If there is an Obama Doctrine in the realm of foreign affairs, it comprises robust multilateralism—being multilateral when the U.S. can, unilateral when it must. Subjected to scrutiny, however, the Obama Doctrine can only work if the U.S. has capable and willing partners. Yet under conditions of widespread fiscal austerity among western allies—and the political austerity of skeptical western citizens—meeting the challenge of securing their joint interests is formidable. While the U.S. has begun to shore up the security of its allies in Southeast Asia via its rebalance to Asia, despite potentially threatening China in the process, forging renewed partnerships with long-standing European allies is even more essential.
Many commentators in the U.S. have written off its European allies, but a nascent trend to the contrary is now detectable. Britain, France, and others have begun recalculating their own willingness to act in light of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington, a shift toward greater European military activism may be underway. Indeed, the prominent role played by British and French forces inter alia in Libya and Mali are not isolated events; instead, they may be signs of things to come. In reality, top officials in the U.S. and Europe are making progress on beginning to find ways to usefully partner in order to deal with recurrent threats and unchanged security interests particularly pertaining to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Despite a serious and ongoing financial crisis cum recession in Europe that in economic terms EU leaders have barely muddled through, on the security side our European counterparts by and large have not reduced their defense spending as much as has been widely assumed. On the contrary, certain potential U.S. partners have actually maintained and/or slightly increased defense spending. More importantly, military capability is a more telling indicator than crude measures of aggregate spending. Even where cuts are underway, as the Libya and Mali operations indicate, there is a growing propensity among certain European allies to act when their interests demand it—even on occasion largely without the U.S. In this regard the debate over intervening in Syria was little more than a sizable red herring, caught up in the faulty intelligence legacy of the Bush-Blair years. The one country that remained ready to act was France.
France has mostly been in the headlines of late for the personal peccadilloes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and more recently President Francois Hollande, but credit goes to the French public for not being as squeamish as Americans—not only about the personal affairs of their leaders, but more importantly about the increasing propensity of France to project foreign policy power and intervene in a series of recent global crises in both MENA and Africa proper. Continue reading
In the aftermath of a long war, a new degree of suspicion ensues between two powerful countries that were nominally on the same side…one rattles its sabre, threatening small countries on its borders…the other shores up relations with the very same countries… a tit-for-tat arms race begins, waged with the advantages of recent technological advances…espionage takes the form of a new battleground as the stakes move progressively higher…for the most part the top leaders of each continue to say nice things about each other in public, but a new undertone of tension has become apparent…privately each frets about the other’s intentions, how far will they go?
If this frame fitted the spring of 1947, should we be getting concerned that increasingly we have a current goodness of fit? Mutual suspicions between the U.S. and China have risen to new heights based on the razor’s edge tension between Japan and China and the latter’s major espionage effort, probing among other things the American energy and infrastructure grid that is largely—and worryingly—in the hands of private companies whose defenses against Chinese hacking are too low. The newly installed President Xi has taken a mildly more strident tone compared to his predecessors, but this is less concerning compared to the rhetoric of the newly installed generals atop the Chinese armed forces. The rhetoric and world view of this younger and more bellicose cadre has the hair of analysts in the U.S. intelligence community beginning to stand up on the back of their necks. And although the U.S. has actually re-pivoted to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) due to Mali/Syria/Iran/Arab Spring, the pivot that has captivated elites around the world is the supposed U.S. pivot toward Asia (i.e. China). As such, the nascent Chinese leadership has become convinced the U.S. has an active policy of containment towards it.
A variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage. The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint. I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus. More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.
The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy. Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but. With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).
Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.” Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.” Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”
That Europe is caught up in a major financial crisis isn’t news to anyone. Standing right at the crossroads, the Eurozone will either muddle through and risk another crisis onset in the near term or having scraped through its worst crisis in decades take strong steps on the necessary medium and long-term reforms.
But what our British friends may not realize is how the vaunted special relationship is also coming to a crossroads. Prime Minister David Cameron’s large-sized gamble on the UK’s future European destiny has sent ripples of worry across the West, not least in Washington. The US’s senior Europe diplomat Philip Gordon made this abundantly clear. The Obama Administration’s view coalesced in 2011 in the run up to Cameron’s shaky performance at the emergency EU summit in Brussels.