Leaders, Leaders: Where Have All the Leaders Gone

Obama Press Conference

 

 

Well the debate, discussion, dialogue – call it what you will – among the international relations experts and pundits began with the assertion by Walter Russell Meade and others over the return of geopolitics. This debate has grown since with the rising tide of chaos in the international system – the Middle East – Syria, Iraq, now Gaza – the Ukraine, Afghanistan, the rising tensions in the South and East China Seas.  It has become – especially for experts from the US – a full scale (re)examination of US leadership.  As noted by Peter Baker in the NYT:

It’s a very tangled mess,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Mr. Obama and now president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group. “You name it, the world is aflame. Foreign policy is always complicated. We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere. It makes it hard for governments to cope with that.

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A Multilateral World Is Well – Complicated! And There is No Roadmap

obama west point 22 may 2010

 

Now evidently – from the image above – this is not the first speech that US President Obama has given at West Point.  Here then is an earlier portrait of the President there – the black hair obviously is a dead give away.  Still the President’s commencement address this year has been seen as an opportunity for the President to outline his Administration’s foreign policy and the rationale in how he and his officials have implemented US foreign policy.

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A World in Flux II

Ours to Lead 410jbo6jJ2L._SL500_

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a pleasure to review work of colleagues seriously grappling with the contemporary world order.  Back in March I reviewed Bruce Jones’s examination of the global order at the point just prior to the publication of his new book – Still Our To Lead. Since that time a number of other close colleagues have had a chance to weigh in on his world view and I thought I’d double back to look at their perspectives and revisit my own.

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Struggling with World Order

great power politics pravda39

Who said geopolitics went away?  Well a number of international relations experts imply this in their various announcements that geopolitics has returned.   One of those most loudly trumpeting this view is Walter Russell Mead, the Editor-at- Large of the American Interest.  In his most recent piece in Foreign Affairs he declares:

But Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant” But geopolitics never went away, notwithstanding there was a great deal of attention focused on the global economy – particularly in the light of the 2008 global financial crisis.

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Struggling with Change in Great Power Relations – An Addendum

Obama in Asia April 2014

 

It is a little like having a stomachache. The United States is struggling to operationalize its diplomacy in the ever changing landscape.  And its finding it hard to digest the changes without feeling rather sick.

So at the end of his 4-nation Asian trip President Obama pushed back against those who have grown increasingly critical of his foreign policy towards Russia, China and Syria, if not others. In his reaction Obama suggested that his policy was a game of what Americans call ‘small ball’:

You hit single, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.

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Are We Facing Diplomacy’s Enfeeblement?

I was wandering through the pages of a volume on the approach to war in August 1914.  And the reason.  We are now closing in on 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.

A significant number of historians and international relations specialists are casting their gaze back to this conflict that opens major war in the 20th century.  My particular focus in examining these diplomatic volumes was an effort to cast a critical eye on the diplomacy of the period – or more precisely really the complex great power behavior – what was styled after the War as the ‘old diplomacy’.  This diplomatic behavior emerged, so it seems, with Germany’s Bismarck and his diplomatic contemporaries in the early 1870s and continued through the alliances and alignments of this largely European diplomatic period that continued right up to its fateful end in August 1914.

Now I look back and am struck by intricacies and balancing in this classical period of balance of power diplomacy.  My old LSE International History mentor James Joll, better than most, captured the complexity of this diplomacy in his co-edited volume with Gordon Martell:

The theory, if that is not too grand a term, by which contemporaries justified the alliance system was that it would maintain the balance of power.  This phrase, which had been common in diplomatic language since the eighteenth century, could be interpreted both as an objective assessment of the actual military and economic strength of the powers and as a subjective evaluation by statesmen of where their own national interest lay.  The idea was expressed by Sir Eyre Crowe of the British Foreign Office in a famous memorandum of 1907: “the only check on the abuse of political predominance has always consisted in the opposition of an equally formidable rival, or of a combination of several countries forming leagues of defence.  The equilibrium established by such groupings of forces is technically known as the balance of power.” …  Many statesmen and diplomats believed that the maintenance of the balance of power would itself prevent war by deterring an aggressor, either directly or by providing machinery by which, as Bismarck himself believed, one power could control its allies and stop them doing anything to upset the balance.

Now I am not suggesting that the classic balance of power diplomacy is what is needed today.  I am not looking for something equivalent to a twenty-first century balance of power diplomacy, but the current diplomatic void is all too apparent. And I say that in reflecting primarily on US diplomatic leadership, or the absence thereof.  So whether I am looking at global summitry, or Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan, or the Asian pivot, I keep looking for US diplomatic leadership but find it largely missing.

Now that might be acceptable if others were stepping up to the plate – whether the large emerging market states, or others but there is faint evidence of that either. US leaders are quick to confirm that there is no substitute for US leadership – but the means and US efforts seem pretty hard to discern unless we are talking about US military actions.

I raise this in the context of having just read President Obama’s National Defense University speech on counterterrorism delivered on May 23, 2013.   I  also acknowledge what may prove to be rather too optimistic presumptions on my part in early posts (“Determining Who’s on First“) where I mused on the US Asian pivot and in particular then Secretary Clinton’s assertion that this pivot was more about economic diplomacy.  At the time I pressed the hope that we were likely to see a “more nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy”.  As I said then:

US policy has been so militarized over the last decades and in particular by the initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan that many officials fail to recognize today the critical nature of economic diplomacy.

Whether US leadership does, or can do anything about it, is unclear.  The explosion of the national security state following 9/11 may have been slowed by Obama rethinking over counterterrorism strategy, but diplomacy remains the “90 pound weakling” to America’s military muscle-bound leadership.

The President acknowledges the insubstantial provision of just one foreign policy – foreign aid:

Moreover, foreign assistance is a tiny fraction of what we spend fighting wars that our assistance might ultimately prevent.  For what we spent in a month in Iraq at the height of the war, we could be training security forces in Libya, maintaining peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, feeding the hungry in Yemen, building schools in Pakistan, and creating reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.  That has to be part of our strategy.

Well Obama is right but what is the likelihood of that? And as for greater diplomatic engagement, here is the sum total of the President’s thinking:

Targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships, diplomatic engagement and assistance – through such a comprehensive strategy we can significantly reduce the chances of large-scale attacks on the the homeland and mitigate threats to American overseas.

There has been a fair discussion of the diffusion of power away from the United States and the rise of new leadership – creating the conditions for a “G-Zero World” according to Ian Bremmer or “No One’s World” by Charlie Kupchan.  But I’d say it’s far less the structural changes but the inordinate US focus on war and counterterrorism that is leaving international politics without leadership.

There is clearly a strategic gap.  Let’s see if Obama can shift to a more nimble strategic leadership.  The first test may well come when Obama sits down with China’s new President Xi Jinping in California at the Sunnylands Estate  on June 7th and 8th.  Let’s look closely.

Image Credit: NDU.edu

The Strategy of “Restoration” – “Foreign Policy Begins at Home”

 

Richard Haass is one of the most well-known foreign policy experts today in the United States about the United States. He has been on the inside including the head of Policy Planning at the State Department.  Today he is on the outside – but in a critical position – president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

The title here in this blog post is the title of a just released book by Haass.  In the CFR press release the Haass lens on the international system in this new book is described this way:

… Richard Haass describes a twenty-first century in which power is widely diffused, the result of globalization, revolutionary technologies, and power shifts.  It is a “nonpolar” world of American primacy but not domination.  Haass argues for a new foreign policy doctrine of Restoration, in which the United States limits its engagement in foreign wars and humanitarian interventions and instead focuses on restoring the economic foundations of its power.

Now I’ve not been able to complete the book – that’s coming –  but I have gotten a chance to read the CFR enticements, Haass’s own op-eds and the book introduction. But I come away feeling that there is something just not right with this picture, or at least not right given who is presenting the argument.

Haas himself believes that he will be attacked on two fronts. First he believes that he will be condemned as a “defeatist” – as he puts it “… just another apostle of American decline.”  He attempts to rebut that critique but does admit that: “Given its considerable endowments and advantages this country is clearly underperforming.”

But criticism will not just come from those who see the Haass options and foreign policy performance as “defeatist”.   He also anticipates that he will be attacked with the label “isolationist.”  Haass is unwilling to accept this label as well but argues that the domestic situation will, according to Haass, provide this possible situation:

shortcomings here at home directly [will] threaten America’s ability to project power and exert influence overseas, to compete in the global marketplace, to generate the resources needed to promote the full range of US interests abroad, and to set a compelling example that will influence the thinking and behavior of others.

Thus, in the end and at least for this latest version of Haass foreign policy:

The most critical threat facing the United States now and for the foreseeable future is not a rising China, a reckless North Korea, a nuclear Iran, modern terrorism, or climate change. Although all of these constitute potential or actual threats, the biggest challenges facing the US are its burgeoning debt, crumbling infrastructure, second-rate primary and secondary schools, outdated immigration system, and slow economic growth – in short, the domestic foundations of American power.

It just doesn’t ring true in my estimation.  Haass divides the book into three parts and the last, and I suspect the foundation for his restoration thesis and the admittedly most prescriptive part  of the book, is the last part where he focuses on the domestic challenges: budget, energy, education, infrastructure and immigration.

It is possible – but I have to say somewhat difficult to swallow in the end.  And honestly I think Haass has turned the foreign policy threat equation on its head – I would think he should be writing on just those things he identifies but declines to identify as the most critical threat, a rising China, a reckless North Korea, a nuclear Iran, modern terrorism and climate change.  How can the US handle these pressing threats?  Given his foreign policy reputation I am far more likely to dwell on his analysis of these challenges as opposed to his review of internal policy making.  It is not that a foreign policy analyst can’t examine these domestic factors but geez I got to believe that a detailed examination of US behavior and diplomacy including the use of force is what I am most likely to give time to when reading Haass.

And beyond what I’d anticipate I look to Haass to examine, Haass hints at one of the most difficult aspects of contemporary US foreign policy arising from his Haass’s admitted acknowledgement that the US is, or is about to enter a nonpolar world.  So, Richard Haass how will US foreign policy be able to achieve outcomes that advances US interets but also tackles the challenges of the global economy and stability in international relations.  And don’t tell me it is primarily US domestic policy.

Most US politicians today acknowledge the end of US hegemony – but are left bereft in describing US behavior and actions in this new architecture.  Look at former US Vice President Al Gore who this weekend in an interview (see the Globe and Mail, Saturday May 4, 2013 Globe Focus, at F3) expressed the following:

But there is absolutely no alternative to US leadership.  Maybe over time one will emerge, but it has to be values-based and it has to be connected to economic and political and military power, and the United States has been unique in possessing all those characteristics.

Now I am not trying to turn Richard Haass into Al Gore.  But I do think we need to hear more from Haass and others on the shape of US foreign policy in this new potentially more chaotic world.

Image Credit: global.unc.edu