In the wake of President Obama
completely ignoring my advice on what has to be in the speech delivering his Big Foreign Policy Speech in quite some time, let’s start the week with five things I think I think on the current state of American foreign policy:
1) Politically, Obama got exactly what he wanted from that speech. Oh, sure, a mess of foreign affairs commentators and some editorial pages ripped Obama after the speech. Most Americans, however, read neither foreign affairs commentators nor editorial pages. When it comes to foreign affairs, most Americans maybe, just maybe, will read the headlines. And the headlines the day after Obama’s speech were all about how the president said he wouldn’t be sending American troops into harm’s way anytime soon. That’s exactly what the American public wants to hear at this point in time.
2) My fellow world affairs commentators need to calm the hell down. Obama failed to address my pre-speech concerns. Clearly, I don’t think it was a good use of rhetoric. Ben Rhodes is in need of an enforced vacation until, say, 2017. That said, as Zach Beauchamp observed late last week, “the American foreign policy community has a decided tendency to flip the hell out,” and with a few exceptions, that drama played out again after Obama’s West Point speech. But a bad speech doesn’t change the fact that Russia, China and Iran all face far more formidable constraints than the United States in world politics. Indeed, it is precisely because these countries have only regional capacities and ambitions that they focus most of their energies on their most vital, close-to-home national security priorities. Which brings me to…
3) If I hear “facts on the ground” one more time my head is going to explode. I’m willing to be that “facts on the ground” will be the 2014 Foreign Policy Catchphrase of the Year. Whether it’s Syria or Crimea or the South China Sea, the lament is that America’s adversaries and rivals are changing facts on the ground, thereby altering the status quo in a way that disadvantages the United States. This is actually true in the South China Sea… and nowhere else. Because if you’re going to talk about facts on the ground, the facts are that:
- The Japanese government fully controls and owns the Senkyakus
- Putin has completely blown any chance of getting Ukraine into the Eurasian Union
- Bashir Assad remains in a far more precarious position than he was four years ago
Plenty of actors can change facts on the ground, but in this case, they’re changing small facts only after Very Big Facts went against their preferences.
4) Obama’s actual military doctrine: target the weak. Plenty of observers have noted the striking contrast between Obama’s willingness to use force in his first term but not so much now. What I find striking is that Obama has been far more willing to use military force against weak actors (Somali pirates, Al Qaeda, Libya) but act in a far more risk-averse fashion when it comes to confronting great powers like Russia or China. That risk aversion is probably a wise thing, but it’s also ironic. For a decade, the standard lament about U.S. national security policy has been that Washington is good at dealing with states but not non-state actors. Obama has handled most of these non-state actors fine — it’s traditional great power politics where the president seems, at times, to be genuinely flummoxed by the motivations of U.S. rivals.
5) It’s not about the use of force, it’s about the use of the military. In his defense of Obama’s speech, Fred Kaplan argued:
The president’s main point was to emphasize that not every problem has a military solution; that the proper measure of strength and leadership is not merely the eagerness to deploy military power; that, in fact, America’s costliest mistakes have stemmed not from restraint but from rushing to armed adventures “without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”
Fair enough, but the thing is, military statecraft is about more than the use of force. After more than a decade of robust military spending and atrophied everything-else-in-the-foreign-policy-toolkit budgets, the military remains the one foreign policy agency that actually has, you know, the capacity to do something. State, Treasury, USTR, USAID, and myriad other agencies need better staffing and better resources to assist in the kind of statebuilding that, say, Ukraine will need now. If Barack Obama wants to end the creeping militarization of American foreign policy, that’s great. If he fails to divert resources to civilian foreign policy agencies, however, then he’s going to be constraining U.S. foreign policy options far more than most commentators appreciate.