I’m not going to lie — whenever Ben Rhodes starts talking to the press, I get worried about the Obama administration’s foreign policy trajectory. Rhodes tends to have a few simple international relations memes that he likes to get out into the public square. I understand this from a strategic communications perspective and fear it from a foreign policy perspective. And sure enough, as the Obama administration has started hyping/leaking the Big Foreign Policy Speech that the president will deliver at West Point later today, I’m seeing a very… simple theme. According to the New York Times’ Mark Landler:
Sketching familiar arguments but on a broader canvas, Mr. Obama will emphasize his determination to chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention. The United States, he said, should be at the fulcrum of efforts to curb aggression by Russia and China, though not at the price of “fighting in eight or nine proxy wars.”
“It’s a case for interventionism but not overreach,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in an interview. “We are leading, we are the only country that leads, but that leadership has to be in service of an international system.” (emphasis added)
And now let’s go to Politico‘s Edward-Isaac Dovere:
The speech will kick off a two-week period of intense focus on foreign policy from the president. It will stretch through another weeklong trip to Europe built around attending a 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration in Normandy that’s quickly become another part of his continuing effort to assert America’s role supporting the West in opposition to Putin….
At West Point, Obama “will explain how we move out of a period of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to a new stage in our engagement with the world, what we expect to accomplish over the next 2½ years of the administration, and how our approach in hot spots like Ukraine, Iran and Syria fit into that construct,” the official said. “You will hear the president discuss how the United States will use all the tools in our arsenal without overreaching.”
Then that’ll be about all Obama says about foreign policy until November. (emphasis added)
And, finally, there’s the New York Times’ David Sanger‘s window into what the administration thinks its biggest problem is in articulating its foreign policy worldview:
Part of the problem, a few former aides say when promised anonymity, arises from President Obama’s calm, considered approach, which was considered a major asset in his first term. He tends to think long-range. Mr. Putin, the president noted the other day, may feel pretty good about Crimea now, but could have second thoughts when the long-term costs of sanctions set in. And the Chinese, he tells other leaders, drive their neighbors into America’s camp every time they flex their muscles. At West Point, aides say, Mr. Obama will argue that with the United States nearly out of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a new moment to engage in selective intervention, preferably nonmilitary. “The president feels strongly that there is a middle ground between the isolation strain that has emerged and the overextension of the past decade,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who is drafting the speech. Overextension, he noted, “also poses a strategic risk to us.” (emphasis added)
In the words of Dora the Explorer… did you spot the theme?
As memes go, there are worse ones in the foreign policy world than “not overreaching.” It certainly fits with the national mood. It also fits with the fact that the current trouble spots out there are very, very vital to the interests of U.S. rivals and not terribly vital to U.S. interests (see also: loss of strength gradient).
The thing is, speeches have to be about positive action as well as “avoiding the stupid option.” If Obama wants to explain why ratcheting up military statecraft in eastern Ukraine, Syria or the South China Sea is a bad idea, fine, there’s a case to be made. But he will also have to articulate what should be done in those trouble spots, and “more of the same” is just not going to cut it.
Looking at the menu of possible positive actions, we run into the Obama administration’s current dilemmas. Between diplomacy and force lies economic statecraft — sanctions, trade pacts and such. And while this administration has been super-keen on sanctions, it’s been lumbering on more positive economic engagement. For example, Ukraine has not accelerated momentum towards completing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) more than Edward Snowden has decelerated it. If the administration wants to show it takes foreign policy seriously without using force, it has to be willing to use all the tools in its arsenal. So far, the administration’s efforts on behalf of TTIP seem half-hearted at best and desultory at worst.
The bigger and more damning problem is that the administration has developed no medium-term plan to counter revanchist actors in the world. Obama might be correct that Russian and Chinese bellicosity are self-defeating in the long term. But that sentiment won’t placate U.S. allies in these regions, nor does it offer a guide about what to do in the interim while these countries digest their land grabs. The United States needs to offer these countries a road map for how the United States will continue to act as a reliable geopolitical partner even if the situation should worsen. At the same time, those reassurances can’t give these partners carte blanche to either free ride or act more belligerently, as the Philippines did after the start of the pivot.
So if this speech says: a) military action is risky; but b) we have no positive economic agenda; and c) no plan for what to do if matters get even worse — then this is not going to be a very good speech at all.
Am I missing anything?