Obama’s foreign policy speech: Summary or strategy?

Frankly, I find Barack Obama’s speech more like a summary of his views than any new or adjusted strategy. How do you perceive it? Why was important for him to give this speech now? Read few comments.

Erik JonesProfessor of European Studies, Director, Bologna Institute for Policy Research, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Bologna Center, The Johns Hopkins University

It is a very good speech.  He is laying out a marker for the mid-term Congressional elections.  The concern among the Democrats is that they will lose control over the Senate.  The math is very much against them.  It will be hard to hold onto it.  And if they lose the Senate, then they will struggle with their foreign policy agenda.  So Obama needs to make it clear what we stand to lose.

He makes four strong claims about leadership:  First, America is the only country that can lead the world; second, American leadership should not be (primarily) military; third, America must revitalize the global network of multilateral institutions to be effective; and fourth, America must also remain true to its principles – even if only out of self-interest.

These claims are easily decoded.  His Republican critics accuse Obama of abdicating America’s leadership role, usually citing Ben Rhode’s reference to ‘leading from behind’.  The decision to draw forces from Afghanistan is under fire at the moment and so is Obama’s unwillingness to engage in other hot spots.  The Republicans are not fond of the UN and many believe that NATO is no longer effective.  Others complain that the ‘pivot’ was a mistake because the Europeans cannot secure their own neighborhood without American support.  Finally, Obama needs to reconnect with his youthful idealism and to dispel complaints on the left about Guantanamo Bay and the NSA.  So there is something for everyone.

That said, I think Obama is consolidating a clear vision of American strategy that his critics have always complained was lacking.  Within that vision, the United States has two different response patterns – one to threats to the national interest and another where less vital (existential?) and yet still important matters are involved.  He lays out clear principles for dealing with both sets of concerns and shows how they can be structured to be sustainable over the long haul.  I think that is important.

What is striking is how little he integrated economic matters into the conversation.  Of course this was West Point graduation.  But the 2010 national security strategy gave economics a central role.  This time he seemed to imply that the economic foundations have been addressed.  That is curious because we are wrapped in TPP and TTIP negotiations that will not succeed unless Obama gets trade promotion authority from the Senate.  He could have used this opportunity to explain how those negotiations fold into his wider conception of American leadership.  I am curious as to why he didn’t.  Obama also passed up the opportunity to salute key European allies like Angela Merkel or David Cameron.  From what I can see, he did not name any non-American apart from Osama Bin Laden.  The new presidents of Ukraine and Afghanistan were mentioned only by job title.  This speech was for domestic consumption.

Martin Michelot, Program and Research Officer, German Marshall Fund of the United States

Why now? This is Barack Obama’s yearly foreign/defense policy speech, and it is pretty telling that he decided to make it in front of West Point graduates, ie. the ones who will be called to serve in the leadership positions in future American military engagements. The two most interesting elements that came out of this in my mind : 1) BO said that this would be the first generation that wouldn’t serve in Afghanistan or Iraq (drawing the biggest applause of the whole speech), which confirms his desire to move away from these operations (nothing vastly new, but the fact that he keeps on referring to it shows how much this structures/has structured his foreign policy thinking); 2) he said that future American deployments would happen in more complicated/less clear-cut situations, which is also a confirmation of the use that BO sees for the military => enforcing political decisions and agreements; no longer democracy-building.

I agree with you that I don’t see a new strategy in this, but to be honest, this is not the time for a new grand strategy! He has had his policies, and the quickly moving events since his reelection in 2012 have made him more cautious and have helped put more value on the small steps of diplomacy, and how consensus-based foreign policy making in partnership with the EU and other regional partners could achieve heavy effects. BO also needs to do some pretty heavy expectation management at this point – he has started to think about the legacy that he will leave and here, he clearly laid out what he expects will happen under his power – Iran and climate change, and supporting countries on counter terrorism measures. Note that he doesn’t mention the Middle East – that is an agenda for Kerry – or TTIP – he expects that be a long run!

So, in the end, there is nothing new, but there are very important elements on counter-terrorism that will structure the last two years of his term, elements that in all likelihood will engage America in certain regions of the world (especially in the Arab World) post-2014. This speech also brings us back a bit to the “original Obama” from 08, the one who favors diplomacy over military intervention, and sees the military as an extra tool in the diplomatic toolbox, and not as a standalone tool that can achieve all the political effects. His quote:” But U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” says a lot!

Kurk DorseyAssociate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

Since 1945, we have had three presidents who came into the White House with extensive foreign policy experience: Eisenhower, Nixon, and the first Bush.  All of them were fundamentally cautious and saw the world as a very complex place, where ideology was less important than power.  The rest of the post-1945 presidents have come in with fairly straightforward world views, usually presented in black-and-white tones, and most have found themselves learning the hard way that the world doesn’t work that way.  Like many second term presidents, he has limited ability to accomplish domestic goals, so he has to emphasize foreign policy and the lessons that he has learned.

So President Obama has been trying to calibrate a foreign policy vision that connects with domestic realities (including war weariness and a concern among leaders that the US simply cannot surrender its leadership role), reassures foreign allies, and clarifies US resolve to potential adversaries.  That’s really hard to do, even ignoring the fact that he is probably evolving himself.  I really doubt that private citizen Obama would have been talking about American exceptionalism and thinking “God bless America” on a regular basis.

So the specifics of the speech did not include much that was new (and it was about 20 minutes too long!), but I think that he felt compelled to remind foreign leaders, in particular, that the United States would maintain a leadership role, while telling American parents that their sons would not be expected to fight in countries they cannot pronounce.  If he does not do that on a regular basis, we would debate whether or not he was still relevant, as happened to President Clinton.


One Response

  1. Woha, Thank you amigo for this one i really like it.

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