U.S. Smart Power is Taking a Beating

In his journey to the White House, Barack Obama made much hay railing against his predecessor’s supposedly go-it-alone mindset and penchant for foreign policy unilateralism.  With memories still fresh of the spectacular rupture between Washington and its traditional European allies over the Iraq war, Obama’s claim to be the “anti-Bush” garnered him a euphoric welcome in Berlin in July 2008.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in the “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  A year later, this sort of rhetoric earned him the Nobel peace prize for single-handedly creating “a new climate in international politics” and restoring multilateral diplomacy to “a central position.”

Five years on, it’s an understatement that things have not worked out as advertised, as a series of developments over the past few weeks starkly illustrate.  Each of these episodes concerns a different region of the world but they offer some common lessons: 1.) The Obama administration is not very good at consulting with and listening to U.S. allies; and 2.) The president’s determination to pursue a less assertive and more cautious foreign policy is increasing seen by allies as outright fecklessness. Continue reading

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Karzai Is a Lousy Ally, But Obama Also Deserves Much Blame

I have a long piece up at The National Interest’s blog site about the pronounced contentiousness in U.S.-Afghan relations.  I argue that a less mercurial, erratic and distrustful figure than Hamid Karzai would no doubt make for a steadier ally in Kabul.  Nonetheless, his numerous faults do not diminish the Obama administration’s own sizeable responsibility for the accumulating animosity.

Two main failings stick out.  First, for an administration that took office trumpeting the Afghan campaign as a “war of necessity,” the Obama team strangely did not put much effort into cultivating strong bonds with Karzai, its putative partner in the enterprise.  Second, it is at fault for ignoring Karzai’s legitimate complaints about the strategic conduct of the Afghan war and for sending decidedly mixed signals about what it hoped to accomplish.

One goes to war with the allies one has, to appropriate a now-famous Washington aphorism.  And in truth, the disputatious Karzai has unnecessarily complicated the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.  But the Obama administration’s own derelictions have also contributed much to the testiness.  The White House would be wise to absorb this lesson as the endgame in that country approaches.

Read the entire essay here.

It’s also striking how the bad feelings pervading U.S.-Afghan relations are mirrored in the breakdown of the U.S.-Saudi partnership.  This rupture dramatically came into view this week when Riyadh, frustrated by U.S. policy in the Middle East, pointedly declined an opportunity to join the UN Security Council for a two-year term and downgraded traditionally close intelligence cooperation with Washington.  A particular Saudi peeve is the Obama administration’s failure to consult with and take seriously the views of U.S. allies in the region.

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U.S.-India Relations: The Overshadowed Summit

The U.S.-India relationship is enveloped these days by grand rhetoric.  But for a reality check on the state of bilateral affairs, look no further than the summit meeting between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh two weeks ago.  The get-together was designed to inject new energy into a partnership that just a few years ago looked so promising but which is now roundly seen as going flat.  Yet even before Mr. Singh journeyed to Washington, the trip promised to be a ho-hum visit at best.

Noticeably gone was the excitement and pomp of Singh’s state visit four years ago, when President Obama put on an extravagant state dinner on the White House South Lawn honoring him.  It was the hottest ticket in town, attracting party crashers to boot, and even the rainy weather did not dim an event theWashington Post likened to a Hollywood production.  Back then, both leaders were fresh off impressive electoral victories and, with expectations raised by the recently-codified civilian nuclear agreement, they spoke augustly about a “future that beckons all of us.”

Their latest meeting, however, was in sharp contrast. Continue reading

Obama Can Rebook in Asia, But Can He Deliver?

The cancellation of President Obama’s long-scheduled trip to Asia this week is another setback to his signature foreign policy initiative, the so-called “Asia pivot” that was unveiled to much hoopla (here and here) just two years ago.  But as I detail in a new article published in The Diplomat, U.S. allies and partners had good reason to doubt the administration’s commitment even before the budget drama in Washington forced a change in Mr. Obama’s travel plans.

Some observers (here and here) argue that Obama’s absences at the high-profile Asian leadership summits this week are not really that big a deal, since he can always reschedule.  They point out that President Bill Clinton skipped out on similar meetings in 1995 due to a federal government shutdown and in 1998 due to a crisis over Iraq.  And President George W. Bush cancelled a U.S.-ASEAN leadership forum in Singapore in 2007 because of problems with the Iraq war.  These actions caused grumbles all around, the argument goes, but no real damage to the U.S. brand name in Asia.

But there are major differences in Mr. Obama’s case.  America in the 1990s was widely perceived as at the top of its game; the talk was all about “the unipolar moment” (here and here), soft power and “hyperpower.”  The decline in U.S. defense spending was a matter of the post-Cold War “peace dividend.”  Military interventions and diplomatic activism in the Balkans and the Middle East put to rest fears that the country would retreat into isolationism following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The information technology revolution and a booming stock market gave new vibrancy to the U.S. economy, so much so that some argued (here and here) that the concept of business cycles had become antiquated.  The nation’s fiscal position was strong, and the White House was engaged on trade policy, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the establishment of the World Trade Organization and the extension of normal trade status to China.  And Washington’s leadership was seen as key during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

The view of the United States as a nonpareil global power continued well into the George W. Bush era.  Military audaciousness in the Greater Middle East – undertaken seemingly without the need for, or concern to the views of, traditional allies in “Old Europe” – as well as soaring defense budgets reinforced the impression of global preeminence.  Pundits spoke of “an empire to rival Rome,” an “America Unbound,” and of “America Unrivaled.”  Nor was Mr. Bush’s commitment to the trade policy agenda was in doubt.  In Asia, free trade pacts were struck with Singapore, Australia and South Korea – the latter being America’s largest bilateral trade deal.  And although Washington could not close the sale at the Doha Round of global trade negotiations, it was not for a lack of effort.

Now consider how significantly different things are today.  The prominent narrative in world politics is of China’s strategic rise and U.S. decline, with more than a few predicting that China is set to rule the world and America risks becoming Beijing’s bitch.  The U.S. president repeatedly speaks of the need to focus on “nation-building at home.”  Shrinking defense budgets lead many in Asia to question the United States can keep pace with China’s growing military power.  The recovery from the 2007-09 recession is uncertain at best and, as a new Congressional Budget Office report warns, America’s long-term fiscal posture looks increasingly shaky.  Nearly all East Asian countries now count China as their chief trading partner.  Washington’s track record on trade policy is suspect and many doubt that the White House has the political gumption to complete the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), its pet project to build a U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia.  Singapore, in particular (here and here), has been quite critical of the Obama administration’s failure to exert U.S. economic influence in the region.  And there is a growing inwardness to the country’s psyche, leading some (here and here) to warn of a new bout of isolationism.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s cancellations is that perceptions about global power dynamics have a way of becoming entrenched.  Sure, the president will be able to rebook and the red carpet will always be unrolled for him in Asia’s capitals.  But the key question is whether he will have anything substantive in hand once he shows up.

Pointedly, this question is not being asked about the tour Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, is now making in Southeast Asia, covering much of the same territory that Obama was suppose to visit.  Not only does Xi now have the spotlight all to himself but he is bearing deliverables that matter.  In Indonesia, where trade with China has grown fourfold in the past eight years, he signed $28 billion in trade and investment deals, as well as a $15 billion currency swap agreement that will help shore up the faltering rupiah.  In Malaysia, which has not seen a U.S. presidential visit in nearly 50 years, Xi unveiled plans to expand already booming bilateral trade ties.  And in these countries and elsewhere, he is touting an alternative regional trade initiative that would further diminish U.S. economic influence.

There’s a lesson here for Mr. Obama: As he’s straightening out his travel plans, he needs to aim beyond mere symbolism.

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