Foreign Policy Blogs

American leadership in the 21st century

AP Photo

AP Photo

President Obama’ graduation speech at the military academy at West Point sent mix signal about the priorities of American foreign policy and American leadership (read Michael Crowley’s analysis on the address). First of all, the central point of his speech dealt with his perceived principal threat to the U.S., radical Islamic terrorism. Many experts tend to challenge such assumptions. At the end of the day, the speech was more about explaining the adjustment of U.S. foreign policy for the last years of his presidency rather than laying out the foundation of a grand strategy. He continued to reassess the current foreign policy trend of retrenchment.

American foreign policy is undeniably at a critical juncture (see the last article by Robert Kagan and a very interesting discussion). Global forces are shifting and the U.S. is repositioning itself. Since Obama has been elected in 2008, the world, and especially the West, has been under some serious strain. These last years have brought serious challenges to the U.S.: the 2007-08 global financial crisis; the political, economic and financial decline of the EU; the Arab spring and related instabilities like Libya, Syria and Egypt; the regional shift in Africa; the rise of new powers; Russia’s push to discredit the West in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine; and the instabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his address, President Obama talked principally about the risk of terrorism to U.S. national interests and security. It is certain that terrorist groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates have had some successes against the West in New York, London and Madrid, among other foreign attacks. Such emphasis on the threat of radical Islamic terrorism indicates the fact that the West Point address is in no way a reshuffling of U.S. global strategy. It is more a commitment to deepen the effort against one of the threats facing the U.S. A recent excellent report produced by the Rand Corporations and written by Seth Jones, A Persistent Threat. The Evolution of al Qa’ida and other Salafi Jihadists, studies in depth the threat of terrorism – but only Salafist jihadist groups. In the report, the author recommends three types of strategies in order to address the terrorist threats: engagement, offshore balancing and forward partnering. Naturally, forward partnering appears as the best alternative as it limits alienation of population while lowering the cost of war for the U.S.

However, there is a current paradox around Obama’s foreign policy. His approval rating on foreign policy fluctuates between 34 percent (Fox News) to 41 percent (ABC News/Washington Post). President Obama has been much more cautious in foreign policy and restraining any foreign interventions than his predecessors. Yet, American citizens have grown reticent to foreign interventions and over-active American foreign policy. Yet, his approval ratings are extremely low even though he is implementing a foreign policy responding to Americans’ desires. To many, his foreign policy has been described as weak and slow. Part of the argument underscoring this perceived weakness is the fact that Obama has principally favored strategic partnership — seeking for allies and use of international organizations — and avoided to use force in large ways alone. Nevertheless, this represents a fascinating paradox that nobody can really explain.

The greatest failure of Obama in foreign policy, and this could be included in other key policy areas (health care, education, gun and banking regulations), is the fact that he has been unable to merge actions with a grand narrative. His actions and narrative never came hand and hand. It has always been one or the other. In foreign policy, President Obama has been unable to explain clearly why the U.S. needs to remain the leader of the liberal order. Why should the U.S. pay the bills? Why should the U.S. be involved in every global challenges? Under Obama, there has not been any clear overall narrative on American power and leadership. His West Point address continues to fuel this incomprehension to many.

This comes at a time wherein not only Americans have grown war-wary, but also world-wary, as argued by Robert Kagan. To respond to American demands, Obama has developed a much more cautious foreign policy, abandoning the gut-feeling-type foreign policy of his predecessor. Thus, in some ways, Thomas Friedman is right in calling Obama’s overall foreign policy the “don’t do anything stupid” policy. Obama himself stressed this point when he noted that “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures.” Indeed, in Syria and Ukraine, Obama argued that American interests were ultimately advanced without the use of force.

In practice, American foreign policy in the 21st century is organized around contradictory policies. One side focuses on protecting American interests, projecting influence and maintaining global leadership; the other avoids overusing American power. It is not certain that it is a winning scenario. Obama has been bogged down by difficult talks with the Assad regime, Vladimir Putin, China, among others; he has made mistakes such as drawing “red lines” that he never follows up on, and his call for impeccable American leadership and domestic transparency have been tainted by realities on the ground. In his West Point address, he advanced that “America must always lead on the world stage.” The gap between his narratives and actions is certainly too wide for an adjustment before the end of his presidency. America, as he argued, must lead by example, but where should it start? Maybe Richard Haass is right: “it begins at home.”



Maxime H.A. Larivé

Maxime Larivé holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and European Politics from the University of Miami (USA). He is currently working at the EU Center of Excellence at the University of Miami as a Research Associate. His research focus on the questions of the European Union, foreign policy analysis, security studies, and European security and defense policy. Maxime has published several articles in the Journal of European Security, Perceptions, and European Union Miami Analysis as well as World Politics Review.