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Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

Great expectations

In Afghanistan, Civil Society, Foreign Policy, Israel, The United States on October 12, 2009 at 7:36 am

I decided to wait to blog my personal thoughts regarding Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 until it became apparent the nature of the reaction. I had an idea and it seems that my own perception seemed to be correct.

Much of the rhetoric is that the committee that awarded the prize was rash and mistaken as, according to the critics, Obama has no real accomplishments in his first 9 months as President that warrant such a prestigious honor. Furthermore, they see him as turning into a puppet of the international community, or to put it bluntly, being in Europe’s pocket. Having foreseen this reaction, Obama himself was very cautious when delivering his speech about receiving the award. He stated that he was both surprised and humbled by receiving such an award and viewed the reward not as “a recognition of [his] own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”

Let’s be frank. Obama is not in the pocket of the Europeans, indeed it’s quite the opposite. Obama has large popularity outside of America’s borders, which strengthens his position on American foreign policy and does not by any means weaken it. Politicians abroad will feel more pressure to side with the U.S. on policies, even controversial ones such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Iran, North Korea, and NATO engagement in Afghanistan. To state otherwise is prosperous as we’ve already seen the consequences of acting in the opposite way during George W. Bush’s presidency. Obama has been rebuilding America’s political soft power and him receiving the Nobel Prize will quicken this process.

That being said, it cannot be ignored that there are challenges that he will face, most notably from the radical opposition that has been very outspoken against his efforts to reform health care. There is a large anti-European element in the United States. This will never change. Fareed Zakaria stated it best, contributing to Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program on CNN, that it’s never a great thing for a President of the United States to be popular in France. Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize will without a doubt increase this perception of fear. That said, it’s obvious that the committee in Norway decided to make this years award a political one. It’s apparent that Obama does not have many accomplishments that would deserve him such a prize, rather the decision was a way to mitigate foreign opposition to Obama’s endeavor of working closer with the United Nations, fostering cooperation between countries, and to allow a resurgence of Wilsonism in the international arena.

The committee, however, may have misread the situation. Obama is in need of some good news, but not to the outside world, but to regular Americans themselves. Pushing through Congress one of the most controversial pieces of legislature since the days of Franklin Roosevelt has cost him large amounts of political capital from his own party, capital that he will need if he wants to tackle, as he termed it, the war of necessity that is Afghanistan. Another consequence of awarding such a prize at a premature date is the perception of the Nobel Prize itself to Americans as not being one that is awarded based on true merit, but rather as a political tool or an attempt from Europe to directly influence American foreign policy.

The White House is well aware of these issues, and the approach that has surfaced is one of cautiousness and constraint. Regardless of these hinderances and controversies, at the end of the day this will be a major boost to Obama’s attempt at transforming the international system and putting the United States on a firm foothold as a conduit for such change. The major challenge he will face is the added pressure that has been put on him out of the expectation that he is in the position to make drastic changes in the world, where if he fails, not only will his popularity further plummet within the United States but outside of it as well.

Just bad timing

In Foreign Policy, Russia, The United States, Uncategorized on September 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

The big news of the day is that that United States abandoned its plans for establishing a missile defense shield in Europe. The change was expected but the timing was not. Obama is facing a lot of criticism at home for moving to the left, especially regarding health care reform. He has made concessions with the public option, but the Republicans are in full swing and are not shy about rallying the general public and portraying him in a very evil light. We’ve all seen the news footage of the townhall meetings and people screaming at their politicians, even of posters depicting Obama as a Nazi. This will undoubtedly add more fuel to this fire.

Regardless, the abandonment is not entirely a bad idea. Obama has made very clear that his adminsitration has three distinct foreign policy goals. The first is to increase U.S. activity in Afghanistan, as he believes, rightly, that Afghanistan directly threatens U.S. national security. The second is Iran and its nuclear program and the third is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. We have established on this forum that the last two are directly linked. Apathy against the United States in the Middle East has more to do with the U.S. failure in pushing Israel to acknowledge an independent Palestinian state than the war in Iraq. If this can be resolved, he can put influential countries, such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt firmly on his side and put more regional pressure on Iran. Regarding Iran, the major stumbling block is of course Russia, who has been very adamant in viewing any attempts by the U.S. to start a Missile Defense program in Europe as a direct threat to its natural security. Therefore, the move to forgo any plans at such a shield has more to do with woing Russia than believing that such a system cannot work.

On the other side of the debate is the belief that in forgoing such a system is to alienate further our key Central European allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, in the face of an aggressive Russia. Admittedly, public support for such a system in these countries has been extremely low, and the European Union has always been very weary at any attempts by the U.S. in having such an influence in these countries, as their relations with Russia would be in jeopardy, a vital source for their vital energy resources.

This is a very bold move by the Obama administration considering the timing. Public support has been waning due to health care reform, and Democrats are putting up a fight concerning Obama’s plans in Afghanistan. It’s the right move to be sure, but it’s just very bad timing.

Beating a bad rap

In Foreign Policy, Iran, Middle East, The United States on September 16, 2009 at 8:11 am

Realists have a bad rap. They are portrayed as those who are always beating the war drum out of the false belief that war is the best and only way to improve a state’s security. Many point to the advocacy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) by realists who observed that the reason for peace between the two superpowers from 1945 until 1989/91 was solely because they could destroy each other with nuclear weapons. There even existed the idea that if one wanted world peace, then it was better to give the enemy nuclear weapons and create a MAD scenario. Others look at the U.S. invasion of Iraq, stating that it was neo-conservatives who took a realist approach to promote change in the Middle East through an interjection of U.S. military power in the region, in order to deter future threats and destroy havens for terrorists. They point to such concepts as pre-emption, having a war on terror, and the need for allowing enhanced interrogation techniques to illicit information from an irrational enemy. Fortunately, this if far from the truth and these above-stated concepts are denounced by scholars in the school of realism as well.

Case in point. Stephen M. Walt, one of the more famous realists, recently blogged on the Foreign Policy web-site that going to war with Iran over its nuclear program is actually a mistake. Such a war would actually decrease the security of the United States. How can you get a country to start a dialogue regarding their nuclear weapons program if you constantly threaten to bomb them? Would this scare them into dropping all prospects of a nuclear program or further show their need for a nuclear program to deter a hostile state? Walt argues the latter.

Indeed, two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 Walt argued again, with John Mearsheimer, in Foreign Policy against a military approach. Their red line was that there was no need to use the instrument of war, as Saddam Hussein was already contained and the negative consequences from an armed invasion far outweighed the benefits. There would be a greater loss to American lives than there had been under the current status quo and apathy against the U.S. would significantly increase in the Middle East, putting into jeopardy its access to vital resources in the region. Both have proved hauntingly correct, not to mention that Iran’s influence in the region has actually increased at the cost of American lives.

It’s time to put things straight and acknowledge that the Realist school does not actively promote war, but sees it only as one of many mechanisms to enhance a country’s security. There are other tools at a state’s disposal that it can draw from. Be it soft power, such as cultural appeal, economic influence, being a leader in international institutions, or hard power, states still hold the ability to resolve their differences peacefully, a mechanism not only promoted by institutionalists or liberals, but by realists as well.

To be sure, holding a hard-line in one “ism” is dangerous in itself. To do so is to miss the big picture and limit oneself to a single approach, when the real world actually requires multiple approaches to enhancing and guaranteeing state security. This is why the United States is the superpower. It’s not just its military that is big and powerful, but for the time being and despite the financial crisis, its economy is as well. Not to mention that it’s a hegemonic-driver of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. It’s capable of pushing through ideas such as free trade that can benefit everyone who takes part, and let’s not forget, its culture is highly appealing, making it a cultural hegemon as well.

There are groups who are endangering this capability, and Walt is not shy on saying who it is. Neo-conservatives have not learned their lesson from the disastrous decision to invade Iraq out of the premise that it was building nuclear weapons and was on the verge of using them against the U.S. Any military action against Iran, whether it comes from the U.S. or Israel, would be just as disastrous because it would not only instantaneously disrupt protesting forces occurring within the country right now, but would also further isolate Iran in a negative way and more than likely disrupt the Palestinian peace process at the same time.

To use Walt’s analogy, holding a gun to Iran’s head is just going to make them more determined to acquire a nuclear weapon. Seeing that armed conflict is not the answer and knowing that there are other alternatives is not a liberal or realist approach. It’s just common sense.

Dancing with the dragon

In China, Foreign Policy, The United States on September 11, 2009 at 8:59 am

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that China and the U.S. are starting a dialogue on issues of counter-terrorism. This reveals the nature of the Chinese / American relationship regarding foreign issues.

Indeed, each country’s respective foreign policies are a result of very different domestic pressures and political goals. China’s foreign policy is based solely on its need for resources as a result of government pressure in sustaining large domestic growth. Therefore it’s no surprise that its official line on doing business in Africa, in particular in Angola, Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Nigeria, is based out of respecting sovereignty by separating politics from economics. Any condemnation by human rights groups or governments of China investing in areas of conflict where conflict diamond mining is taking place, or child soldiers or workers are being used is usually met with a Chinese response that sovereignty must be respected and it’s not their right to interfere.

The United States on the other hand is finding its population to be more interested in domestic policies than foreign policy, a trend that is a post-Cold war phenomenon. This is strengthened by the media that covers issues outside of America’s border in a specific framing of an event and in a minute time frame. A good example is the framing of the crises in Somalia in the early nineties as a humanitarian crisis. This caused the U.S. mandate to be very specific and limited when it decided to intervene and failed to grasp the political and sociological origins of the crisis. The American population therefore did not have a realistic grasp of what the conflict was, and as images were displayed of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, there was heavy pressure from Congress to send the boys home. A lack of interest in world affairs makes it hard for the United States to produce a concrete foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger has observed, and produced a dichotomy, in that what the U.S. promises may not be what it delivers after pressure from Congress has been applied. Therefore to use a term coined by Joseph Nye Jr, the U.S.’ soft power is also undermined when it proves that it can’t deliver on promises regarding trade benefits or other economic policies.

Despite these trends in both state’s foreign policies, there is always rhetoric of the two countries needing to work together. After all, China is a rising power and the U.S. is already the superpower, but the question remains, can they cooperate on sensitive issues?

As Hillary Clinton announced in the above linked article, there are a few issues, in which China and the U.S. can agree on. The main one is, and has been since 9/11, counter-terrorism. China’s territory consists of major minority groups who are dissatisfied with their current political and economic situation. From Tibet to the Xinjiang region, China is currently struggling in figuring out how to manage their minority populations who happen to reside in areas of great geopolitical importance. The Tibetan area is a major source of money from tourism and the Xinjiang area is rich in natural resources. Both of these areas constitute large chunks of Chinese territory, and efforts to keep these areas under control are one of Beijing’s top priorities.

Washington is determined to get Beijing to contribute more resources to international problems and convince China to act more sternly against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and North Korea’s irrationality. Issues such as the rule of law, though important, is already the top agenda for many NGOs and the European Union, and as the standard of living in China increases due to its economic performance, political rights will eventually be demanded upon by a rising middle class. Hillary Clinton is wise to realize this trend and therefore focus American / Chinese dialogue on issues that can serve both of their needs, as well as put the U.S. in a position to make an impact. However, the Obama administration has a fine line to walk. It must not give China a carte blanche in how it acts towards its minority populations out of an excuse that cracking down violently to protests is one of their counter-terrorism measures, which occurred when Russia cracked down heavily in the Chechnya region, shortly after Bush declared a war on terror.

China is an important country, but an influential one in the making. The Obama administration has a great opportunity to plant seeds that can contribute to closer relations in the future. But it must not do so out of the cost of complying with Chinese aggressions against their minority populations.

And the wheel goes round and round

In Foreign Policy, Israel, Middle East, Palestinians, The United States, Uncategorized on September 8, 2009 at 5:12 am

Despite pressure from the Obama administration Israel is still planning to build 455 new housing units in the West Bank, according to this report. This move by defense minister Ehud Barak is seen as a slap in the face to Obama’s new hardline approach to the Middle East. Obama rightly believes that the U.S. image in the Middle East, as well as the difficulties the U.S. is facing in deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, are directly linked to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. If he can finally secure a two state solution, so it is believed, then many influential states in the Middle East, such as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, could put more regional pressure on Iran in ending its nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, as can be referenced in our “Et tu Brute?” post, Obama’s political struggles at home has an additional consequence of undermining his influence abroad.

Ever since its establishment in 1948, Israel has always took a realist approach to its foreign policy, especially regarding the occupied territories. Attacks on Israeli civilians by militant Palestinians has always been returned with a heavy handed response by Israeli troops. Just this past year in fact, after missiles originating from Gaza met Israeli soil, Israeli troops reentered the region, leveling houses one by one. Even the first successful act of peace brokered by Jimmy Carter at Camp David between then Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat was only made possible after Sadat initiated the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and gained considerable amount of territory, before finally being pushed back out of the Sinai by Israeli troops, as a consequence of an Egyptian deal with Syria to push further and leaving their surface-to-air missile umbrella.

Therefore it should be no surprise that Israel is taking advantage of Obama focusing his attention on pushing health care reform through Congress and losing political clout whilst doing it. Indeed, Israel may not be as strategically important to the U.S. as it was during the Cold War, it nevertheless knows politics and how to play the grand game of international relations.

The Obama administration should not tolerate this blatant maneuver to jeopardize the peace process. Though one could argue that failures in ending the Palestinian/Israeli conflict can be contributed to both the Israelis and Palestinians, the United States nevertheless has a substantial opportunity of having a President who was willing to put the conflict on his agenda in the beginning of his Presidency, clearly illustrating the need to end the conflict. But if history has taught us one thing, it is that the prospects of peace usually disintegrates when it is almost achieved. Obama needs to stay focused and use harsh language to criticize any Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, despite any trouble that he is experiencing at home.