It is interesting that one of the most insightful looks at the foreign policy of President Obama comes from The American Conservative – in an article by Alfred McCoy. While I don’t agree with everything McCoy writes, he takes a much bigger picture look at how this President is changing the historical trajectory of the role of the United States in global affairs. Here is his opening summary.
Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.
Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security—all in search of a new version of American supremacy.
The one place McCoy can’t seem to shake his conservative perspective is that he assumes that the shifts he identifies are all in search of “American supremacy” (he uses the word hegemony a lot). He can’t seem to reconcile the dissonance that is obviously present between cooperation and hegemony – even as he is impressed with the success of President Obama’s emphasis on the former. I tend to write that off to something he shares with a lot of Americans – the inability to see the power that is present in effective partnership.
But be that as it may, McCoy goes on the give several examples of how the President is correcting “past foreign policy excesses and disasters.” He zeros in on the three that Tom Friedman discussed with Obama in their interview about the Iranian nuclear deal. McCoy calls these “Covert Cold War Disasters.”
Obama’s diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three “rogue” states—Burma, Iran, and Cuba—whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.
Much of the discussion of these diplomatic efforts has ignored the historical role the United States played in contributing to the tensions. McCoy points out how President Truman ordered the CIA to arm Chinese nationalists in Burma, creating that country’s isolation from the international community. He goes on to point out that, as the Cold War heated up, President Eisenhower used the CIA as his own secret army to launch 170 covert operations in 48 countries – including a coup in Iran in 1953 and authorization of the “Bay of Pigs” fiasco in Cuba in 1960.
Contrary to what many Republicans claim, President Obama doesn’t tend to talk very openly about these past disasters. But in his interview with Friedman, he did acknowledge that his diplomatic efforts with Iran took them into account.
Clearly, he added, “part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.
Here is how President Obama described his diplomatic efforts with those three countries:
Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities…
That stands in sharp contrast to the Republican foreign policy of domination fueled by fear mongering.
McCoy then goes on to talk about China and trade. While he over-emphasizes the threat posed by China, he puts the whole discussion about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal in its proper perspective…an attempt to keep the United States active in what he calls “Obama’s Trade Diplomacy.”
We have already seen how trade sanctions have been utilized by President Obama with respect to Iran and Russia. Here is how Max Fisher described the potential exhibited in the latter:
The lesson that Putin is learning is that Russia depends on the global economy, whether it likes it or not…
What’s cool about this is that it theoretically could apply to lots of other possible acts of international aggression around the world. This is something that economists and political scientists have been predicting since World War One: that integrating all the national economies into the global economy wouldn’t just make all of us richer; it would make war more economically painful for the people starting it and thus less likely to happen.
When McCoy describes Obama’s “quiet grand strategy” as one of shifting away from the exercise of unilateral military power and “toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security,” this is exactly what he’s talking about. No grand strategy ever provides guaranteed success. But these are the elements of a foreign policy strategy for the 21st century.