Which role will the United States play in the international scene? Obama’s foreign policy seen by Alessandro Colombo

Does the United States still represent a “necessary nation”? In his address to the West Point cadets, Obama talked about two opposite attitudes to approach two of the most important present international crises: the ones in Syria and Ukraine. On the one hand, realists do not think that the negative effects of these crises will reflect on American people and do not even take into account the possibility of a military escalation. On the other hand, left and right-wing interventionists reproach Washington for ignoring these crises, and at its own risk. However, according to Obama, who is perfectly aware that a policy of isolationism is not an option in the international scene, not every problem needs a military solution. American leadership in the world cannot be judged solely by measuring its military interventions. Using military force is contemplated by the Obama administration only if American core interests are considered to be at stake. Only in this case, unilateral policies could be adopted.

Which role will the United States play in the international scene? Obama’s foreign policy seen by Alessandro Colombo - Geopolitica.info

If American interests are not directly threatened, then a military solution would be possible, but only in a multilateral context and after a previous phase of collective actions based on a renewed mobilization of the allies (e.g. diplomatic pressure, plans of development, economic sanctions, application of international law, political isolation…). Obama tried to find a new answer to this old question that has recurred repeatedly since the end of the Cold War. Obama did not openly choose one of the two most common approaches of American foreign policy – isolationism or interventionism –; he left himself open to criticism from the ones who suspect that, beyond general and theoretical propositions inspiring an across-the-board approval, hides the will of restricting the extent of American commitment.

To have a clear and original perspective on the American foreign policy’s panorama, we met with Alessandro Colombo, full professor of International Relations at the University of Milan.

When American international involvement actually decreases, will such an unusual position mean that the leadership the United States has benefited from since the fall of the Soviet Union is at stake? Or, without even mentioning the Monroe doctrine, can we find similar examples in recent history that would help define the real extent of this position?

We can mention at least three key moments during the last century that show this kind of “reluctance” felt by American citizens: 1) after World War I, when Washington preferred to not get involved in the match played among European powers; 2) after World War II, when President Truman took the path of international involvement solely due to the strict rules dictated by the emerging bipolar system and despite political pressures and pressure from people for him to act differently; 3) after the end of Cold War, during the years of George Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations, when both the political and academic worlds talked about the need to “cash in dividends” from the peace, which, in explicit terms, referred to the need to reallocate American tax payers’ resources within the national boundaries instead of spending them abroad. In this phase, more relevant to our analysis of the present policy adopted by Washington, Bill Clinton defeated H. G. Bush in the elections held in November 1992, shifting the theoretical focus of the operation in Iraq: instead of Bush’s desert storm, he proposed the domestic storm, which focused primarily on resolving internal issues.

Using the same strategy, G.W. Bush won the presidential elections in 2000 by promising throughout his campaign to pay more attention to internal problems, after a decade of aiding the resolutions of European conflicts that began after the fall of communist regimes.

The “reluctance”, which has also appeared in Obama’s addresses, seems nonetheless to be balanced by the perception of the need for American international involvement.

Yes, but this is no big news; American foreign policy, in contrast with European foreign policy, has always combined reluctance with a great sense of mission. Europeans talk about goals and national interests, while Americans recall the mission they have to accomplish in the world.

This frame of mind finds its origins in an old political discontent, pointed out both by founding fathers and then emphasized by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the United States should be regarded as a power that is not subject to classic rules of international politics. Moreover, the term “New World”, is not merely of geographic significance; it refers also to a place in which power can be organized in “new” forms. From this point of view, we can affirm that the American political vision had a potentially “revolutionary” side: after 1918, in fact, the American vision was not so different from those of Lenin and Trotsky on certain points. This perspective collides with the idea of power and the legal principles that characterized European international politics.

Neoconservatives claimed –and still claim- that the day after the fall of the Soviet Union was, at that time, the right time to overthrow the ancient international political system in which existing states followed the undefined rules of realpolitik.

But throughout history, a new international political layout was not the unique goal of the United States’ foreign policy.

That is true. The American “revolutionary” vocation evolved into a deeper search than the reconfiguration of power structures. The first step to take was the attempt to get rid of Westphalianpolitical and legal architecture and to substitute it with a more virtuous international community, in which interference -not sovereignty- would be the cornerstone.

International relations and states themselves had to evolve simultaneously, as international order depended now on the domestic and democratic order of every single member of the international community. This was the guideline of American foreign policy, at least from 1992 to 2006, but the political and military impasses that resulted from the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq slowed down the process.

 And what changed with Obama’s election?

G. W. Bush’s successor did not choose one clear position. During his presidential campaign, he gratified people’s isolationist leanings by putting an end to Bush’s foreign policy and to the saga of the war on terror. Obama was elected as the new administrator of the American foreign policy of the 2000, as confirmed also his National Security Strategy of 2010, in which he drew a ruinous evaluation report of the preceding decade.

Nevertheless, as soon as he was elected, Obama was forced to recognize that the United States was still a “nation at war,” even if the current war was different from the global one against terrorism his predecessor had been fighting. Theoretically, Bush’s war was against two politically vacuous concepts, terror (identifying Al Qaeda with Iraq) and terrorism (which is a method of fighting and not a political entity), while it had a precise enemy: Al Qaeda. Due also to Osama Bin Laden’s death, this war could no longer be the only and most important chapter of American foreign policy.

Despite all these elements, Obama’s administration didn’t succeed in finding a new direction to follow for American foreign policy; although acknowledging the current crisis, Washington did not manage to come out with a coherent solution and hesitated both in finding a new, general political structure and in dealing with concrete current crises.

Limited American engagement in the process of the Arab Spring, hesitations in dealing with the situation in Syria and Ukraine and the lack of a stable direction in its relations with Russia, are the most serious and alarming evidences of United States’ indecision.

Is the protracted lack of a grand strategy, that is to say, a general frame permitting coherent decisions-making concerning international issues, inspiring new debates about future political choices by Washington?

In order to define its foreign policy structure, a country needs to know the answers to the following questions: what shall we do? Which extent should have our actions? With which means are we going to accomplish our goals? The least common denominator between those who participate in this discussion is the desire to maintain American leadership, both in its hard and soft power forms.

Even if a certain “cognitive panic” surfaced in Obama’s address at West Point, the president openly reaffirmed his will to encourage American leadership in the world. In accordance with this ideology, a superpower must try to control the external environment through indirect structuring of the international system. On the one hand, Washington must continue to promote an open and free international economy in accordance with the Open Door Policy, which has been the blueprint of American foreign policy since the 19th century; while on the other hand, Obama’s administration has to avoid allowing the emergence of an eventual peer competitor, who would play the same role the Soviet Union played during the Cold war.

As within the international system, regions are becoming more and more important. Consequently, the United States has to prevent foreign powers from being too influent in areas that are crucial to American interests, imitating on a global scale Britain’s strategy in Europe during the end of the 19th and in the beginning of the 20th century.

The United States acts in a post-twentieth-century world; in which only regional powers can intervene from the outside in crisis situations, while other powers are left out of the loop. One needs only to consider the lack of any Chinese, Indian or Brazilian engagement in the Syrian, Iraqi or Ukrainian crises to observe this in action.

So far, we have talked about analogies; let’s now have a look at the differences between these two points of view.

Differences emerge when it comes to defining which areas should be considered a priority. This issue probably highlights the most glaring example of the discontinuity of the political presidential line from the nineties to nowadays. Clinton’s administration stayed focused on Europe, the fulcrum of the Cold War.

Once the Cold War was over, Europe experienced the most serious crises of adjustment due to systemic transmutation. Bush’s administration – even before 9/11 – had understood that Europe would no longer be the cornerstone of American international foreign policy and American strategic interests shifted to the Middle-East and Asia-Pacific areas. When Obama was awarded the “preventive” Nobel Prize for Peace in 2009, Europeans expected him to place Europe back in the center of American interests, but they were disappointed to see that Obama developed his foreign policy – at least theoretically – mainly following the pivot to Asia strategy.

What foreign policy should the US adopt?

There are two main options. The first one is deep engagement, in which the preservation of American leadership is closely tied to Washington’s decision to take responsibility for maintaining stability in every region. According to this point of view, to stay a leader, you have to exert your leadership by proving to other states, as Madeleine Albright said, that yours is a “necessary nation”.

Firstly, for the United States, international engagement means maintaining both influence in and support from the country, and international institutions founded on American values. Secondly, involvement gives the United States a greater influence in negotiations, guarantying Washington the role of mediator – and of arbitrator– in every conflict. Thirdly, American involvement prevents errors (such as diplomatic allies taking responsibility for situations they are not able to handle) and, at the same time, has a deterrent effect on enemies. The other option is known as the retrenchment or selective engagement.

According to this perspective, leadership can only be maintained by focusing American forces exclusively in regions considered vital to American interests. “Selective” involvement could not only solve the problems related to economic, diplomatic and military unsustainability that characterize deep engagement solution, but could also improve the United States’ soft power. In the recent past, America’s image has been damaged by excessive involvement, often mistaken for an insolent attitude. This solution avoids the risk of the vicious circle “strong exploited by weak”, by deterring allies to make their security apparent to the superpower and by allowing the superpower to refrain from entering into conflicts that are not of its concern.

Considering what we just said, which position has been chosen by Obama’s administration thus far?

Though Obama was first elected in 2009, his position is still not clear. He seems to waver between deep and selective engagement. However, the model he followed to establish his relations with allies and enemies is much more defined. He seems to have abandoned the unilateral G. W. Bush’s attitude, in favor of adopting Clinton’s multilateral strategy with allies, while with enemies, he has developed the strategic reassurance, an approach centered ontrying to transform strategic competitors into strategic partners and on preventing potential mediators from becoming real enemies.

When discussing the critical points of Obama’s policy, we must recall the problematic withdrawal from Iraq as well as the course of the relations between the US, China and Russia, which deteriorated despite the implementation of strategic reassurance. Iran will be the last chance to prove the efficiency of this new operating principle, as well as an opportunity for Obama to accomplish another important achievement – along with Osama Bin Laden’s death – in his eight-year mandate. It is furthermore impossible not to mention two big problems emerging from the pivot to Asia strategy.

Firstly, European and Middle-Eastern allies saw this new strategy as an abandon, which provoked a struggle to gain regional hegemony. The second problem is that China perceived the strategy as hostile and contrary to the strategic reassurance principle (as according to Newton’s third law, every time the US reinforces their relations with China, they simultaneously frighten their allies).

To sum up, should we consider the United States a declining superpower?

If we take into account the power distribution in the international scene, we cannot talk about a collapse of the United States (as, for example, happened in the eighties to the USSR), and even thinking of other historical periods, like the seventies, the extent of the American influence does not seem to be losing ground in an alarming way. Nonetheless, a signal of decline can be seen in the United States’ decreasing will to use its power. Hegemony cannot be preserved by merely retaining the power; it also requires the will to use it.

Obama’s administration is perfectly aware of its huge power. However, due to the pressure of militaries, public opinion and various experts, it seems to believe the best way to preserve the power, is to not use it too much.

In this way, Americans have lost their faith in their ability to use hard power, which, in turn, has negative effects on the image of their soft power. Bush was convinced he could transform power into influence, while Obama seems to fear that power can turn into a trap.