Foreign Policy of the Obama Administration

“There is a great exhalation of breath going on around the world. We’ve got a lot of damage to repair.” This are the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which I believe best describe the expectations and the also the objectives of the new American President Barack Obama. There is no doubt that those, who followed the 2008 US Presidential Elections, have witnessed history in the making, because this event will not affect only the future of the US but also of the entire international scene.

But what damage exactly is Hillary Clinton speaking of? What are the main concerns of this Administration? Of course the immediate challenge of the Barack Obama is resolving the Economical crisis. But what I think to be one of the main reasons for which Obama was elected is the change he promised at an international level. What he must face first is the unpopularity of the US in the world, unpopularity that represents a great setback when it comes to Foreign Affairs. This problem is best described by Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State, who, when asked about the image of the US in the world, said: “I feel very strongly about this country, and what an exceptional country it is. But I honestly think it is about as bad as I’ve seen it… I think Iraq will go down in history as the greatest disaster of American foreign policy – worse than Vietnam.”

In his first major foreign policy speech of his campaign given on April 23, 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama delineated his foreign policy goals, emphasizing five key points: “bringing a responsible end to this war in Iraq and refocusing on the critical challenges in the broader region,”; “building the first truly 21st century military and showing wisdom in how we deploy it,”; “marshalling a global effort to meet a threat that rises above all others in urgency – securing, destroying, and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction,”; “rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats,” and “while America can help others build more secure societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them.”

As we see grand U.S. foreign policy goals will likely remain the same: The US will still wants to discourage security competition in Europe and Asia, prevent the emergence of hostile great powers, promote a more open world economy, inhibit the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and expand democracy and respect for human rights. Since 9/11 the campaign against global terrorism has been the central aim of American foreign and defense policy and with Obama as Commander-in-chief we will witness a return to where it started, Afghanistan.

Right from his opening speech, Obama, expanding on his foreign policy, implied that he planed to set in motion the process of withdrawing from Iraq and maintaining the concentration over the conflict in Afghanistan. As one who considers himself to be a pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy, he stated even as early as 2002, in a speech, against the Iraq War, “I don’t oppose all wars… What I am opposed to is a dumb war… a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics… I know also that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to its neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even if a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”

Obama believes that the war was a strategic blunder and opposed it from the beginning: “This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities that we could seize. This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources we need to confront the challenges of the twenty-first century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.”

He is on record as wanting to withdraw US forces from Iraq within 16 months. Given the decrease in violence in Iraq since the US ‘surge’ there has been greater responsibility of Iraqi affairs transferred to the Iraqi government themselves, this maybe possible. However, because it is a delicate situation any hastily withdraw of US forces may prove counter-productive as there is the potential for violence on a major scale to erupt again.

As we said before, while the number of US troops in Iraq will decrease, the number in Afghanistan will rise as key decisions will be made on re-deployments. The Afghanistan/Pakistan region is central to US interests. This hot spot is of immense strategic importance not only to American security but also to global security. This area could also be seen as a potential bridge between South and Central Asia. Obama wants to focus American energies on the region. This is evident given his decision to visit Afghanistan before Iraq when he toured the Middle East in July 08.

In a speech made also in July 08 Obama stated if elected president he would send more combat troops to Afghanistan, about 17,000, and focus on training their security forces, increase the non-military assistance in order to change the mindsets and livelihoods of the population in the hope that the economy would grow. And although he wants to change the US policy on Pakistan by tripling non-military aid to the country and help build a strong democracy which in turn would help towards securing nuclear weapons from terrorists and rogue states. What Obama is trying to get accomplished in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the disruption, dismantling, and defeat of al-Qaeda, the destruction of any al-Qaeda safe haven, to protect the Afghan government and to fortify the capability of the Afghan security forces and government to improve the protect of their population.

There is also tension between India and Pakistan who both possess nuclear weapons. This conflict has been ongoing since August 1947 when India and Pakistan were created from British India. Recent developments in this conflict involve the Kashmir region with Pakistan controlling the northwest portion, India controlling the central and southern portion and China controlling the northeastern portion of Kashmir. The Obama Administration has received criticism in response to the lack of immediate interest in India, many of the former Bush Administration underlining the importance of having India as an ally in the region and urging Obama to improve his relations to the South-Asian state.

Iran will also be high up on the agenda for President Obama. In July 07 Obama said he would meet with the leaders of Iran and other rogue states such as Syria and North Korea without pre-conditions. Now this stance has changed slightly to meeting them only after the proper ground work has been established and at a time and place of his choosing. It must be noted however, that the use of force against Iran has not been ruled out by Obama but he did say that “it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran.”

Talking about the plans he has for the situation in the broader Middle East, in his Foreign Affairs article in July/August 2007, Obama stated that if elected President he wants a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel and identify and strengthen those who are committed to peace and isolate those who seek conflict and instability. In relation to Syria, a similar process to that of Iran will be pursued, that of diplomacy and pressure.

In regard to the problems between Israel and the Palestinians Obama expressed concern that Israeli settlements and demolition of Arab homes in East Jerusalem will slow down the peace process. Together with Secretary of State Clinton he also sustained the idea of establishing a Palestinian state – a solution encouraged by Israeli Foreign Minister and opposition leader-to-be Tzipi Livni, but not sanctioned by Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama also reprimanded the denial of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism declaring: “Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful…Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

Obama believes the US should work closely with China and Russia to address the major issues facing not only the US but the world, climate change and spread of nuclear weapons. These issues are global problems which require global solutions thus working closely with these major powers is essential. Relations with China and Russia have been largely tranquil since 9/11, however this may change in the near future especially with Russia given the recent disagreements with the US over Georgia and the Polish missile defense.
The main principles that should describe the US relations with Russia in the near future are co-operation and consultation. The first step worth mentioning would be the fact that Russia deferred its plan to place missiles on the Polish border near Kaliningrad after being assured by the Obama Administration that the former plans of deploying a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic are being reviewed. Of course, there still remain grounds on which the two “superpowers” will not agree upon, like recognition by the US of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states or the existence of any type of sphere of influence.

What’s more, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has been negotiating the reduction of nuclear inventories on behalf of the Obama Administration. Also President Obama met with President Medveev, and both declared that “We … are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries.” On July 6, 2009, President Barack Obama and President Dimitry Medveev held a three hour meeting in the Kremlin in Russia. They agreed to a reduction of their nuclear stockpiles within seven years after a new treaty is created. The START I treaty, which is the current nuclear weapons agreement between the two countries, expires in December 2009.

With China economic issues may prove to be the key in US/China relations. Obama has argued for a strategy combining engagement and balancing, and encourages China to play a greater role in finding solutions to global problems. He is noted as saying “we will compete with China in some areas and cooperate in others. Our essential challenge is to build a relationship that broadens cooperation while strengthening our ability to compete.”

On April 1, 2009, Obama and Hu Jintao announced the establishment of the high-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue co-chaired by Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner on the U.S. side and Dai Bingguo and Wang Qishan on the Chinese side. The meeting took place on July 27-28, 2009 in Washington, D.C.

Closer alliances and increasing cooperation between the US and Russia and China will have another advantage when it comes to another situation that merits close US attention in the new Obama administration, North Korea. Recently its leader Kim Jong II has been reported as being in bad health thus the country faces an uncertain future and there is a risk that it will restart its nuclear program. It looks likely that China will be the key in persuading North Korea to pursue a non-nuclear path.

Concerning Africa, Obama and many of his advisors have strong views on humanitarian intervention and given the fact that many African countries are in a volatile situation, and what some people may believe is Obama’s responsibility to protect, especially on the African continent, given his ancestral roots, the use of force maybe more prevalent.

At some point in his campaign Obama mentioned that one of his main concerns for was trying to stop “what U.S. officials have termed genocide in Darfur, fighting poverty, and expanding prosperity.” Also an immense consideration will be directed towards the tensions in Sudan, Somalia and eastern Congo. A number of analysts consider that by nominating Susan Rice, the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Obama showed that he would make the African continent the main priority of his administration.

On January 13 2009, Hillary Clinton depicted the “foreign policy objectives of the Obama administration in Africa” as “rooted in security, political, economic and humanitarian interests.” She added that some of the Obama administration objectives would comprise “combating al-Qaida’s efforts to seek safe havens in failed states in the Horn of Africa; helping African nations to conserve their natural resources and reap fair benefits from them; stopping war in Congo; ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur.”
On April 8, 2009 Richard Phillips, a captain of an American cargo ship, was taken hostage by Somali pirates, in a unsuccessful effort to take over the Maersk Alabama. A rescue mission was carried out at the order of President Obama and on April 12, 2009 he was rescued. A memorandum of understanding with Kenya was signed by President Obama in which it was stated that pirates captured of Kenya’s coast are to be tried in Kenyan courts. This choice was deeply criticized, due to the existing fear that it would endanger relations with the Somalia President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, on who, according to The New York Times, „the world is counting to tackle piracy and beat back the spread of militant Islam, two Somali problems that have flared into major geopolitical ones”.

Concerning Somalia there has been also talk that the US may supplement its arms consignment to Somalia from 40 tones to 80 tons, even as other reports show that part of these weapons may have ended into the hands of al-Shabab, the main opposition in Somalia.

Due to globalization, China, Brazil and India along with a stronger European Union make it inevitable that the US no longer calls the shots alone in this new dispensation. Globalization requires more cooperation. Thus the concept of a single superpower world no longer fits.

In Brazil, cooperation seems hard to achieve after the instatement of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which contained a “Buy American” clause. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim informed President Obama that Brazil will contest U.S. economic protectionism, which has become a concern after the latest economic recession.

Also in the Western Hemisphere there is the issue of Cuba. On the subject of Cuba, Barack Obama declared in 2008 that, if elected, he will base his policy on “libertad”, and that he will urge the implementation of democratic reforms and that he will negotiate with the Cuban government a possible release of political prisoners.

After being elected Obama enjoyed a great support from president Raul Castro with his idea of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, although both Raul Castro, and his brother Fidel advocate a more radical measure, that of shutting down the entire Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and giving back that territory to Cuba.

In concern to the embargo over Cuba, Obama is still against lifting the embargo, in his view a valuable tool in convincing the Cuban government to accept any type of reform , even though the United States House of Representatives is trying to alleviate certain travel and cash transactions imposed against Cuba by the U.S.

In the same region we have the problem of Honduras, whose president was arrested and exiled, actions reprimanded by Obama. This resulted in the suspension of economic and military aid to the Honduran government.
Then there is Venezuela. Although Barack Obama showed to be conciliant with Venezuela the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made it rather clear that he does not consider that the new American administration will bring along any changes. He even used tactless remarks to show his disapproval towards the American President: “Don’t mess with me, Mr. Obama,” advised Chávez, who has been president of Venezuela since 1999.

Then he accused the US President of not being aware of the situation in Latin and of not knowing the “suffering” that the US and Europe caused to the state of Latin America. Obama responded: “We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms, but I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”
In Europe the issues that arose relate, except for Russia, to Estonia, Switzerland, Kosovo, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Estonia was and continues to be a small but vital ally of the United States in Afghanistan. President Ilves stated that while Estonia, like its allies, had experienced severe losses, they would make a huge effort and will not abandon the mission in Afghanistan. Regarding Kosovo, the United States is continuing its policy of recognition of the Republic of Kosovo under the Obama administration.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy toward Switzerland was characterized in a March 2009 editorial for The Guardian as “increasingly hostile”. Indeed, Obama always pressed for a clear out on tax havens , even as a senator Obama supporting the Stop Tax Havens Act of 2007, which acknowledged Switzerland as among 34 “Offshore Secrecy Jurisdictions”. In response the conservative Swiss People’s Party proposed a number of disciplinary measures for Bern to inflict on the United States, including rejection of Guantánamo Bay prisoners and repatriation of Swiss gold from the U.S. On February 28, 2009, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz suggested that Switzerland might need to “make a few concessions” on matters of bank secrecy in light of the financial crisis in order to avoid being sanctioned as “an uncooperative tax haven”. Former United States Ambassador to Switzerland Faith Whittlesey advised the Obama administration against taking too hostile an attitude with a government she characterized as “stable, responsible…[and] reliable”, warning that a decline of relations with Switzerland could lead to greater economic chaos. Later the Obama Administration “expressed their willingness to negotiate with Switzerland”. The Obama administration achieved a diplomatic victory when Switzerland stated that it would adjust its policy to OECD standards and from this time forth cooperate with foreign bodies on matters of international tax evasion.

The United States assured the government of Ukraine that it would continue to support Ukraine’s bid to join NATO despite Russia’s objections, and that the reconstruction of US – Russia relations will not come at Ukraine’s expense and once again rejected the idea of a Russian “sphere of influence”: “We must apply state sovereignty to all nations — and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine”. ”

In London, questions came up concerning Obama’s goals as regards to the future of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and its past colonial administrator. Some believe that Obama will approach relations with the U.K. in a more businesslike, less personal way.

Nevertheless, on March 1, 2009, Brown addressed the topic of joint Anglo-American leadership to combat the recession in a column for The Sunday Times. He declared that he and Obama would talk about “a global new deal” that would support integrated action by different national governments to drive away the effects of the economic crisis, as well as international collaboration to establish the reform of challenging industries, such as financial corporations.
Ties with Turkey were strained under the George W. Bush administration, in part due to Turkish military operations into northern Iraq in 2008. Visits were made by Obama’s staff and Obama himself in an attempt to restore the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey. He said Turkey’s accession to the European Union would send an important signal to the Muslim world and firmly anchor the country in Europe. The trip celebrated Obama’s foremost visit to a Muslim majority country. Obama has emphasized that a secure rapport with a stable, democratic, Western-oriented Republic of Turkey is a vital U.S. national concern. His administration stated that the U.S. will sustain the encouragement of democracy, human rights, and freedom of expression in Turkey and sustain its efforts to join the European Union, which the president confirmed on his April visit.

In the beginning, we mentioned that Obama considered himself to be a pragmatic. He also presents himself as an idealist and therefore would agree with an element of Bush’s foreign policy – freedom’s universal appeal, though he would differ when it comes to the use of force abroad to bring about freedom. The means employed to achieve the ends of US foreign policy is where Obama and his democratic administration differ from that of Bush. While Bush’s methods depended more on a one-sided use of force which was more state-centric, Obama prefers a joint tactic with a stress on non-state actors and non-traditional security threats. Obama believes that America is stronger and is more respected when it works with its allies and institutions in order to protect American power. The international system is looked through the lens of globalization rather than a contest between states. States need to work together to discover incorporated and joint answers to the different international threats every state faces: “dangers that cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean.”

Even though the management of the US military and its use of force will be the central element to the success of any of the foreign policy challenges facing the new Obama administration, Obama wants to increase the number of US military personnel and increase their ability to fight insurgencies and advise foreign forces. In other words, he wants to increase the role of the non-conventional way of war. In his Foreign Affairs article Obama affirmed that, “The Bush administration responded to the unconventional attacks of 9/11 with conventional thinking of the past, largely viewing problems as state-based and principally amenable to military solutions.” However, military solutions to these problem states have proven not to be the case in the post-Cold War world. Obama has shown a tendency to shift the focus of American foreign policy away from its traditional reliance on the use of force, to more of a strengthening of non-military elements of state-craft such as diplomacy and state-building. In his New Strategy for a New World he said, “Instead of pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy on to the brave men and women of our military, I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free… I will pursue a tough, smart and principled national security strategy, one that recognizes that we have interests not only in Baghdad, but in Kandahar, and Karachi, in Tokyo and London, in Beijing and Berlin.”

Although the main reason of his election is the message of change which he transmitted, President Barack Obama, and also his staff, declared that not every decision made in the past will be repudiated. Given Obama’s message of change and the fact that he has presented himself as a pragmatist, focusing on diplomacy and partnership, many may be surprised about his style of foreign policy in the fact that it may not produce the dramatic shifts that they anticipate. The US has to consider its geo-political position and will not want to make any rash changes in its foreign policy which may be seen by friend or foe as a sign of weakness.

Furthermore, it must also be noted that during Bush’s second term there was a move away from the unilateralist state-centric approach that dominated his first term in office, to more multilateralism with a focus on diplomacy in the style that Obama has advocated. In January 2006 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a document known as Transformational Diplomacy which set out how US foreign policy will be conducted in the final years of the Bush administration. There was a greater emphasis on diplomacy and working closely with alliances. Rice portrayed it as, “working with our many partners around the world… and building and sustaining democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.”

Moreover, we only have to look at the examples of the change in Bush’s second term term; the deal with North Korea to contain its nuclear arms development, the acceptance of the idea of a timetable for Iraqi withdrawal, contemplating diplomacy with Iran, and talks with some elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Bush his 8 years in office will be remembered for the foreign policy of his first 4 years – the Bush doctrine of preventive war. The changes in foreign policy in his second term have been rather overlooked by the vast majority of people.

However, Obama is the one who emphasized during his campaign the importance of diplomacy. Like Secretary of State Clinton declared: “We must use what has been called “smart power,” the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural — picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.”

We will conclude with one of the best and to the point descriptions of what Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne describes as “The Obama Doctrine”, and that is “a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness.”