As part of my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve decided to wake up an hour earlier than usual in order to have more time to read through the stack of books sitting on my shelf. It’s actually a surprisingly relaxing way to start the day while drinking coffee. Last week my book was Kissinger’s World Order. This week it’s Ian Bremmer’s Superpower, which will be the subject for my next book review on Providence. Bremmer’s central premise is that American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been incoherent and unclear, and President Obama has been a primary culprits, though both Clinton and Bush receive significant criticism. Reading this book over the past couple mornings has provided me a different perspective to help analyze Obama’s foreign policy statements in his final State of the Union Address on Tuesday.
When laying out the “four big questions that we as a country have to answer” at the beginning of the address, Obama asked, “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” It’s a fair enough question with some basic premises. The wording suggests that he believes government must not only provide security but also lead the world towards some goal while not being an overbearing empire. However, Obama’s rhetoric and actions often contradict each other. Even though he asks and answers this question, doubts remain as to whether or not he has decided upon a clear, understandable, and coherent foreign policy.
Later in the speech when Obama addresses foreign policy, he helps define what threatens Americans’ security, “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states… And the international system we built after World War II is now struggling to keep pace with this new reality. It’s up to us to help remake that system.” What’s interesting with this last line is that it assumes the US should have some responsibility in remaking the international system. But the word “help” adds an ambiguous layer to Obama’s foreign policy and muddles what responsibility he believes America has. Is America supposed to help by “leading from behind”, or is it supposed to lead from the front? Or is this the same kind of “help” that a lazy student contributes on a group project for school?
Potentially, Obama could claim to help “mobilize the world to work with us” on “issues of global concern” by merely calling up world leaders to say, “Hey, have you heard about that Syria problem? We should get together and talk about that. Does Vienna sound good?” And then not actually do anything productive. American voters and allies are left not understanding what the US may or may not do or what costs it is willing to endure.
Obama describes America’s first priority as “protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks”. As an example, he explains how the US has worked with global partners to lead the fight against ISIS. But the speech omits how the actors in Syria have contradicting agendas where fighting ISIS is secondary at best. Russia wants to prop up Assad. Turkey wants to prevent an independent Kurdish region. Iran wants control over their proxies. Saudi Arabia wants to prevent Iran’s influence from spreading. The Obama Administration has claimed Assad must go, but the US has shown no commitment to this policy. (The Economist’s KAL cartoons from October 2014 and November 2015 depict this chaos well.) If stopping terrorists helps with these objectives, the actors are on board. If not, oh well.
(The Administration claims that there are no other options, and he points to Republicans who want to send in tens of thousands of troops to impose order on Syria. However, I have already written on why this is a false choice and how there are specific alternative foreign policy options in Syria that are different from the President’s and some Republican’s proposals.)
Obama’s previous rhetoric on Syria and ISIS has used strong words followed up by lackluster actions. An old friend and classmate of mine once described this type of behavior as “speak loudly and carry a toothpick”. Whenever Obama has acted, it appears to be against his will. For instance, last October The Economist suggested that the US increased bombing raids against ISIS in order to prevent Iran from claiming success for its operations against the terrorists. Without the Iranians operating in the area, Obama would have continued dithering. This combination of strong words followed by inaction or action only when forced (and then with only enough action to help silence some critics), suggests that Obama wants nothing to do with the Middle East but is unwilling to admit it publicly. This unwillingness to say what he means and to do what he says leads to an incoherent foreign policy, and the State of the Union continued this confusion.
After describing his incoherent ISIS strategy, Obama laid out a second priority:
Our foreign policy must be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world… Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians.
So the President says that instability will threaten the international order and that the world will look to the US solve these problems, but Obama’s answer thus far for Syria has been dismal. If America is unwilling or unable to provide better answers, the global community will stop asking for America’s opinion, as apparently Saudi Arabia has already done.
For me, the most interesting line in this entire foreign policy section was when Obama said, “When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend upon.” The strong words suggest that the President is willing to defend democracy and protect the international order, but his actions in Syria (and Ukraine for that matter) cast significant doubt over what he would be willing to do or the costs he would endure. Again, the word “help” casts another ambiguous layer that obscures Obama’s true intentions.
If Moscow was contemplating whether or not to send troops into Kiev to overthrow Ukraine’s elected government, should Putin believe that Obama would defend Ukraine’s democracy as this line suggests? Of course not. Putin has stayed out of Kiev not because he fears Obama would defend democracy but because taking Kiev doesn’t serve the Kremlin’s strategic interests as well as controlling sections of eastern Ukraine does. Russia doesn’t need to control Kiev in order to exert influence over Ukraine.
If Obama believes that strengthening the international order isn’t important, then he should just say it. He shouldn’t send out incoherent, mixed signals that confuse voters, allies, and adversaries about his intentions. After all, confusion over intentions and capabilities was a major contributing factor in the First World War. As Kissinger noted in World Order, Britain’s “aloof posture confused some German leaders into believing that Britain might remain neutral in a European war.”
Conceivably, America’s incoherent foreign policy could lead to a situation where Obama or the next president issues a statement such as, “The United States will help defend democracy in Latvia,” during a moment when Russia had indicated it may send “little green men” into Riga. Since Obama has made statements before without using any actions to back them up, Moscow could easily decide that Washington’s statements are mere bluster for domestic consumption. Though this time Obama may have actually meant what he said, for once. The scenario may seem like fantasy for Americans who don’t follow international relations, but the risk is real for those who live in the Baltics.
Reading through Ian Bremmer’s latest book helps put some of Obama’s confusing signals into context:
His lack of a coherent worldview dissolved his commitments to the well-made plans of his first term, leaving him to improvise responses to events far beyond his (or anyone else’s) control… The president has added to the problem by confusing allies, enemies, and the American people about his administration’s true intentions. Does Obama believe, as his rhetoric often implies, that America must lead in a dangerous world? Does he believe, as his actions often suggest, that America must choose much more carefully than in the past where it will lead and where it will not? Or does Obama believe that America must step back, allow space for others to lead, rebuild the country’s strength from within, and reconsider Washington’s most basic foreign policy assumptions?
…Barack Obama is not the first American president to see his well-made plans over-taken by events, and he won’t be the last. But President Obama has refused to choose a clear path forward. This is his great foreign policy failure… President Obama refused to commit to any foreign policy framework to help him make difficult decisions. His priorities have shifted with changing headlines, he has drawn red lines to no effect, and the few commitments he has made have encouraged others to set tests of American will that the White House had no intention of passing.
Bremmer argues that American power has declined and that the US cannot impose its will on the international order the way it has previously. Thus, in order to obtain any goal overseas, the American voters must give their strong support. He argues, “That support, lasting support, can only come from a frank appraisal of the costs, risks, and potential rewards at stake—and a firm decision about what role America can and should play in the world.”
The President’s final State of the Union Address did not give the American voters a frank discussion about US foreign policy, and Obama still has not chosen a clear path forward.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language & International Trade from Mississippi College. Prior to moving to DC, he worked as a political science adjunct professor at community colleges in Mississippi. He is Providence‘s resident millennial (don’t let the premature salt-and-pepper hair fool you, he’s a millennial).
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama stands with Members of Congress in House Speaker John Boehner’s ceremonial office as Bill Livingood, House Sergeant at Arms, left, and Terrance Gainer, Senate Sergeant at Arms, right, prepare to escort them onto the floor of the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 25, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, via Wikimedia Commons)