Now that the buzz about the US elections is over, the focus is immediately shifting to the direction of its foreign policy during Obama’s second term. While many people think Obama aspires to political solutions for key ongoing conflicts, the reality is quite different. His approach is driven more by institutional tussles within the American system and domestic economic realities, than any lack of vigor in pursuing its global interests.
As the world reacts to Obama’s victory, a debate has emerged regarding the kind of US involvement in world affairs. The Americans are criticized when they lead, and equally when they don’t. This argument is linked to the projection of its soft and hard power, or the reverence and fear for it. In the long run, extensive use of American military prowess risks evaporating the soft appeal.
War On Terror And Arab Spring
Middle East has remained at the core of American foreign policy. Its interest in the region are multifaceted and are linked to the protection of global oil supplies, preventing terrorist from creating havoc and Islamists to unite or threaten Israel, stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and containing the influence of potential adversarial emerging powers, such as China and Russia. Towards this end, US has used over time different configuration of allies in the region to maintain the balance of power in its favor. For example, Iraq and Iran were once close allies.
The dilemma Obama faced during his first term was tied to the aging autocratic rulers that were long-term US associates but were beginning to loose public support. This meant that they could no longer deliver and had become more of a liability. The Arab Spring initially looked like a blessing in disguise. As the dictators of the region lost their vitality, emerging public aspirations for democratic values, presented a welcome opportunity. However, that promise proved to be premature as Islamists and extremists began to exploit the vacuum left by dictators. The reality is that relentless use of American hard power in pursuit of Al Qaeda and extremists tied to it has consistently shrunk space for liberals in the region.
The American military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan does not in any way mean a cessation of the campaign against the religious zealots. On the contrary, it’s merely a shift to economically feasible tactics and strategies that replace maintaining a large military footprint. As anti-Americanism grows unabated in the region, the super power faces a daunting task. The challenge is how to reconcile the goals of eradicating extremism, preventing the rise of Islamists, contain Iran while at the same time protect Israel.
One answer to this question is; it does not necessarily have to. The fear factor in the region increases the need for the protection offered by the American hard power. For example, the gulf region and India have tremendously increased their defense spending due to the threat posed by Iran and extremists respectively. The other a little less attractive option is to let the Middle East simply implode, and perhaps even speed up that process by selected interventions, then control and manage what emerges from beyond that point. The situation of Libya and Syria present an example of this scenario. Even the drone attacks in Pakistan may fit this case.
The Importance Of Europe
As compared to the Arab world, Europe is going through a different kind of transformation. The economic weaknesses of Europe and US have complicated their mutual interdependence and global posture, especially when China and Russia have continued to exploit the dramatic change. European economic fragility means that the US cannot rely on it to be the ‘go to guy’ when crises emerge. Moreover, with its own economic troubles, US wants European allies to contribute more to the protection it offers and for NATO operations. While Europe was the primacy focus of attention during the Cold War, the Pacific theater has replaced it in the present times and allies like Japan, India, Australia, and even New Zealand, are gaining notoriety. Other smaller states in the Pacific are also approaching US to safeguard them from the provocative China.
Thus, another challenge for US foreign policy is how to project its power in times of economic decline, and when there is aversion to compromise by accepting political solutions. One way of handling this lies in having the allies pay more for the protection US offers and for the prevalence of threats. However, this emphasis will ultimately lead its soft power to dissipate; the country will be feared more than its revered.
US Institutions And Domestic Politics
The question is also tied to the influence of State Department and the Defense and Security establishment within the American system of governance. The influence of the Defense Department increased disproportionately since 9/11 and has overshadowed diplomacy. The operational room for diplomats has continually narrowed, and their use has mainly come in parallel to or after the use of military options, not before. Consider for example the case of Ambassador Stevens in Libya. Now with the looming fiscal cliff, the immediate debate revolves around how to tackle the defense spending in tough economic times.
PoliTact presented the following assessment before the election:
“The grave local and global challenges being confronted by US are multifaceted and may not be resolvable by the politics of election cycles. The political jockeying can help parties win elections, but if they are able to actually resolve issues, is questionable. In fact, the problems and challenges are getting worse. If and when, America develops the will to conduct a system level correction, it will have profound global implications.”
While the proponents of continued hard power projection, the Republican Party, was defeated in the election, they still control the House. On the other hand, the myth of influential Israeli lobby was also shattered with the defeat of Mitt Romney. However, with Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and Asians voting primarily for Obama, a White backlash can develop against a softer pro immigration image of the US. How the American system and its foreign policy adapt to the tremendous demographic change underway will also have a profound impact on if it deals hardly or softly with the world.