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Sunday, 2 September 2012

Yes, we can? Not really – A review on foreign policy under the Obama Administration



With Mitt Romney officially nominated as Republican Presidential candidate for the US Presidential elections in November 2012, the election campaign has now officially begun. While Romney addressed the concept of strong leadership during his nomination speech on the Republican nomination convention in Tampa, Florida a few days ago, scholars and policy analysts start to evaluate the implications of US foreign policy for the next few years.

When Obama was elected President in 2008, it was above all a relieved Europe that anticipated the Transatlantic Relations to be restored to a normal state again, after the hick-ups under the former George W. Bush administration. Everyone was not only expecting that the US would regard Europe as an equal partner, but also that the Obama Administration would reject the interventionist foreign policy approach chosen by his Republican predecessor. Europe, and above all Germany, was significantly rejecting the neoconservative interventional approach in the framework of the anti-terror strategy.

Expectations and hopes were high, and Europe was caught by an overall euphoria for the new President Barack Obama not only to make significant and sustainable changes on the national, but also on the international level. Now, four years after the “Yes, we can!” move, we have to admit that the changes we expected did not really occur; at least not in a constructive way to reinforce the Transatlantic bridge.

Compared with the foreign policy of his unpopular predecessor, Obama’s foreign policy approach was rather weak. In terms of foreign intervention in the view of George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy, Obama was keen to withdraw US troops from the crisis regions in question, but without achieving greater success, except from the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Compared to his predecessors (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or George Bush Sen.), Obama’s foreign policy was marked by a – possibly unintended – self-limitation, despite the potential to implement strong and overall soft policy potential, specifically in terms of global warming, alternative energy sources, or development aid.

However, even these fields remained remarkably poorly addressed in the view of the on-going economic crisis in the US. Inner affairs predominantly marked the Obama presidency, leaving foreign policy action – the possibly strongest policy field after World War II – on the side line. The US pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving both countries in a dangerous and unstable turmoil, without sustainable stability or remotely strong good governance structures. Also, in further security implementation, the US remained conspicuously restrained, especially regarding the Middle East conflict. Neither did the State Department under Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, successfully promote a collective security policy for the Syria question, nor did it significantly progress the peace-negotiations in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also, the US is reluctant to moderate the boiling Iranian-Israeli conflict, which is on the brink of eruption. Obviously, the US is not eager to join Israel in a potential war against Iran – that might have been different if George W. Bush was still in office.

Above all, the transatlantic cooperation remained on a low level, with important security policy agendas and strategies in NATO unresolved. More or less outside the collective NATO framework, the Obama administration is about to complete the plans of his predecessor to install a missile defence system in Poland; ironic, since Obama originally planned to perform an antagonistic foreign and security policy approach.

It is possibly Obama’s preliminary wish you do a complete U-turn in foreign policy, by waving goodbye to Bush’s interventionist foreign and security policy agenda, and to rekindle international cooperation. However, it turns out that Obama’s “changing” policy did not lead to a closer international cooperation. In fact, the US foreign policy was considerably non-interventionist, lacking clear and strong policy settings which would have been strongly required in Iraq and Afghanistan. The failures of Bush’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the failures to implement strong post-war reconstruction and political stability reconciliation in Iraq were not revised by Obama. Aside from the US’ withdrawal – which remembers of its “escape” from Vietnam back in April 1975 – further contribution to Iraqi of Afghan stabilization is questionable, and its downsized scale will certainly be not beneficial for long-term peace-keeping or even peace-enforcement.

Also, specifically on the transatlantic arena international cooperation remained weak. The European allies are disappointed of this “change” in US foreign policy, and it was certainly not what European foreign policy makers had in mind. On the other hand, even the EU failed to set up a closer cooperation, since both sides – the US and the EU – were predominantly focusing on their own economic and financial problems. However, rather than cooperating, both sides of the Atlantic accuse each other for addressing the crisis in the wrong manner. There is no doubt that the current economic crisis was caused in the US through the subprime mortgage meltdown and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008, but the current epicentre is located in Europe, and everyone in Europe and in the US is waiting for the other either to start a helpful counter-measure, or to cause the next economic set back.

Foreign policy will definitely be an agenda point for both candidates during the campaign rallies, for Obama as well as for Romney. Romney, however, blames Obama for having lost the US’ leadership position in global politics. He has a point since the US lost some of its leadership potential in the past four years, but on the other hand, Obama was sensitive enough not to push the US as the sole global leader in a more and more dependent and vulnerably networked world. From a European perspective, the transatlantic bridge will go on being a difficult construct – but possibly more with a Republican President back in the White House.

The outcome is still open, and it is most likely to be a close run for the ballot boxes again. Both candidates, however, must bring foreign policy and the transatlantic cooperation back on top of the agenda. If they fail to do so, then the US’ credibility and responsibility will be challenged by another rising global actor. And these actors are already queuing.

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