The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

1 A world of problems

What some called an ‘in-tray from hell’ presented the Obama administration with an unenviable range of problems. Yet many of these problems had been around for some time and all US presidents have to contend with multiple foreign policy challenges. What was different about the start of Obama’s presidency was that it sought, so overtly, to signal a turning point in US foreign policy and to attempt to reposition America’s place in the world. Indeed, it was a signal of how discredited Bush’s foreign policy had become inside America that the Democrats, so often susceptible to Republican jibes of being ‘soft’ on security, should have been able to make this foreign policy stance such a major plank of their election victory in 2008. Thus, while many of the key issues confronting Obama were of long standing – even pre-dating the Bush administration – Obama’s inauguration marked a moment in history when the US government tried to fashion a new beginning for American leadership. The short and partial ‘survey’ of some of the key aspects of the US foreign policy agenda below (and you could easily add issues such as the environment or problems of US industry to the list) is intended not to give you a sense of the details of policy, which inevitably change over time, but rather to sketch out the main traits of an America that attempted to recast its image and renew its leadership.

The wars that the Bush administration initiated in Iraq and Afghanistan were among the most problematic issues facing the new administration. The new president came to office promising a ‘definitive’ end to the war in Iraq, an act that would also allow a refocusing on the longer-running war in Afghanistan. For many, the Bush administration’s diversion of military, political and economic resources to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, so soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, was one of its key strategic errors. The fact that this was done without broad international support, UN backing or adequate planning for the aftermath merely compounded the problems. Obama’s early policy on Iraq reinforced a direction of travel already entered into, reluctantly, by Bush. The violence and chaos in Iraq that began to run out of control in 2006 had been stemmed by a ‘surge’ in US troop numbers in 2007 and US and Iraqi government courting of opposition groups. In early 2009, President Obama announced plans for troop withdrawals from Iraq – a reduction to 50,000 by 2010 (down from a peak of 142,000 US troops), with the remainder leaving under a security agreement with the Iraqi government, by 2011.

Even with an optimistic view that this would prove possible, an exit from Afghanistan looked much more problematic. Bush had already announced an increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan, a move that Obama reinforced on taking office. After a two-month review of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama announced a new set of measures in March 2009. While many of the elements of the strategy were not entirely new, it represented an attempt to highlight the importance of the Afghan conflict within US foreign policy and a reinvigorated effort to reverse what many commentators saw as a worsening situation. As well as more troops, the USA hoped to accelerate efforts to train and equip the Afghan army (the establishment of which was one of the few successes of the preceding policy) and increase development aid.

However, US policy also had to address the emerging linkage of the situation in Afghanistan with political change in Pakistan. The border areas between the two countries, and particularly the tribal areas of Pakistan, had long been seen as the source of support for the revitalised Taliban and al-Qaeda’s main base of operations. Fashioning a joint policy towards the two countries together was welcomed by some commentators. The Bush administration, in gratitude for Musharraf ‘s support after 9/11, had supplied the Pakistan army with more than US$11 billion in aid with few strings attached. In contrast, Obama made further disbursements of a planned US$1.5 billion per year in aid dependent on the Pakistan government demonstrating progress in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban within Pakistan. Similarly, US policy now aimed to make cooperation with the Afghan central government conditional on progress towards combating rampant corruption. In part to address domestic US political opposition, Obama also continued the attempt to persuade NATO allies to provide more troops and/or financial backing to the renewed effort in Afghanistan.

No less difficult an item on the agenda was the problem of nuclear proliferation, focused on the ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Both countries had been the subject of criticism by the USA and United Nations for their efforts to develop nuclear weapons and non-compliance (as many saw it) with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet on both counts, short of military strikes, America’s leverage remains limited and the obvious costs of taking military action inevitably made the threat of such action less credible. Moreover, other diplomatic pressure such as sanctions or, in the case of North Korea, the promise of aid of various sorts, was limited without broad international backing. Obama’s initial policy on this issue was to try to stake out a new position around which he hoped to galvanise more international support. Thus he reiterated the underlying principles of the NPT (by which non-nuclear states would forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons in exchange for nuclear-armed states making serious efforts to disarm) by calling for moves towards a non-nuclear world. And he called for a new start in relations with Iran based on ‘tough diplomacy’.

However, crucial to any US progress on this issue is the support of China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council (and therefore able to block any UN-wide sanctions programme), and both with a variety of close ties to Iran and North Korea. Coupled to the prospect of Iran and North Korea developing nuclear forces was the standing possibility that nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons material might fall into terrorist hands through political conflict or state collapse in other nuclear states.

Finally, the economic and financial crisis that emerged through 2007–09 brought into question elements of the liberal economic order that had been the centrepiece of America’s relationship with other capitalist powers. Attempting to deal with the crisis not only meant forging new forms of cooperation with the leading capitalist states by seeking to align government stimulus packages, central bank actions and bank rescue deals, but also presented some unique new problems for America:

  1. Because the crisis hit the domestic US economy so hard, and came at a time when the USA was beset by other foreign policy problems detailed above, it weakened the ability of the USA to set the terms of the response.
  2. The rise of new economic powers, notably China and India, meant that negotiations on dealing with the crisis had to take account of a far wider and more diverse range of states than had been the norm in economic affairs up until then.
  3. The very fact that the crisis was seen as having been ‘made in America’, as it was the American economy and the American approach to financial regulation that was at its heart, undermined the notion of the American economy being the leading economy in the world. As you will see later, US leadership of the capitalist world had to a large extent been based on this strength.

What is perhaps most striking about this range of problems is not that they all came at once – that would be difficult enough. It is that actions in one field have created obstacles to moving forward in others. America’s ability to address the Afghan war is compounded by the reluctance of NATO allies to commit additional troops, in part due to the divisions that opened up within the western alliance as a result of Bush’s Iraq policy. America’s attempts to curtail Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are similarly constrained by the limited cooperation that it is able to forge with China and Russia. And that uncertainty too limits its ability to lead the response to economic crisis. Thus while Obama’s initial acts on attaining office – declaring an intent to close the controversial detention centre at Guantanamo Bay and an end to the use of torture – seemed designed to signal a new start in American foreign policy, the limitations on US room for action meant that addressing any of these problems would be fraught with difficulties.

So how are we to make sense of the role of American power in the contemporary states-system? Why does America want to ‘lead once more’ and how might it go about recreating such leadership? As you will see, the story is a complex one, and while the USA remains the world’s most powerful state – despite the constraints surveyed above – its power takes different forms in different contexts. In the next two sections we outline some of the historical and conceptual background needed to make sense of American power and international order, before returning to a more analytical look at some aspects of the problems just surveyed.


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