Quietly but surely, President Barack Obama has embarked on what could be a strategic redirection of United States foreign policy. It would be in everyone’s interest to take note of that change and adapt to a new international scene.
The redirection in question is taking shape in three ways.
First, it reflects the growing isolationist move in the United States. That mood is felt across the spectrum of opinion in the US, beyond the traditional Democrat-vs.-Republican divide. Obama is presiding over a U-turn from his initial—some might say idealistic—promises of engagement with actual or putative adversaries.
The undeclared response to the problems of others is simple: Let them stew in their own juice.
Next, the Obama redirection is designed as a move towards realpolitik. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last month, the president put the emphasis on America’s concrete and largely material interests in the international arena. In his new narrative, the US was no longer the semi-mythical beacon destined by history to shine the light of freedom on the world as a whole.
Over the past two centuries, Americans have often been told that America is more than just another country; it is also an ideal to be shared with others less fortunate. Whether Obama ever subscribed to that notion is moot. What is certain now is that he does not regard the concept of American “exceptionalism” as a serious basis for making foreign policy.
Obama’s new direction is designed to reshape US foreign policy as a tool for tackling clearly circumscribed and contingent problems with the help of others—even when the cost of involvement for the US is negligible.
Finally, recent statements by Obama and his close foreign policy aides show that the new direction is meant to downgrade the strategic importance of certain regions—notably Western Europe and the Middle East—while upgrading others, such as the Pacific Rim and Asia.
This attempted redirection is made possible by several factors.
The first is that the American public is no longer persuaded that the US faces a strategic adversary strong enough to challenge, let alone threaten, it on a global scale. Russia’s Vladimir Putin may try to score a few cheap hits by backing the Syrian despot Bashar Al-Assad, but Russia is in no position to re-become an existential threat to the US. The Khomeinist mullahs may continue their shenanigans for a bit longer, but their doomed regime is in no position to do any more mischief.
The second factor is that US dependence on oil imports, chiefly from the Middle East and North Africa, is being rapidly reduced. In fact, the US might even return as a net exporter of energy within the next four to five years. At the same time, the share of the European Union in trade and in investment in the US economy continues its relative decline, while the so-called emerging economies and the North American Free Trade Agreement members consolidate their respective positions as America’s rising partners.
The third factor is that for the first time in years, Obama is in a genuinely dominant position within his own administration. George W. Bush had to contend with his powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, while his two secretaries of state pursued their own respective agendas. Nor could Bush’s two secretaries of defense, Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, be ignored. In his first term, Obama, too, had to contend with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, some might say rightly, thought she knew more about the world than the obscure junior senator from Illinois. Nor could Obama ignore such strong personalities as Gates, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus.
Now, however, Obama is surrounded by ageing senators who have reached their highest level of incompetence and are fully aware that they are where they are at Obama’s pleasure. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden were able to quickly forget their oratorical feats on Syria to reflect Obama’s decision to throw the Syrian people to the wolves.
Obama’s redirection of US foreign policy may not last beyond his current tenure, which is also his last. Nevertheless, it entails many risks for nations that have counted on US power to help impose international law and, when necessary, tip the balance in favor of allies in conflict with adversaries.
Bully powers pursuing thuggish policies in a number of regions may seize the opportunity provided by the US retreat to heighten their aggressive profile. Signs of this are already visible in Russia’s relations with a number of its so-called near neighbors, China’s saber-rattling over island disputes with Vietnam, while the Philippines and even Japan are other examples. The Khomeinist regime’s heightened activism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is yet one more example.
One way to cope with the planned US retreat is to sit it out, allowing the Obama administration to float to its inevitable end. Another is to use the retreat as a theme for another bout of Obama-bashing.
Both courses are open to question.
A more useful approach would be to embark on a pedagogic campaign to persuade the American public that isolationism is a dangerous gamble in a global system that lacks a mechanism for stability. For example, abandoning the estimated 7 million Syrians refugees and displaced persons may sound like a clever instance of the Obamaseque “let them stew in their own juice” doctrine. But what if the refugee camps and the areas where displaced persons try to survive under Bashar Al-Assad’s bombs become marshlands where the mosquitoes of terror are bred by the thousands?
Today, Americans are advised that they may not be safe in more than 40 countries across the globe. The Obama retreat could sharply increase that number. The US needs and deserves something better than a “Fortress America” strategy.
It is unlikely that Obama might change course due to any argument. He genuinely thinks that he is the greatest strategist in recent history, if not ever. So mocking or attacking him will change nothing. What is needed is to devise policies that would enable the region to maintain a measure of stability until the current cycle of US isolationism is closed, as it is bound to.