Foreign Policy Limbo: Can Obama Get Us Out?

It is almost certain that, between the global financial crisis and the problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere inherited from the Bush administration, the Obama foreign policy team will continue to have a very busy first year or two.  All of these problems, as dire as they are, have done two things for the Obama administration.  First, and somewhat obviously, they have set the bar for success very low.  While many presidents have inherited ample foreign policy challenges, rarely have they taken the form of so unambiguously cleaning up a predecessor’s mess.  Second, and perhaps less obviously, the enormous effort that will be needed to address these problems will make it difficult for the Obama administration to craft its own vision and address a range of broader questions about foreign policy goals and the U.S. position in the world.

The major questions Obama faces with regards to cleaning up after President Bush are tactical and strategic–how to best wind down the war in Iraq, stabilize Pakistan, and staunch the global economic bleeding.  There are, of course, also specific global hot spots where conflicts have been going on for decades, such as Kashmir and the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Obama will try to succeed where his predecessors have largely failed.

When one looks beyond these high profile Bush-era problems, there is a great deal of ambiguity in the foreign policy questions facing the Obama administration.  One way to see this is that the US position towards some of the world’s most important countries remains substantially undefined.  The most glaring examples are Russia and China which, depending on the issue, and sometimes to whom you are speaking, are allies, competitors, threats or some combination of the three.

Clearly there are times when ambiguity in relationships is useful.  Approaching China or Russia simply as allies or enemies would be reductive and a mistake, but the line between nuanced ambiguity and the absence of any guiding policy is not always clear.  Globally, for example, the balance between supporting democracy and working with undemocratic friendly regimes remains poorly and incompletely considered.

This lack of clear policies is partially a leftover from the Bush administration, but its roots go back to our first post Cold War administration, that of Bill Clinton.  The Clinton administration, while far more competent on foreign policy than its successor, was largely reactive and failed to articulate sufficiently broad strategic approaches or vision.  Market liberalization and occasional humanitarian intervention, notably in the former Yugoslavia, but notably absent in Rwanda, were important hallmarks of the Clinton years, but they fall short of being genuinely visionary, or the kinds of ideas which can frame foreign policy and lead to broadly applicable goals.

Enough has been said about the Bush foreign policy by others, so here I will only note that Bush’s foreign policy was a frequently odd combination of being largely, and appropriately, reactive while simultaneously being driven by blinding ideological fervor.  September 11th, 2001 left Bush few choices other than to make fighting terrorism a primary foreign policy goal, but other aspects of his foreign policy, such as the war in Iraq and aggressive rhetoric about democracy promotion, were driven by ideological fervor more than strategic thinking.

Although the Cold War ended almost two decades ago, there are large parts of the world towards which policy is still poorly defined.  These include the former Soviet Union where, now that NATO expansion and full integration into Europe seems to have run its course, U.S. policy towards places like Central Asia and the Caucasus is influenced by national security, energy and democracy promotion, but these often competing concerns have not been suitably sorted out in a way that might be called strategic.

In Central Asia, for example, should the US want to continue to be the most powerful major power, it must compete with Russia and increasingly, and probably more significantly, China, for influence.  However, there is no clear articulated strategy, or more significantly, rationale for doing this.  It is worth thinking about if we want to be part of what is already a serious competition between Russia and China, and what our best approach would be should we decide it is an important policy goal.

The former Soviet Union is just one example, but it demonstrates that, outside of major areas such as Iraq, we not only lack a cohesive strategy, but where our goals either need to be revisited or do not yet exist.  This was a mistake that we could afford during some of the last twenty years, but for which we are already beginning to pay a price.