reached any major achievement, she succeeded in gaining a high level of approval of U.S. foreign policy from her fellow citizens. Republicans’ criticism of the President and the Secretary of State that they were not able to actively advance American interests because they were not ready to use force at every opportunity no longer carried much weight with the public. In their eyes, the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. decisive influence on the events in Libya and Egypt, and the withdrawal of the American military from Iraq were satisfactory results.
The first Obama administration earned an international reputation for its judicious foreign policy course, much like that of the Dwight Eisenhower administration (1953-1961). Its central characteristic was strategic opportunism – supporting those actions that bring harm to opponents and hindering those that benefit them. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry strengthened this tendency after he was named to the post of Secretary of State in 2013.
Kerry has a reputation of a good negotiator and an effective debater. During the 2012 presidential campaign, he “trained” Obama, placing himself in the role of Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the debates. Moreover, Kerry compared favorably with Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, who withdrew her candidacy for the post of Secretary of State, as he had a well-developed feeling of empathy and an ability to build and maintain constructive relationships. Kerry’s confirmation procedure in the Senate was an easy discussion in comparison to the review of Hillary Clinton’s legacy in the same committee a few days earlier. Kerry’s empathy was a kind of safeguard against foreign-policy radicalism and a guarantee of moderation. It was exactly these qualities that he demonstrated during the diplomatic settlement of the situation over Syria in August-September 2013.
Kerry’s lack of executive experience is compensated for by the Obama Cabinet’s collective decision-making model, which dismisses radical proposals. And although half of the team was replaced at the beginning of 2013, the other half has retained their posts. Kerry’s colleagues in the Department of Defense (Chuck Hagel), the CIA (John Brennan) and the Office of the National Security Adviser (Tom Donilon and Susan Rice), along with the Secretary himself, have formed the core of the National Security Council. Also important was the appointment of career diplomat and former Ambassador to Russia William Burns to the post of Deputy Secretary of State. He is only the second former Ambassador to Russia in history to hold that position. Together these moderate politicians have blocked radical initiatives, which often came from the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
The United States in the Pacific
The foreign-policy priority of the first Obama presidency was a re-orientation of the focus of U.S. interests from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.
“While the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region,” says the U.S. Defense Strategic Guidance “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” made public in January 2012.
The Americans’ primary concern is the strengthening of China. The regional political and security systems in the Asia-Pacific region were created when China was weak and were aimed to isolate it.
Therefore, the rise of China in its current dynamics is a threat to regional security – and the only one that may evolve into a regional war.
The United States’ goal is the military containment of Beijing through the forward-basing of its forces, the formation of a military-political coalition, and transparency of the Chinese military program. Other elements of Washington’s strategy include equalization of its trade balance with China and other countries in the region. To that end, in November 2011 the United States announced the preparation of a multilateral trade agreement with the participation of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chili and Peru for the creation of a preferential trade regime in the Asia-Pacific region. The project was called “Trans-Pacific Partnership”.
The primary task for Washington is not to allow a revision of the status quo. To that end, China is to be engaged in the system of Pacific connections and to play roles prepared for it. The United States Pacific Command Strategic Guidance specifies parameters of the U.S. military doctrine in the region. In accordance with that document, U.S. military policy in the region has five top priorities: allies and partners, China, India, North Korea and transnational threats. The immediate goal is the strengthening of military alliances and partner-countries. Special attention is given to supporting India as “a leading and stabilizing force in South Asia”. In relation to China, the formula is different – the priority here is to “sustain a consistent military-to-military relationship,” which may imply peacekeeping and monitoring activities.
The beginning of people’s uprising in the Arab East deflected American diplomats’ attention from Asia and caused them to focus on preserving the achievements of the United States’ long-term policy in the region. The “Arab Spring,” brought to life by many factors, including Washington’s inept actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, caused the White House to curb its regional ambitions, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.
U.S. priorities and instability in the Middle East
Up until the second decade of the 21st century, the Americans were still actively intervening in the Near and Middle East. However, Washington found it necessary to constantly lower the bar. In Afghanistan, the goal changed from “building democracy” to the elimination of Al-Qaeda. In Iraq, it changed from “the fight against tyranny” to allying with any force that was able to control the situation in the country. Dramatic public opinion figures in the Middle Eastern countries have shown that anti-American sentiment, reaching a peak in 2003-2004 (90%), remained at about 70% moving into the second decade of the 21st century.
None of the American analysts foresaw the revolutionary events in the Arabian East. Washington’s official conduct during the growing tumult was in sharp contrast with its aggressive actions in the early 2000s and gave an example of a crisis reaction in a situation of uncertainty. An anonymous source in the Obama administration said the developments in Arab countries had caught the White House unawares and that none of U.S. scenarios of Middle East settlement and measures to contain Iran had foreseen the possibility of destabilization in Egypt.
Previously, the United States had never failed to steal credit for revolutionary achievements in other countries. But on February 23rd, 2011, speaking to a predominantly international audience, Obama said:
“The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power.”
Such an announcement naturally drew criticism from political opponents and voters. Progressivists in the Arab world were also unsatisfied: they accused the Americans of excessive passivity. However, the White House opted not to demonstrate a clear preference for any one political force.
Although the U.S. wanted to influence the situation in a way that was beneficial for it, it was not sure where the benefit was for it.
This factor brought inconsistency to American diplomacy, which firmly stood only on two principles: the exclusion of violence and the unacceptability of the status-quo. To some extent, this inconsistency was explained by the high priority the Americans placed on Egyptian-Israeli relations, where Hosni Mubarak and his regime stood as guarantor. The delicacy of the situation was in the fact that the United States had to support the protestors against its own allies, upon whom the regional security system rested. Indirectly, this helped promote the idea of democracy, but it harmed Washington’s immediate strategic goals and degraded the regional security environment.
The U.S. was seriously concerned by the problem of reducing the costs of the revolutionary events in the Middle East. In order to preserve its influence, Washington needed to maintain ties with the military establishment of the countries that had received American assistance in the last three decades. For a number of reasons, the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt subsided and power was consolidated in the hands of the military. Experts said that the U.S. needed to continue its policy of providing financial and military assistance to Egypt and Tunisia to maintain regional stability.
The deepening of the crisis in Libya faced the U.S. with the need to intervene. In the absence of significant national interests, Washington adopted the line of defending the Libyan people from the tyranny of the country’s leadership. The White House and the Pentagon were aware of possible consequences of their involvement in a third military campaign in ten years. Joining its European allies in NATO against the Qaddafi regime, Washington acted reluctantly and out of necessity. The U.S. sought to strictly limit its contribution to this campaign. In relation to Tripoli, Washington acted in such “cordial agreement” with the international community that had previously been observed in the early 1990s during the first campaign in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, this time the European powers even took a lead over the United States in the latter’s “battle for democracy.”
The next regional crisis broke out in Syria. Until the fall of 2013, the U.S. stuck to a simplified concept of a fight between democratic masses and a dictatorship. And, although President Obama said that the events in Syria did not threaten the vital interests of the United States, he warned that the use of WMDs by the Assad regime would necessitate an invasion. This allowed him to escape actual involvement in the situation and, at the same time, it prompted forces that were interested in foreign intervention to provoke the Syrian regime into violating the above condition, or to present the situation in such a way as if it had already happened.In the fall of 2013, U.S. analysis of the events in Syria took a multidimensional approach. There appeared publications about a complex ethnic and religious composition of the Syrian population and about a threat of the country’s disintegration in the event of the opposition’s victory. They also recalled that the borders in the region were the result of agreements between European powers rather than of the natural process of formation of national identities and states. The U.S. began to calculate the possibility of widespread destabilization in the Middle East. The threat of a fusion of the Syrian conflict with the conflict in Iraq, which increased as Shiite and Sunni combatants crossed the poorly guarded border, sidelined the idea of changing the Damascus regime under democratic slogans. Speculations about the fall of Middle Eastern states (Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Lebanon) appeared in the American press. Regardless of the serious concern over the state of affairs in Iraq, the American authorities altogether emphasized that they had no intention of intervening in the internal affairs of that country.
Washington’s readiness to accept the loss of Iraq, as well as the disappointing results of a decade of activism in the Middle East compelled experts to question the purposes of the United States’ regional strategy. The spread of instability, breakdown of democratically elected governments and the growth in popularity of Islamism and an anti-American mood – all of this drove home the conclusion of failure of the course taken in the early 2000s.
In that context, experts spoke about the tradition of cautious policy in the region, the contours of which were defined by President Carter in the late 1970s. This strategy focused on the preservation of the existing conflicts and included four basic principles: prevention of domination by one power, keeping the Israelis and Arabs out of a new war, support for the stability of Persian Gulf monarchies that were rich in energy resources, and the prevention of attempts by Islamist forces to depose regimes loyal to the United States. Not one of these aims suggested that the Americans retract their support for the status quo. In this regard, the near-decade rule of the Bush Jr. administration, when it was believed that stability could not be the United States’ goal in the Middle East, came to be understood in Washington as a divergence from its traditional regional policy, and Obama’s pragmatism – as a return to it.
Obama defined the new contours of the U.S. policy in the Middle East in a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013. The president took one more step towards realism. The primary alteration was the broadening of the time horizon for achieving the goals. Obama said that “the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.” Notions from the sphere of “status-quo” policy returned to the lexicon of the American establishment. What was previously called a “march to democracy,” Obama now named a threat of regional destabilization, a collapse of state institutions, civil war and inter-ethnic conflict. He confirmed his adherence to diplomatic settlement of conflicts and resolution of existing problems by local forces without interference from the outside.
In his speech, Obama laid out a new formula for regional policy:
“The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”
The United States’ decision not to be governed exclusively by values in foreign policy allowed it to legitimize its ties with the military elite in Egypt, which seized power in a coup. Under the framework of this new outlook, Washington set aside its disagreements with Tehran over values and proposed Iran a new relationship based on mutual interests. And although Obama’s political program is more detailed than Bush’s strategy, it is less specific in relation to the aforementioned problems, as well as approaches to Middle Eastern settlement and resolution of the Syrian conflict.
In conclusion, Obama confirmed the United States’ aim to maintain the status of guarantor of stability in the Middle East:
“Even when America’s core interests are not directly threatened, we stand ready to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights.”
According to informed observers (such as ex-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates), President Obama has learned the right lesson from decades of American mistakes in the Middle East:
“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?”
As demonstrated by public opinion surveys, the result of those mistakes was the strengthening of anti-war and anti-expansionist sentiment in the U.S., which President Obama linked to a threat of “vacuum of leadership” in global affairs.
The renewal of discussion of limiting the United States’ ambitions primarily involved the Republican Party, whose prominent members have begun to take neo-isolationist positions. Republican Senator Rand Paul said the United States, having no interests in Syria, should refrain from even limited intervention and should revert to a tactic of containing the Assad regime. This gave rise to a fierce intra-party polemic, in which activists, headed by John McCain, called for a boycott of Paul’s idea. This actually signifies the beginning of a party crisis, which may come into play in the nominations of candidates for the next presidential elections. Experts expect that the 2016 presidential race may bring into power a Republican sharing Senator Paul’s ideas. Special hopes are pinned on the renewal of the Republican Party’s pragmatic approaches to international affairs, as it was during the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George Bush, Sr.
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The United States’ frustration with the results of its leadership is rooted in dissatisfaction with the fact that many large countries outside NATO – including Russia – have declined to reproduce the U.S. experience and follow its path to democracy and the free market. Not wishing to pay for Washington’s attention and involvement in their affairs, they thus negate the meaning of America’s victory in the Cold War.
Foreign policy setbacks and the relative reduction of its ability to influence global affairs cause the United States to heed independent voices. The last few months have seen the return of the notion of “two superpowers” to the lexicon of the American leadership, as Obama and Kerry used the term to describe U.S.-Russian relations.
Large world powers do not view the reduction of American participation in global processes as a risk. As an alternative to unilateral American domination, they propose the formation of regional security associations, in which order is maintained by the consensus of local states. They point out, with good reason, the de facto existence of such systems within the borders of Russia and China, as well as in Europe and Latin America. The results of the U.S. decade-long activity in the Middle East have convinced these countries of Washington’s unpreparedness to fill the leadership role for the benefit of common interests.
At the same time, the Obama administration has not given up its priority goal of democratizing the world. For the time being, the United States is backpedaling: it is reducing the range of tasks, attracting resources of its allies, and expanding the time horizon for reaching its goals. A true revision of the priorities of American policy will occur if and when the resources of the strategy’s adaptation are exhausted.
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