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  • Roland Paris

Can Obama's "New" Foreign Policy Make a Difference?

Global Brief

As a candidate for the White House, Barack Obama promised to “renew American diplomacy” and to launch a “new era of international cooperation” that would “begin the world anew.” By discarding the aggressive unilateralism of the Bush Administration and replacing it with ‘smart diplomacy,’ he would rally other nations and tackle the world’s most pressing problems, from transnational terrorism to climate change. Both Americans and non-Americans gobbled up this message. In public opinion surveys on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, majorities in countries as diverse as Egypt, Chile, Germany and India expected the new president to improve US relations with the rest of the world. Anticipation of a major shift in US foreign policy became widespread, thanks in part to Obama’s own messages of impending transformation. Since entering office, he has repeated these messages and reinforced them with high-profile decisions and gestures. He announced the immediate closing of secret CIA prisons and plans to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. He committed to ending US ‘combat operations’ in Iraq by August 2010, and appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan (reflecting his view of the Taliban insurgency as a cross-border conflict requiring a regional approach, to which he also committed more US troops and money). He signalled a willingness to deal directly with Iran and Syria, and to “press the restart button” on relations with Russia. And he sent messages of conciliation directly to Muslim publics through media interviews and speeches, explaining to a group of Turkish students last month that he was “personally committed to a new chapter in American engagement” with the Muslim world.

Obama has earned plaudits for his diplomatic and oratorical skills, but pundits disagree on the extent to which his foreign policy substantively differs from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In these early days of the new Administration, US foreign policy has acquired the strange quality of a Rorschach ink blot, evoking wildly different interpretations of continuity or change. (In the Rorschach test, subjects are exposed to abstract patterns, and asked to make sense of these ‘ambiguous stimuli.’ Some see bunnies, while others see monsters.)

One group of observers views Obama’s foreign policy as a ‘sharp turn’ from Bush, including his approach to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia and Cuba. Others, however, see more continuity in Bush-to-Obama international policies, particularly from the latter period of the Bush Administration when neoconservatives lost their dominant position to more pragmatic realists, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Allies of the former president were among the first to make the continuity argument. In January 2009, Christian Brose, a Bush Administration speechwriter, predicted little change in US foreign policy under Obama, arguing that the Bush Administration had already embraced bipartisan ‘pragmatic internationalism’ in its final term. In March, Robert Kagan, co-founder of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century, echoed Brose’s analysis, claiming that there is really only a “pretense of radical change” in Obama foreign policy. On China, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and the war on terror, “the basic goals and premises of US policy have not shifted,” argued Kagan, suggesting that the new president was using “sleight of hand” to create perceptions of change.

Demonstrators protest against the visit of Barack Obama in Taksim square in Istanbul, April, 2009

In recent weeks, the idea that Obama’s foreign policy is rhetorically different, but substantively unchanged, has been repeated in mainstream American and international media. Puzzlingly, such analyses have appeared alongside stories that continue to proclaim major change in US foreign policy, all of which underlines the Rorschach-like ambiguity of Obama’s ‘new’ approach. For example, on April 17, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker observed that Obama has kept intact much of the Bush foreign policy, while “cloaking it in new language,” including promises of engagement. Obama’s approach thus “may seem more different than it really is.” The new Administration’s desire to “press the reset button” on American-Russian relations, for example, came with few specifics, and may have been “more about tone than goals,” wrote Baker.

But one day later, the Times reported on Obama’s speech at the Summit of the Americas, where the president called for a “new beginning” in American-Cuba relations. The story characterized Obama’s remarks as the “clearest signal in decades that the United States is willing to change direction in its dealings with Cuba,” and quoted unnamed officials describing his speech as an “historic shift” in US policy.

How much of a shift was it, really? It is too soon to say. The Administration needs time to prove itself and play out its hand. However, a growing number of observers are questioning the substance behind the new president’s elevated appeals for renewal, which have become a staple of his foreign policy speeches. Before his call for a “new beginning” with Cuba, for example, Obama proclaimed a “new day” in America’s relations with all of Latin America. The concrete implications of that announcement were unclear, but the message was nevertheless well received from the Rio Grande to the Tierra del Fuego – just as his earlier calls for a “fresh start” with Russia, a “new day” in US-Iranian relations, a “new chapter” in America’s dealings with the Muslim world, and a “renewed partnership” with Europe, all elicited positive responses from their intended audiences.

It would be wrong to argue that Obama is simply perpetuating George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but the differences on many issues are less striking than their similarities. It is certainly less different than either Obama or his officials are claiming. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel summed up the new Administration’s accomplishments on April 19: “in the first 90 days, a lot has been done … [to] change America’s foreign policy and its objectives.” In many key areas of foreign policy, however, there has been relatively little change.

Consider the new president’s Iraq policy. As a candidate, Obama pledged to “end the war” and withdraw US forces. Yet the Bush Administration beat him to the punch, negotiating an agreement with the Baghdad government requiring all US combat troops to leave by the end of 2011. Obama responded by calling for a speedier withdrawal, but once in office, he effectively endorsed the deadline negotiated by the Bush Administration. He then added a wrinkle, announcing the intermediate objective of reducing US troops to a maximum of 50,000 by mid-2010 – something he portrayed, somewhat richly, as a major policy change and as an end of the “combat mission.”

Candidate Obama also sharply criticized the Bush Administration for neglecting the worsening situation in Afghanistan. Soon after becoming president, he committed additional US troops and development money, and launched a diplomatic initiative for the region. However, while it is true that the US paid too little attention to Afghanistan for most of Bush’s presidency, that situation changed during the last two Bush years when the US steadily ramped up its military, development and diplomatic engagement in response to a series of alarming policy reviews. Obama’s ‘new’ policy towards Afghanistan and environs was largely a continuation of this evolution in US policy. Indeed, the only element of the new Administration’s regional policy that arguably broke from this trend was Obama’s opening to Iran.

On human rights and the war on terror, many viewers of Obama’s inauguration breathed a sigh of relief when he rejected as false “the choice between our safety and our ideals,” and insisted that America would not give up its ideals, including the rule of law and the rights of man – “for expedience’s sake.” It was a thinly veiled repudiation of his predecessor, who sat through the speech just a few feet away in apparent discomfort. Obama then quickly issued decisions suspending CIA torture practices and shutting down its secret prisons.

More quietly, however, Obama Administration lawyers have appeared in court defending the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme, in which US agents may capture foreign suspects without due process and then hand them over to other countries for questioning. Obama officials have also quietly supported the Bush Administration’s argument that US-held prisoners in Afghanistan jails have no legal right to challenge their detention. Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to play down human rights in US-China relations, prompting a stream of criticism from human rights organizations, and raising questions about the seriousness of Obama’s commitment to deliver on his inauguration commitments.

The new president has not substantially changed US policy towards Darfur, in spite of perceptions to the contrary. Yes, the Bush Administration sought to undermine the International Criminal Court for many years, whereas the new Administration supported the ICC’s war crimes charges against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Less widely known, nonetheless, is that American opposition to the court softened during George W. Bush’s second term, that his Administration labelled the Darfur situation “genocide,” and that US officials also indicated that the US would block any attempt to prevent the ICC from indicting Bashir, which is precisely the position taken by the Obama Administration once the ICC ultimately issued its indictment.

On Russia, although Obama seems more willing than his predecessor to pursue arms control negotiations with Moscow, bilateral relations under the new American president continue largely as before. There was a brief flurry of commentary following reports of a secret letter from Obama to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama allegedly offered to back away from US plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe in exchange for Russia helping with sanctions against Iran. But, as it turned out, Secretary of Defense Gates had initiated similar discussions with Russian officials a year earlier, while Bush was still president. Regarding Georgia, which Russia invaded last year and the US continues to support, the new Administration shows no sign of caving into Russia’s demands that outsiders stop ‘interfering’ in its sphere of influence. And NATO is holding military exercises in Georgia, against Moscow’s strenuous objections.

On the environment, Obama as candidate promised that the US would become a global leader in responding to climate change. This is one of the foreign policy issues on which President Obama is most likely to distinguish himself from his predecessor. The Bush presidency rejected the Kyoto Protocol, and twisted the findings of US government scientists to suit the ideological prejudices of the White House. Although Bush officials deserve some recognition for the billions of dollars they allocated to research on alternative energy technologies, they were inveterate foot-draggers in diplomatic fora on climate change.

Obama’s promises will be tested at the Copenhagen climate summit in December, where countries are supposed to agree on a post-Kyoto Protocol plan for the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. But his ability to lead on this issue will be determined largely by the outcome of ongoing debates over US climate change policy at home. The president’s domestic objectives are bold and sweeping: through a combination of regulation and investment, he hopes to make deep cuts in America’s emissions of greenhouse gases by introducing a European-style cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions, among other measures. Transforming these aspirations into policy will cost an immense amount of money (at a time when the federal deficit is spiralling higher), and will rankle powerful lobbies and interests. Yet, political success at home is a precondition to moving the US from the sidelines to the front ranks of international leadership on climate change.

In most of these areas, Obama has either carried forward the foreign policy that he inherited from the second-term Bush Administration, or has yet to put forward concrete new approaches. While the new Administration is still young, the emerging gap between aspiration and action represents a political vulnerability for Obama. With each announcement of a fresh start or new beginning in American foreign policy, he exposes himself to the criticism that he is failing to translate lofty language into practice – in short, that he is all talk.

Such criticisms should not be taken too far. Artful language is more than just talk; it is a tool of effective diplomacy – something that the Bush Administration seemed to forget, until it was too late. Establishing a positive tone in foreign relations can make it easier to strengthen bonds with allies, and to build bridges with adversaries. Obama has used the first months of his presidency to repair America’s relations with many countries, and to reduce the distrust and anger that accumulated during the Bush years. In communicating messages of change directly to ordinary people in other countries, moreover, he may be strengthening his future bargaining leverage with their respective governments. No regime can ignore Obama’s widespread popularity and the rock star welcome he receives in public appearances. From this perspective, the president’s soaring rhetoric could be a shrewd opening strategy – a brush-clearing exercise that serves to prepare the ground for the next phase of his foreign policy, in which he will demonstrate his ability to convert goodwill into results.

Obama has asked for more time before people judge the differences between his and his predecessor’s international policies, explaining that “moving the ship of state is a slow process. ” He deserves that time, but he may not get it. The president’s message of renewal and change generates goodwill and creates diplomatic opportunities, but it also raises expectations. Every time Obama announces a new beginning or fresh start, a clock begins ticking in yet another part of the world that is now expecting him to deliver the change that he has promised. In the meantime, his political allies and adversaries back home will be watching closely to see if his foreign policy can deliver tangible results. As a candidate, Obama campaigned on the principle that a more open approach to America’s foreign relations would provide the basis for renewed US leadership in the world. Now he needs to prove it.


Roland Paris is University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa

(Photograph: Matthew Cavanaugh/Corbis, The Canadian Press/Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press/Ibrahim Usta)

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