Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How U.S. foreign policy will change under the newly elected President Obama

The United States has suffered globally under the leadership of George W. Bush. The international community rallied to the United States following the September 11th attacks yet seven years later that good will has clearly been squandered by unprecedented arrogance guided by ideological blinders and undercut by incompetence and dishonesty. The conflict in Afghanistan pursuing the forces behind the 9-11 attacks was placed on hold while the U.S. pursued other military objectives in Iraq. However, given the very poor planning prior to the invasion and very poor political work following the invasion, American troops became bogged down in Iraq's overlapping civil wars where they remain today. The few allies we had going into Iraq have either left or are in the process of leaving. In the meantime, the military situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated from neglect by Washington.

Whether the issues concern trade, global warming, energy use, human rights, or international law to name just a few, the Bush administration either comes down on the wrong side more often than not or fails miserably in providing leadership. Under this administration the use of the military has replaced diplomacy stretching U.S. armed forces to a dangerous breaking point. The worldview of unilateralism has alienated friends. The Bush administration has taken the old wisdom of the need to unite your friend sand divide your enemies and turned it on its head. The United States is considerably weaker and more vulnerable than it was eight years ago.

So January 20th cannot come too soon. And fortunately, the likelihood of John McCain carrying on a Bush third term is fading. So what would U.S. international relations look like under an Obama administration? Michael Walzer speculates as to how U.S. foreign policy will change under the newly elected President Obama:
“Liberal internationalism” is the name that some of his advisors, and various friendly intellectuals, have chosen for the policies they hope he will adopt. But what does this mean? Here is a list of some of the things it might mean, though every item comes with a big question mark. For the moment, I am just trying to suggest what liberal internationalism might look like, not arguing about what it should look like.

1) The end of Bush’s unilateralism—at least in the form of there being endless consultation with other nations. U.S. diplomats, under Obama, will be doing a lot of traveling and a lot of talking—in Europe, with our natural allies, but also elsewhere. The policy of not talking to enemies will be explicitly rejected; we will be talking to any enemy who is prepared to talk to us—I mean any enemy state—and Iran and Syria will be the first candidates.

The policy with regard to terrorist organizations won’t change. Here I am just repeating what Obama has said. States are members of international society, and it makes sense to treat them like responsible members, committed to the norms of that society and capable of living up to those norms—and then to hold them responsible when they don’t do that. Terrorist organizations are, by definition, insofar as they practice terrorism, criminal organizations, which should be treated in accordance with their practices.

2) A new position on global warming and the Kyoto Protocols, maybe with Al Gore leading the charge.

3) An indication that we might be willing to join the International Criminal Court, though still with reservations to protect American soldiers from what are called “political” prosecutions. I don’t think that Obama will take on the Pentagon for the sake of membership in the ICC. Remember Clinton also would have joined except for opposition from the military establishment.

4) A different approach to the WTO and to trade issues generally, though how different is radically unclear. There will be, perhaps, a new interest in treaties that include provisions for workers’ rights, environmental protection, and so on. But economists are economists, and Obama’s advisors are not all that far from the neoliberal, free-trade Washington consensus; they are not, so far as I can see, the advocates of a global social democracy. Left economists will still be critics from the outside, though, given the financial crisis, they will get the hearing in Washington that they haven’t had these last eight or even sixteen years.

5) A stronger (rhetorically stronger or stronger in practice?) commitment to “the responsibility to protect” in places like Darfur and Myanmar, though the new administration is not going to send American troops into any countries where we are not already engaged. Are there other countries ready to send troops? If they are ready, the U.S. under Obama would probably be willing to support, help pay for, equip, and transport the troops. More than that: Obama has talked about creating a no-fly zone over Darfur—a good thing to do, certainly, but even then I doubt that the UN’s 20,000 African troops would be sufficient to stop the killing without some reinforcement from better trained and more disciplined armies.

6) A clear recognition that the “war” against terrorism is mostly police work and political work, that it requires cooperation among many countries, and that it can be, and should be, conducted within constitutional constraints. I would expect Guantanamo to be shut down, the torture memos repudiated, “rendition” terminated, and some trials of accused terrorists moved from military to civilian courts. But the new administration won’t give up clandestine activity, the war in the shadows, the long war. I would hope for a more coherent, nuanced, ideological commitment to the ongoing struggle against terrorist organizations—a way of drawing smarter lines than Bush’s black/white, righteous/evil, us/them discourse. But don’t count on it.

7) A withdrawal, as pledged, from Iraq? The commitment of Obama and of the leading Democrats in the Congress to withdraw is so clear, so strongly expressed, that it is hard to see how they can back off, and yet I think that they will back off. I find it difficult to imagine a U.S. withdrawal on Obama’s sixteen-month schedule. (Does that include all the private contractors and all the people who have worked with us and will be at risk when we leave?)

A formal policy of disengagement will certainly be announced, but in practice the disengagement will be very slow, with a lot of pauses, accompanied by negotiations with Iran and Syria aimed at providing cover for an eventual pullout. Will Iran and Syria cooperate? Do they want us to leave in a decent way, with what U.S. officers would regard as their honor intact? Probably not, though that might change in negotiations.

Anyway, in the short run, Obama will find that the Kurds don’t want us to leave; the Sunni chiefs don’t want us to leave; the Shi’ite government, despite Maliki’s endorsement of the Obama timetable, will or won’t want us to leave, depending on its strength relative to the Kurds and Sunnis. The Kuwaitis, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Israelis, and the Turks will all be wary of any near-time departure. So the trick will be to leave and not leave at the same time. Nothing about Iraq has been pretty, and nothing will be pretty in the foreseeable future.

8) But some troop withdrawals will be necessary because the Democrats are really committed to a stronger effort in Afghanistan, which means more troops going there and more troops from Europe, or so the Democrats hope. And this might be the place to say that no new American foreign policy will be successful or sustainable unless the administration finds European partners who are prepared, along with the U.S., to take responsibility (some degree of responsibility) for the way the world goes. American multilateralism is going to require a lot of work from the other sides, probably more than our European allies currently have in mind.

9) A greater willingness to work closely with European states in figuring out how to deal with Putin’s Russia, first of all in Georgia and then more generally. Bush objected strongly to Sarkozy’s trip to Moscow days after the Russian invasion. Obama won’t object to efforts of that sort.

10) A diplomatic initiative in Israel/Palestine and also in the larger Israel/Arab conflict. I assume that the current negotiations, including the talks between Israel and Syria, will be ongoing and there will be nothing settled by January 2009.

A Democratic administration will be more engaged in the “process,” but not engaged in significantly different ways. Obama is not going to force an Israeli withdrawal until—and unless—it is clear that rockets won’t be aimed at Tel Aviv from the “liberated” West Bank, and it is hard to see how progress on that front can be made with a frighteningly weak Palestinian Authority, along with a weak Israeli government, and the still-growing strength of Islamic zealots in Gaza, in Palestine generally, and in Lebanon. I would expect a lot of rushing around and no great advance. But this is a place where there might be some real surprises. Given a gradual process of implementation and some strengthening of the PA (with NATO troops or Jordanians?), it is at least possible to imagine a settlement.

So in terms of foreign policy the U.S. will look a lot better if there is an Obama presidency and a large Democratic majority in Congress. But, compared to the Clinton years, the U.S. has less power and diminished authority today, and the world is more recalcitrant. A different American foreign policy may not make a big difference unless it is accompanied and supported by policy changes in other parts of the world.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

I hope to see half of that list accomplished. Call me cynical, but I think there are limits to what he'll be able to do in four years, if he's elected.