EDITORIAL: US foreign policy a drifting disappointment


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Barack Obama reaffirmed his belief in American exceptionalism in a speech (last) week aimed at reframing his foreign policy. This was no small point coming from a President who won office partly by capitalizing on a decline in the U.S.’s global standing.

When he accepted the Democratic nomination in August 2008, Obama made a bold promise.

“I will restore our moral standing,” he declared, “so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.”

Now that he is well into his second term it is difficult to offer a positive assessment against this mission statement. The U.S. under Obama has been slow, recoiling and tentative in international affairs. Because of the global leadership role the President accepts, this is a cause for concern.

Make no mistake, Obama is himself an embodiment of the very exceptionalism he embraces. That a one-time slave-trading nation, not so long ago riven with state-sanctioned racial inequality, can elect an African-American to the White House shows the power of the ideas that form the Great Republic.

His election, of itself, did much to revive US standing as the bastion of democracy and freedom. But looking for repercussions in American foreign policy achievements, we are bound to be disappointed.

Unless he shows more resolve in his final two years, his presidency will be seen as a period of drift when global threats from Iran and Russia went unchecked, the Middle Eastern quagmires deepened and China ever so surely began to feel emboldened.

To be sure, Obama points most proudly to scaling back and ending military engagements in Iraq and, in the coming two years, Afghanistan. But there is little evidence sufficient work has been done in either theatre to consolidate the gains.

In his speech to graduating officers at West Point this week the President even promised to close Guantanamo Bay; the same turning point his predecessor aspired to and that Obama pledged in his 2008 campaign.

In his reference to America’s age-old argument between isolationism and adventurism, at least the commander-in-chief seemed to comprehend that in this age of global threats the U.S. cannot realistically isolate itself from its role as an international force for order.

But he placed great emphasis on multilateral approaches; a surprising priority when his current nemesis, Russia, has played such a spoiling role with its UN Security Council veto on issues such as Syria and Iran.

In Obama’s own words: “A new century has brought no end to tyranny.”

An end may have been too much to ask for, but we are entitled to question the lack of meaningful progress.

Obama sounded dewy-eyed when holding out a “very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement” with Iran. He also boasted of how the American “ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.” That is not much of an achievement, or deterrence, thus far.

In our region, the U.S. pivot to Asia — somewhat forgotten with distractions in eastern Europe — has done little to stymie provocative actions by the Chinese navy. And North Korea remains unchastened.

The President speaks of a world where “hopes and not just fears” govern. But for solutions he cannot afford to be fearful of U.S. power.

 

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