All the President's Dreams

All the President's Dreams

Mini Teaser: President Obama came to office promising a new era in international affairs. So far, he’s been big on rhetoric and has accomplished little. Obama’s inability to prioritize foreign policy risks destroying his presidency.

by Author(s): Richard Burt

AFTER LITTLE more than a year in office, there is a growing sense that President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda for changing America's role in the world has run up against a messy international reality that has frustrated his lofty intentions.

In the Middle East, efforts to revitalize the peace process have so far been stymied by Israeli intransigence and Palestinian political divisions. Efforts to reach out to Iran seem essentially on hold as Tehran continues its nuclear program in the midst of a domestic political crisis. An agreement with Russia on a new strategic-arms accord is close, but Moscow's broader geopolitical intentions, particularly toward states that formed part of the former Soviet Union (where it claims "privileged interests"), remain ominously unclear. Also murky are the consequences that the American military drawdown, which is only now getting under way, will have on Iraqi stability. Meanwhile, Obama's drawn-out and still-ambiguous decision to augment U.S. forces in Afghanistan, together with the lack of clarity on what the administration is trying to achieve in Pakistan, is raising doubts in Washington and in the region. It is true that his agenda for change was (and is) audacious; needless to say, the White House's prospects for achieving these and other goals are, at the very best, uncertain.

Then, it is perhaps not surprising that pundits and statesmen alike have begun to take aim at the president's foreign policy. And it is why Walter Russell Mead (among others) has fallen back on the Carter analogy. As Mead argued in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, to achieve his agenda, Obama needs to reconcile a "transcendent Wilsonian vision" of U.S. foreign policy with a competing Jeffersonian worldview that focuses on the pitfalls of "‘imperial overstretch.'" There are probably some elements of truth in this analysis.

In a different critique, Zbigniew Brzezinski correctly noted in Foreign Affairs that "so far, Obama's foreign policy has generated more expectations than strategic breakthroughs." Brzezinski does not advocate an exercise to sort out competing foreign-policy visions, but instead calls for a tenacious and energetic effort to realize the goals that the president has already elaborated.


AN EFFORT like this requires, first of all, an understanding of the international landscape and where the United States finds itself amid this terrain. From this perspective, analogies with the Carter administration and the problems it confronted are not very helpful. Instead, when Barack Obama entered office a year ago, he encountered a world not too dissimilar from that confronted by Richard Nixon forty years earlier. In 1969, the United States was waging a difficult, costly and increasingly unpopular counterinsurgency campaign in Vietnam. The war, together with economic problems (including a growing budget deficit) and domestic political unrest, led to growing questions about American policy coherence and leadership. The rise of the USSR and China (viewed principally in military terms) added to a sense of a shifting global balance of power. The mood in Washington was famously summed up by Senator J. William Fulbright's description of the United States as a "crippled giant."

Nixon's response was to fashion a policy framework that ushered in perhaps the most creative period of diplomacy in American history. Working closely with a highly talented team, most notably, of course, Henry Kissinger, Nixon transformed key strategic relationships, including the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China. Although painful and costly, he gradually extracted the United States from the Vietnam morass. Capitalizing on the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon and Kissinger then brokered the first agreements that put the United States squarely in the middle of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

This transformational period of foreign policy (brought to an abrupt end by Watergate) was not simply the result of a new vision of America's place in the world. It was the product of an evolving effort to produce a comprehensive, cohesive and integrated strategy. Underpinning this approach-what Nixon liked to call his pursuit of "structure for peace"-was a search for stability based on creating and sustaining global and regional balances of power.


IF THERE is a lesson for President Obama flowing from this, it is the need for his administration to complement his vision for international change with a robust strategy for achieving it. While such a strategy must, by definition, be a work in progress, its key elements can be briefly described.

In the case of Russia, some progress certainly has been made in getting the relationship back on track-particularly in the area of arms control. Yet the key strategic question about Russia today is not its military capacity but whether Moscow wants to pursue a neoimperial effort to dominate its "near abroad" or move down a path toward greater integration with the West (and Asia). The United States alone cannot determine how this issue will be decided, but working closely with the European Union, NATO and especially Germany, both the advantages of an integrationist strategy and the disadvantages of imperial nostalgia can be highlighted for the Russian leadership. Transatlantic cohesiveness will be vital in this effort, particularly in reconciling the perspectives of "old" and "new" Europe toward the Russian challenge. Some fresh thinking will also be helpful, for example, in addressing Moscow's call for negotiations on a new "security architecture" for Europe.

China, of course, is another key strategic relationship. It is difficult to fault the administration's effort to engage Beijing in an intensified dialogue. For obvious reasons, economic issues need to dominate the discussions. Over time, however, political and military issues need to be given greater weight in the relationship. China's rise to global power is probably the most important development of our time, and this process will need to be managed in a way that early on identifies Washington and Beijing's shared and conflicting interests. But any G2 dialogue along these lines must be closely coordinated with other regional powers, especially Japan, South Korea and ASEAN. The perception that an American-Chinese geopolitical and/or economic condominium is emerging is surely not in the interest of the United States.

Above all, when it comes to Moscow and Beijing as the two other major power players on the international scene, America will have to understand that all three nations often have separate and diverging interests. Though we cannot accommodate their positions when they undermine key U.S. interests, merely changing our tone will not get us what we desire.

In the Middle East, Brzezinski quite rightly underscores the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Despite the efforts of some to push the issue to the sidelines of American diplomacy, the fact of the matter is that the dispute is central to U.S. interests in the broader region. It is correct that a two-state solution would not quickly resolve the many challenges the United States confronts in the Middle East, but it would create a political climate that would make each of these challenges easier to address. Obama seems to instinctively understand this, but his approach to a settlement-quiet "log rolling" by Senator George Mitchell-is unlikely to get the job done. A bolder effort by the president to convene a peace conference, to lay out a framework for a two-state settlement and to become actively involved in shaping an agreement seems necessary now. An initiative like this would receive widespread international support, including financial incentives and possible peacekeeping commitments. We need to turn this into a reality, for the perception that America's new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is all talk and no walk could create a backlash against Washington, and not just among Arabs, but Muslims more broadly.

At its best, such an effort would strengthen attempts to build a new, moderate consensus on a range of issues among other important regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey (which has become more active in the region). This could become particularly important in the case of Iran. With the leadership in Tehran facing its first serious challenge since the revolution in 1979, it appears unlikely that it will be able to muster the coherence necessary to respond to Obama's offer for serious, substantive negotiations. In this situation, the administration faces some unappetizing choices. A preventive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities (undertaken either by the Israelis or by the United States) could have catastrophic consequences for American interests in the Middle East. A reinforced sanctions regime, meanwhile, is unlikely to be strong enough to persuade Tehran to forgo its nuclear program. This does not mean that the sanctions effort should be abandoned, but that it needs to be complemented by a political-military initiative, led quietly by Washington, to confront the Iranian nuclear threat by establishing a regional system of containment and deterrence. This may not head off Iranian nuclearization, but it would address its more destabilizing consequences.

The administration also confronts unappealing choices in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Just as Richard Nixon did in 1969 in the case of Vietnam, Obama has injected a new realism into his approach to Afghanistan: increasing U.S. and NATO force deployments while scaling back the goal of nation building. Indeed, it is becoming apparent that a stepped-up counterinsurgency campaign can only be sustained (in Afghanistan and back home) if it forms part of a strategy to reach a political settlement that would include at least some of the Taliban. This clearly will not be easy: in a fashion that Nixon would have understood all too well, Obama will need to avoid the perception, on the one hand, that he is on an open-ended escalatory treadmill in Afghanistan and, on the other, that he is seeking political cover to cut and run.

Essay Types: The Realist