As the midterm election is coming in November this year, it is vital to assess foreign policy of the Obama administration. Shortly after his inauguration, President Barack Obama delivered controversial speeches in Cairo and Prague to impress benevolence to the Islamic world, apology to past power diplomacy, and determination for a nuclear free world. Also, Obama tries to reset relations with Russia and China. Those who denounced the Bush administration’s cowboy diplomacy bowed down and praised the Prague and the Cairo Speeches. However, I have been critical to his apology to American foreign policy and receptiveness to the rise of authoritarian challengers. Therefore, it is vital to explore foreign policy direction under the Obama administration, and examine how much different from those of previous administrations.
In order to understand US foreign policy under the Obama administration, let me show you a video of a panel discussion, moderated by BBC Radio Caster Robin Lustig at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on January 14 this year. At the event, continuity and changes in US foreign policy was examined. Liberals evaluates highly of foreign policy changes by the Obama administration, because they think America’s position in global political interactions has become worse by “high handed unilateralism” under the Bush administration.
Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment, commented such viewpoints on behalf of liberal experts on US foreign policy. She was critical to the Iraq War and the regime change policy under the Bush administration. Mathews deplored that the word of “democracy promotion” had provoked a fear of military intervention, which undermined the legitimacy of American idealism. As Mathews was one of the candidates for Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for the Obama team, it is nothing so special that she applauds Obama foreign policy. In her article, Mathews insists that Obama must reverse a worldwide distrust to US foreign policy caused by the Bush administration. She says that Obama succeeded in improving the public image of America through speeches in Prague and Cairo, and the Noruz message to Iran (“Solid and Promising”; American Interest; January-February 2010). I agree that the United States faces diversified challenges and multilateral effort is necessary. However, as Nile Gardiner at the Heritage Foundation says, should Obama apologize for America just in order to placate nationalists in autocratic nations and far leftists across the globe? Though she mentions worldwide opinion polls on public images to America, I doubt the validity of those results because global public opinion includes those who believe in the ideology of hated, who are inherent antagonists to the ideology of freedom.
What surprises me in this event is an audio comment by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Former National Security Advisor under the Carter administration. Infatuated with Obama, Brzezinski says Obama deserves Nobel Peace Prize simply because he improved global public image to America damaged by Bush foreign policy. It sounds quite Quixotic. Even Ruth Marcus, a liberal columnist of the Washington Post, was appalled to hear this news (“A Nobel for a Good Two Weeks?”; Washington Post---Post Partisan; October 9, 2009). Usually, Don Quixote us a man of reason and prudence, when it comes to chivalry spirit, Quixote turns to be completely Quixotic. A cool headed Brzezinski turns into Quixotic like thus way, when talking of Obama.
Certainly, President Obama has some sort of distinctive charm that infatuates people across the globe. But does it help US foreign policy? It is his widely perceived un-Americaness that pleased global leftists. But now, President Obama has to act as the US President. He must be steadfast to defeat terrorists in the Afghan War, stop nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and manage increasingly self assertive Russia and China. While liberal commentators praise the Obama change, Robert Kagan, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment, said that John McCain tried to overturn some policies under the Bush administration, such as the Guantánamo Prison. Apparently, liberals were obsessed with attacking Republicans and over-evaluated Obama. Therefore, a fair assessment on Obama foreign policy is required.
Let me speak specific issues at the event. At the beginning of the event, foreign policy renewal by Obama was discussed. While Mathews and Brzezinski were deeply impressed with the Prague and the Cairo speeches, Robert Kagan said that Obama had not departed from moralistic and idealistic tradition of American foreign policy. The problem that I would like to point out is, Obama's idealism is very Wilsonian-Carterian.
The primary issue at the panel discussion was security in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. Former Finance Minister of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani pointed out that misalignment between military agencies and socio-economic agencies impeded the progress in counterinsurgency operations. He said that USAID was not well suited for economic reconstruction, as it was a contract management organization. Also, terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan make things increasingly complicated. Liberals such as Mathews insist that Obama lower the target and redefine the victory, but neoconservatives like Kagan argue that the war is winnable through right strategy. In any case, the success in this war depends on President Obama’s leadership. This event was before the McChrystal case that posed a critical question to Obama’s competence as the commander in chief.
Another big issue in the Middle East was Iran. In view of the June 12 movement for democracy last year, the United States needs to reconsider whether continual talks on nuclear proliferation is useful or not. The priority may be helping the rise of a new regime by Iranian citizens, which is more well-prepared for constructive talks on nuclear issues.
The relationship with China is delicate. Although both the United States and China explore further cooperation to manage the world economy after the financial crisis, issues like human rights Tibet, and Taiwan are still hurdle to improve bilateral relations. Quoting a comment by Professor Steve Tsang at Oxford University, moderator Lustig said that the Chinese government found it more difficult to understand Obama’ s China policy than that of Bush. In reply to this, Douglas Paal, Vice President at the Carnegie Endowment, said that Obama decided to build up his China policy based on Bush‘s foundation. However, he was puzzled that China saw Obama’s stance unclear. His concern is understandable, because China may be tempted to provoke America to see whether Obama is weak or not. The Carnegie-BBC event presents vital viewpoints to understand impending challenges to US national security.
Regarding nuclear non-proliferation, President Obama hosted the 1st Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12 and 13, which has drawn considerable attention by the media and intellectuals. Some of them praise Obama a savior toward a nuclear free world. George Perkovich, Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that both right and left misunderstand the core idea of the Prague speech (“The Obama Nuclear Agenda: One Year after Prague”; Carnegie Policy Outlook; March 31, 2010). Perkovich says that three points are important, that is, a nuclear free world is much safer, it is difficult to achieve this goal, and the United States will keep nuclear deterrence to defend its homeland and allies as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world.
President Obama simply recruited NGOs and celebrities to sign the “Global Zero” accord, but he does not mention the feasibility and timelines for multinational negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. Left wingers interpret the Obama initiative a brave breakthrough to sacrifice US self interest. On the other hand, critics assume that Obama takes a unilateral step toward nuclear disarmament. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger (“Why We Don’t Want a Nuclear-Free World: The Former Defense Secretary on the U.S. Deterrent and the Terrorist Threat”; Wall Street Journal; July 13, 2009), Senator John Kyl, and Richard Perle (“Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent. The Less Credible the U.S. Deterrent, the More Likely Other States Are to Seek Weapons”; Wall Street Journal; June 30, 2009), attack the Obama initiative utopian. In fact, Obama tries to found a new non-proliferation regime including all 47 nations at the April summit. In the policy outlook, George Perkovich concludes that misinterpretation of Obama’s agenda may preclude other leaders from joining his non-proliferation initiative, and lead to higher risks for nuclear explosion. As in the case of other issues, I would stress that it is a fake image of Obama the Savior among leftists around the world that risks the security of the US and free allies.
The defense of US homeland is vital as well. In February this year, there was a bitter argument between Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Former Secretary of State Colin Powell about Obama's national security policy. Cheney blamed Obama for closing the Guantánamo Prison, and charging a Nigerian terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammed who plotted the Christmas bombing in Detroit as a civilian criminal. He says Obama foreign policy leaves America less safe (“Cheney criticizes Obama on national security policy, and Biden fires back”; Washington Post; February 15, 2010). Furthermore, his daughter Liz Cheney denounced Vice President Joseph Biden for attacking Dick Cheney. She argues that the Obama administration belittles the threat of Al Qaeda’s acquisition of nuclear and bio-chemical weapons (“Liz Cheney: Biden, Obama Administration Ignoring Al Qaeda Pursuit of WMD”; FOX News; February 15, 2010). Appearing in “Face the Nation” of CBS, Colin Powell said that Bush founded agencies still work under the Obama administration, and America was not less safe ("Powell: We Are Not Less Safe under Obama”; CBS News; February 21, 2010). In any case Powell just said that US national security had not been worsened but did not say that things had been improved when he argued against Dick Cheney.
How should we evaluate the Obama administration’s performance in foreign policy? Robert Kagan comments cautiously to liberal over-evaluation to Obama foreign policy. Obama has made fatal errors to deviate from post Cold War policy. Barack Obama may be a “pragmatic realist” as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel compares Obama to Bush Sr. The problem is, Obama believes that America can achieve its national interest through working with autocratic regimes (“George H.W. Obama?”; Foreign Policy Interview; April 14, 2010). The Obama administration is willing to accommodate the “post American” world, rather than reversing such a dangerous atmosphere (“Obama's Year One”; World Affairs; January/February 2010). While Obama explores “win-win” deals with challengers to our liberal world order, they respond to us in “zero-sum” principles, as typically seen in geopolitical power games posed by Russia in the former Soviet Union and China in the Asia-Pacific region (“The Perils of Wishful Thinking”; American Interest; January/February 2010). From the theory of hegemonic stability viewpoint, Obama’s pacifism will make the world less and less safe. He needs to understand that Pax Americana is global public goods to strengthen a liberal world order.
The Russian spy case is one of wake-up calls to reconsider Obama foreign policy. It is ironical that this case happened in a reset atmosphere of the Obama-Medvedev meeting during G8 and G20 Summit. Foreign policy experts agree that the US-Russian thaw needs to be reconsidered (“What the Russian Spy Case Reveals”; Council on Foreign Relations; July 12, 2010). Believing in win-win deals with Russia, the Obama administration courts Russia to manage the Iranian nuclear problem. However, Russian simply joined verbal attack to Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, but did not agree to impose comprehensive arms embargo on the Tehran theocracy. Russians sold S300 surface to air missiles to Iran. Also, Obama’s soft-liner policy has left East European and former Soviet nations vulnerable to Kremlin revisionism (“A Hollow 'Reset' With Russia”; Washington Post; May 25, 2010).
Though there are many points to be criticized in overall performance, Robert Kagan gives credits to some foreign policy success of the Obama administration. Despite lukewarm concessions with Russia and China on Iran, that discredited the joint initiatives by Turkey and Brazil. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned due to Obama’s strong pressure on the Futenma Base issue, and new prime minister Naoto Kan reaffirms the alliance with America the core of Japanese and Asia-Pacific security (“Obama's 5 Foreign-Policy Victories”; Washington Post; June 29, 2010).
I have talked about a broad range of issues in US foreign policy. The most important point is, whether President Obama will act as the president of the United States. On one hand, Obama is just a lukewarm pragmatist, rather than the savior praised by leftists around the world. On the other hand, though Obama is a Wilsonian-Caterian idealist, he is too self critical to American power and values. The midterm election is a good opportunity to question whether President Obama really believes in “Americanness”, both in foreign and domestic policies.