A month ago, the Obama administration published its latest National Security Strategy report. This document introduced the concept of “strategic patience and persistence” which has sparked numerous debates. Opponents see it as an excuse for the president’s procrastination in making foreign policy decisions. Supporters applaud its reintroduction of long-term planning and global vision, as opposed to the short-term emotional decisions and misjudged collateral effects of the Bush administration. However, it is possible, without subscribing to these hypotheses, to conclude that these concepts do not address what we will call the strategic concerns of the world, which seem to be linked to a form of American incompetence.
The American president has been unjustly vilified for his domestic policy, particularly his economic policy, which has, however, been very successful. He had to confront the Republicans’ undignified and constitutionally worrying behavior when they sidestepped the president’s powers by inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress. But this political antagonism does not excuse the Obama presidency’s record on foreign policy. The reasons for this are in contrast to those which led to the condemnation of the previous government’s adventurism.
Condemned by Realists and Idealists
The main paradox of this historic failure is that it can be condemned by realists as well as by idealists. The former are right to say that the initial idealism of the current occupant of the White House has not born fruit. Consider not only his speech in Cairo, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and the initiation of an unrealistic “reset” of relations with Russia, but also speeches like that at West Point in 2014, which set out global uncertainties. Although it was necessary to take the opposite view of George W. Bush and to calm a nation that was exhausted by two wars, it was difficult for this speech to be seen as outlining a strategy.
The idealists observe that the president has never succeeded in closing Guantanamo, even if it was not entirely his fault, and that the United States has never ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, not to mention the actions of the special forces. But above all, they rightly point out that the president has always backed away from any intervention in Syria, not to mention John Kerry’s recent unwelcome remarks on a possible dialogue with Assad. Historians will judge this failure alone harshly.
Even so, the separation between hawks and doves will not last forever; human rights defenders and those who will not accept inaction in the face of genocide will now join those who call for greater intervention. In some ways, Ambassador Samantha Power, United States permanent representative at the U.N. and a human rights activist, agrees with Republican Senator John McCain on Syria and Ukraine. Decisive action is required to defend values.
Still Part of the Solution
The aforementioned document, which carries the mark of National Security Adviser Susan Rice, reminds us of what many people have been saying for a long time: the United States is still part of the solution, but never again will it be the only solution. Yet on these two points, the failure is the same. In Syria, as in Ukraine, the United States has been incapable of proposing a lasting solution, which is the only way that allies can be brought together, or of undertaking to do this. Even on the Iranian nuclear issue, there seems to be a crack forming between a hesitant United States and a more resolute France. Just like last time, when France was ready to strike the Assad regime, she was abandoned by her ally. Still influential in NATO, the United States has also failed to give new momentum to the organization, as was demonstrated by the disappointing summit in Wales. Meanwhile, the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, like the response to the Russian threat, have shown how difficult it is for the allies to work cooperatively.
This crisis of leadership and confidence has come precisely at a time when the world is experiencing major upheaval and when a strong transatlantic position is indispensable. The United States is incapable of proposing a course of action, or even a common understanding of events, and is acting as if it takes for granted the overthrow of the old order. But it is also failing to see what solutions are needed at this particular juncture.
Of course, the American president can no longer aim to present his allies with a fait accompli that has been decided in advance, like the war in Iraq. But he must show more willingness to engage beyond conflicts that are, intellectually speaking, the easiest to resolve, like the war against the Islamic State group. The timidity of the United States in Ukraine can only increase both India’s natural tendency to play the field, and the loss of confidence in the strength of the alliance in Japan and even more so in South Korea and Vietnam. The highly ambitious pivot to Asia could be jeopardized. Everyone said that in the long term, like the Ukrainians and especially the Syrians who have not been rescued, they may just as well be dead.
This is where the American decision-making process, as it functions today, also shows its limitations. Under George W. Bush, the ideological conformism of his staff was terrifying and obscured a realistic view. With Obama, the uncertainty of the president seems to rest on a disorganized pluralism. It is easy to cite contradictory statements made by the president and his successive defense secretaries, or by him and John Kerry. Demonstrating a lack of alignment between the official position and the outraged standpoint of Ambassador Power, or the public observations made by many generals on Ukraine, is straightforward. It is as if the president is fed a plethora of information from many sources, which is much more reliable than under Bush, but which he is incapable of translating into a long-term strategy, whether for the Middle East or Russia.
Faced with this strategic vacuum, which exacerbates the concerns, it is the role of America’s great allies, in Canada as in Europe, to fill this void with a better articulated reflection on the future world order. It is also up to them to do everything they can to repair relationships, because everyone still needs the United States in order to act.
The author is director of the periodical Le Banquet, and associate researcher at the Chaire Raoul-Dandurand, at the Universite du Quebec à Montreal.