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Where is Barack Obama’s foreign policy headed? In answering, one must accept a measure of humility. Predicting American policy makes more fools than sages. That goes double for foreign policy, as analysts must anticipate not only the actions of the United States but of foreign provocateurs as well.
In the case of Barack Obama, there is an additional caveat: the high-profile concerns that have monopolized his efforts abroad are seen by the president himself as little more than Bush-era loose ends, not the defining transactions of his own foreign policy. All new presidents encounter irritating constraints on their aspirations, but Obama is more irritated than most at having to endure any sense of continuity with his predecessor. His criticism of Bush continues unabated even as he fares no better in the same stubborn terrain.
Obama is not looking to build his foreign-policy legacy on top of disputes that predate his arrival. He is working to move past these, toward the day when he can implement his own foreign policy and national-security agendas. Accordingly, the best way to predict Obama’s foreign policy in the next three years lies not in examining how he deals with the accumulated baggage of Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East peace, and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Important as those are, they constitute what Obama has had to confront. We should ask instead what he will attempt to establish once he has become less encumbered by the inherited issues. Here, the record shows three critical characteristics.
First, Obama has no particular interest in foreign and national-security policy. That is not what he has spent his professional and political career, such as it is, doing, and it is not where his passions lie. There can be no question that the challenges of remaking America’s health-care, financial, and energy-production systems claim the bulk of Obama’s attention.
Second, Obama does not see the rest of the world as dangerous or threatening to America. He has made it clear by his actions as president that he does not want to engage in a “global war against terrorism.” The rising power of other nations, creeds, and ideologies, however unsavory, pose no grievous challenge to which the United States must rise. We are not at a Dean Acheson–style, post–World War II “present at the creation” moment. Therefore, Obama reasons, why behave in reactive, outmoded ways when there are many more interesting and pressing domestic projects to nurture?
Obama’s America need only be restrained, patient, and deferential. Take, for example, Obama’s November 2009 trip to China, during which the media highlighted how unyielding Beijing was, thus confirming their “rising China/declining America” conventional wisdom. In fact, it was more Obama’s submissiveness and less China’s assertiveness that made the difference on issue after issue: trade policy and Chinese currency manipulation; Taiwan; Beijing’s unwillingness to limit growth for the sake of global-warming theory; and Iranian and North Korean nuclear-weapons programs. Obama repeatedly came away empty-handed, even on blatantly cosmetic aspects of the visit: where he would speak, to whom, and how it would be broadcast.
Third, Obama’s vision is embedded in a carapace of naive internationalism, a very comfortable fit when national security is neither that interesting nor that important. Obama is the first president since December 7, 1941, to espouse a determinedly unassertive global role for the United States, one ironically verging on an essentially neo-isolationist view of America. Obama’s December 1 announcement of troop increases in Afghanistan is not to the contrary, since he proclaimed the beginning of withdrawal in virtually the same breath. Afghanistan, like Iraq, is the very paradigm of legacy issues Obama does not want to confront. Failures such as his Middle East peace process and dealing with Iran and North Korea have simply led to resignation and inattention.
However, Obama’s is not your grandfather’s isolationism. He focuses not on America’s virtues but on why it is ordinary (thus explaining why, as I have written elsewhere, he is firmly “post-American”). It is America’s ordinariness that should enjoin it from imposing its will upon other nations. Obama is our first sitting president to express this sentiment. In April, he articulated this point with absolute clarity. Asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, the president responded, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, “No.”
In this vein, the boundless naïveté in the president’s UN speeches abundantly demonstrate Woodrow Wilson’s patrimony. In September, he said to the UN General Assembly:
It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009–more than at any point in human history–the interests of nations and peoples are shared. . . . In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group or people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.
In 1916, Wilson said that “the interests of all nations are also our own,” and later advocated “peace without victory.” He said, “There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace” founded on “the moral force of the public opinion of the world.” If you removed the dates from these two sets of comments, most people would have to guess which was Obama’s and which was Wilson’s.
Through these prisms–Obama’s focus on domestic issues, his belief in the absence of major international threats, and his fascination with multilateralism for its own sake–we can project forward the president’s foreign policy. Conveniently for Obama, pushing his priorities will involve international negotiations where presidential authority is virtually exclusive. That does not mean, of course, that he can determine the final outcome where congressional action such as Senate treaty ratification is required, but Obama and his negotiators will be able to dominate in crafting the agreements themselves. Three policy areas loom large and will allow Obama to showcase, in various combinations, the three core characteristics of his worldview.
The first policy on the table will almost certainly be American arms reduction, achieved through budget decisions and arms-control agreements, both bilateral agreements with Russia and multilateral pacts with other nations. At a time of profligate federal spending, only the Department of Defense’s budget is constrained. With economic stimulus all the rage, Obama has rejected enlarging the standing military; decided against increasing defense procurement to replenish the weapons and other equipment consumed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and stalled progress on critical high-tech military systems. These expenditures (and others) are central to future power-projection capabilities, and all would result in tangible assets and greater policy options, in contrast with the pathetic “shovel-ready” programs of the actual stimulus. This disparity is not accidental.
Even worse, both Obama’s Prague speech on a nuclear-weapons-free world and the first U.S. Nuclear Posture Review since 2001, heavily determined by the White House, point toward unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States, whatever the success of international negotiations. The president believes strongly, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that lowering U.S. nuclear capabilities toward zero will induce would-be proliferators around the world–Iran and North Korea take note–to give up their own nuclear-weapons programs. This is what Obama means by “strengthening” the regime established by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and what Gordon Brown has already proposed in giving up one of Great Britain’s four nuclear-missile submarines.
On several occasions in 2009, Obama and Russian President Medvedev announced agreements on future dramatic cuts in both nations’ nuclear arsenals and strategic delivery systems. Obama has already unilaterally reduced U.S. efforts in the missile-defense field, and there is every prospect of returning to some version of an antiballistic missile treaty. The Russians, of course, are delighted to agree to these reductions. For even if the international price of oil were again to rise dramatically, Russia would remain incapable of sustaining its nuclear forces anywhere near U.S. levels. “Mutual and balanced” reductions thus commit Russia merely to their most optimistic projections of their own capabilities and serve essentially to restrain the United States. In fact, “equal” levels severely and disproportionately disadvantage the United States because of our obligations to provide nuclear umbrellas for NATO, Japan, and others. Russia has no comparable need.
Multilaterally, Obama has been even more activist, enshrining his objectives in Security Council Resolution 1887 (indeed, even chairing the council session that adopted it) and convening a global summit on “nuclear security” in 2010. Obama has promised U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which was actually defeated by majority vote in the Senate in 1999). He has pledged to renew negotiations for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty as well as a treaty for the prevention of an arms race in space. He favors creating and strengthening so-called nuclear-free zones around the world and has urged all states not already party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to join as non-nuclear-weapons states, meaning that Israel, Pakistan, and India would have to give up their nuclear weapons (which won’t happen in any of their cases). Finally, Secretary of State Clinton promised active U.S. involvement in drafting an Arms Trade Treaty for conventional weapons, which is a thinly disguised route to achieve domestic gun-control objectives long blocked in the normal legislative process.
All these objectives will meet fierce domestic opposition in the Senate and elsewhere. But make no mistake; Obama knows where he wants to go and is working hard to get there.
Obama’s second leading policy concern is international agreement on global warming. This is not the place to re-debate global warming, but the climate-change True Believers clearly see little appeal in anything less than statist, command-and-control direction of global behavior. Obama’s efforts will draw the U.S. more fully into this fold.
Political reality may have doomed the possibility of a full-up treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2009, but that setback has not dimmed Obama’s multilateral enthusiasm. Environmentalists have focused blame for the absence of a legally binding treaty on the United States, as Congress is unable to enact cap-and-trade in Obamamania’s first year. In response, Obama will likely move more aggressively in multilateral negotiations to create a successor to Kyoto despite congressional inaction. In so doing, he will be following a now familiar strategy for American leftists, which is to internationalize problems on which they cannot make progress domestically. They have attempted in recent decades, with varying degrees of success, to do so on a host of issues: gun control, the death penalty, abortion, and the “rights of the child” among them.
The strategy is to reach agreement with like-minded leaders of other countries, whose governments are likely to be far to the Left of America’s political center of gravity. Then, treaty or other international agreement in hand, activists return to the Senate to announce that the rest of the world is determined to do “X” and that America cannot allow itself to be “isolated” along with Somalia, Burma, China, or other assorted holdouts. Thus, on global warming, Obama will likely focus on international approaches to reach his goals, perhaps using executive agreements rather than treaties to bypass the Senate and domestic political roadblocks. Similarly, he will increase efforts to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, which global-warming activists are touting as a backdoor to increasing environmental regulation.
Third–both enabling and following from the first two foreign-policy imperatives–“global governance” and “international law” will become growth industries under Obama. To the UN Security Council, Obama said, “The world must stand together. And we must demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced.” This dovetails nicely with the sentiments of the incoming president of the European Union, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who made clear in his November 19 acceptance speech that “2009 is also the first year of global governance with the establishment of the G-20 in the middle of the financial crisis. The climate conference in Copenhagen is another step toward the global management of our planet.” As our post-American President Obama well knows, the European Union is a continuing font of ideas on global governance, always eager to share its own form of bureaucratic control and accompanying “democratic deficit” worldwide. Now the new European president has a rapt pupil in the Oval Office and acolytes scattered throughout Washington’s foreign-policy establishment.
In many respects, the renunciation of “torture” in interrogating captured terrorists, the commitment to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and the criminal trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other defendants in U.S. courts are about making sure that “international law is not an empty promise.” These steps are, perilously, also decisions about retreating from a war paradigm to a law-enforcement paradigm in dealing with terrorism. But it was not coincidental that Obama’s first applause line in the General Assembly came when he referred to renouncing “torture” and shutting down Gitmo.
There is much more global governance in the works. The Obama administration sought and won re-election to the new UN Human Rights Council, a body that the Bush administration voted against creating in 2006 and that it subsequently refused to join. The new council has proved itself just as antithetical to American interests as was its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, but mentioning yet another reversal of Bush policy won Obama a further round of applause in the General Assembly.
There will undoubtedly be more such applause to come. Secretary Clinton has committed to ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Whatever the pros and cons of these agreements, the larger question is how much “law” the Obama administration is prepared to make outside the ever growing U.S. Code we already possess. To Obama’s internationalist sensibility, the offense, of course, is that laws “made in the U.S.A.” by freely elected representatives of our own citizenry are too “exceptional” and too “parochial” to hold weight in this interconnected world. Mere “municipal” laws, as international-law scholars refer to them, don’t pass John Kerry’s “global test” of legitimacy for American foreign policy. President Obama clearly wants to fix that problem.
Secretary Clinton opined, in Nairobi last summer, that it was “a great regret but it is a fact we are not yet a signatory” to the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court. So it was no surprise when the State Department confirmed on November 16 that the United States will now participate as an observer in meetings of the court’s members. Observer status is manifestly a step toward the administration’s ill-disguised ultimate objective of re-signing the Rome Statute, ratifying it, and becoming a full member of the court. Obviously, all these and other steps have implications not only for the United States but also for close allies like Israel, which were protected by earlier U.S. opposition.
Barack Obama’s blueprint for the United States spells trouble for American autonomy, self-governance, and defense, all key elements of national sovereignty. His undisguised indifference to repeated diminutions of that sovereignty is entirely consistent with the views of his European admirers, who, at their level, would like to see their nation-states dissolve into the European Union. In the end, however, the United States is exceptional and will not melt into any larger or global union; it will simply become less able to protect itself and its constitutional decision-making system. That is clearly where our first post-American president’s policies will take us.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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