Why the Obama administration will change the US foreign policy

Singapore, 16 January 2009In four days time, Mr Barak Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America. There is more hype regarding this event than in any other in recent history, for a number of really important reasons, none of which should be sidelined. However, there is also the need to look at what this transition at the White House would mean internationally, in terms of the direction that the US foreign policy will now take, and how the global security circumstances will change accordingly.

Global affairs; security, economic and to a large extent political; have been dominated by western powers (Europe and the US) for more than two centuries now. In the past few decades, there has been a clear and tangible shift from this situation to a multi-polar world that is not clearly defined. For the west, adapting to this loss of hegemony in world affairs is a difficult change and at times considered (though not articulated) a come down from the old position of dominance. Although there was effective challenge to this position for nearly half a century from the erstwhile USSR, its collapse was seen as a vindication of the superiority of western nations. This was reinforced by the alacrity with which former Soviet Republics clamoured to join the European Union.

The European Union

The European Union (EU), what does it stand for? I am not very sure whether it is meant to be a purely economic forum aimed at improving the standard of living of the member countries as the base level aim or whether it also has a firm security stance. (I don’t mean whether the constitution states this or not, but whether there will actually be a security initiative if a member is threatened) Whatever the outcome of such a debate, I believe that the EU is an extremely feeble alliance of convenience set up to benefit the member nations in global trade and economic transactions. If there have been any security initiatives, they have not had the visibility that they should, especially in the current international security environment.

The sense of equality of all members within the EU is the proverbial ‘some are more equal than the others’ situation. Witness the independent French (led by the President no less) diplomatic initiative in the Middle East (futile though they have been) in the past week even though the presidency of the EU had already been passed on to Czechoslovakia. International diplomacy can not be the prerogative of a single nation, when the EU is supposed to speak in one voice! So the EU is at best a disunited cooperative endeavour with all partners/members putting their own interests as the first priority. Historically, it is seen that no coalition or alliance can be strong unless all the constituents are willing to put individual interests as second to the larger goal. History is repeating itself now.

The Current Status of the US

The Bush presidency, by any standards, has not done anything to enhance the status of the United States as a fair, global power. If at all, the reverse is the case, according to a majority of the knowledgeable analysts and strategic pundits there has been incalculable harm done to the international reputation of the nation. The US is perhaps at one of its lowest points—economically, as a global military power, in the application of its soft power and in its stance as the supporter of global order. (One can be optimistic and say that therefore things can only get better). With the change at the helm, the world is looking for miracles in all areas—a respite and then eventual turn around of the global economic downturn; an immediate relief from the ravages of terrorism and an eventual return to a benign and secure global order; a long term, but realistic vision to solve the climate change issues; freedom from hunger for a large percentage of the world’s population; the list is endless if one goes a step down further.

In this post I would like to put forward my views on the foreign policy issues that the Obama administration will have to consider on priority and what the repercussions may be, especially in the western world. I use the term western world to denote primarily the US and the nations of Europe, both members of the EU and others who are not.

The Economic Crisis

The current economic crisis has weakened the US considerably. The nation has already spent one trillion dollars on economic stimulus and the Obama administration has just received the go ahead to spend another trillion. In addition the war in Iraq has cost the country more close to three trillion dollars. Further, the government borrowings in the past one year have increased more than 30 per cent already and this is expected to go up to 50 per cent soon. The massive economic influence that the US could bring to bear is now at its lowest point.

Similarly Russia too is going through a tightening of its economic strength primarily because of the drop in oil revenue. The Russians are not as ‘rich’ as they would like to be and as they would like to be perceived globally. Comparatively the European nations have faired better, with the downturn being not as steeply discernible. This is an element that they could leverage in their dealings with both the US and Russia, to whatever extent it provides a plus point.

The US – Europe Relationship

The relationship between Europe and the US has always been strong, although I suspect that over a period of time—mainly in the post World War II era and increasingly after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the European nations, especially members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), felt the US attitude to be something akin to that of a tolerant big brother towards a lesser endowed junior sibling. Considering the ‘built-in’ self-importance and extraordinary pride that most of the European nations have, this situation was bound to create palpable tensions. The Bush presidency, perhaps learning a lesson from the extreme difficulties that the Clinton administration faced in getting NATO to act in concert in Kosovo, elected to initiate ‘unilateral’ action with the creation of a coalition of the willing when it came to the military conflict in Iraq. This only added to the aggravation of an already tense transatlantic relationship.

The result of this breakdown in the trust and cooperation, that was evident in the immediate aftermath of World War II (or was that a pragmatic acceptance by the European nations of their inevitable need for the American resource injection—by way of the Marshal Plan—to survive and build for the future, one wonders??), has been a visible deterioration in the capability of the western nations to influence international events.

US Expectations

Presuming that the new US administration will make a serious attempt to put things right across the Atlantic, I think that the US will expect at the minimum the following three foreign policy initiatives from Europe. One, that they take a united stand on the peace process in the Middle East, unlike the current piecemeal approach. It will also expect that such a united viewpoint would be at least parallel to the US stance and initiatives, if not completely in support. A contrary movement obviously will be counter-productive.

Two, while currently Russia is nowhere near the power projection capability state of the Soviet Union, it is definitely asserting itself in Europe and has not tried to hide its ambition to once again become a global power. The US, tied down in other volatile parts of the world, would expect the EU to contain the Russian initiatives and not let the situation get out of hand wherein the Russians will be able to retain the initiative that they have grabbed in the past few months. The US would expect Europe to look after its own back yard and not be completely meek in the face of clear aggressiveness, as has been the case in two consecutive winters now.

Three, the US will continue to assume the mantle of global leadership but would expect that the western nations provide clear and tangible support for their ventures. This is going to be the most difficult to achieve for a number of reasons. For some time now, there has been a divergence in the broader interests of the US and the European nations. Although this has never really come to the fore as such, there is bound to be tensions regarding the support that the US will demand of the European nations, especially since the precedence has not been very palatable to them. This is an issue that both the parties will have to consciously work through if there is to be success.

Even though the support of European nations would be the most difficult to obtain, I think that the most contentious issue would be the diplomacy associated with the Middle East, including the future actions in relation to Afghanistan. Mr Obama has already committed himself and his administration to a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a concentration on Afghanistan as the basic measure to contain the threat of terrorism across the world. I do not want to go into the merit or otherwise of believing whether or not Afghanistan and adjoining Pakistan is the centre of gravity in the struggle against global terrorism (the term ‘war against terrorism’ is somehow anathema to me since it gives a warped idea of what is being done internationally to contain all aspects of terrorism). The US expectations from its European ‘allies’ in this regard will far surpass what they are delivering now and perhaps are willing to deliver into the future. Whether or not the nations of EU and NATO will deliver the requisite support or not might become the loadstone in US-Europe relationship. In the long term, it will be Europe that will either be the gainer or the loser. Decisions made today might just be of greater consequence than visible now.

EU Expectations

As a corollary, Europe also has certain expectations of a US under Mr Obama. I believe that till the unilateral actions of the Bush administration the relationship, from a European perspective, was one wherein the US would not ask too much by way of support—diplomatic, economic and most of all military—from them while continuing to beaver away at delivering a stable world ready to accept the economic forays of the European nations in a tranquil manner. I also believed that this could not last, and it has not. The US is not about to waste its resources and more importantly put its young men and women at risk to prop up faltering nations in Europe! EU has to accept this and take stock of the situation anew.

I think that the EU, as a whole, also has some minimum expectations from the new US administration. The first and foremost, I think, would be for the US to stop behaving like ‘Gulliver in Lilliput’ and acknowledge that other nations too have their own status, weight and even military prowess. In other words, it should stop throwing its weight around as it pleases and be more attentive to the nuances of diplomatic manoeuvres. Military power alone will never achieve any lasting solutions and will not even be able to ensure the shoring up of whatever soft power has been built up. The second is an adjunct to the first, in that even while EU despises the US trying to throw its weight around, it also wants the US to solve at least the major problems of the world as the only great military and economic power that they can trust. This ‘trust’ that I mention is a comparative; the Europeans would rather trust an errant US than an untried emerging nation. (I suspect that this is also a throw back to the colonial past of Europe and the very visible but unmentioned belief in a large part of the decision-making circles in Europe regarding the unsuitability of the post-colonial nation-states in Asia and Africa to be self-ruling entities. Not without some truth, I must honestly add.)

The third expectation is that Europe should also benefit from all the effort that goes into stabilising the world, predominantly done by the US with minimal contribution from EU, seen as a right because of historic precedents. I personally think that this stance, very visible if one reads between the lines of some of the statements made by European leaders, smacks of the decadence. ‘I have been, therefore I am’ is not a tenable statement in the 21st century. While in no way supporting the policies of the previous US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, I think I can understand his frustration when he made the statement regarding Europe as ‘old world’. I think it says it all. Therefore, this is one expectation that just might not get fulfilled, unless the EU nations decide to up their act in support and contribution to the US effort internationally.

US Diplomacy: The Future – Sanu’s Take

The foreign policy of the US is bound to change; there is no doubt in anyone’s mind regarding this foregone conclusion. The analysis, debate, worries are all oriented towards trying to predict the changes and how radical they will be and how far from the current international relationships the US will be directed. The first indication of the general direction the diplomatic initiatives will be taken can be gleamed from Senator Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings to become the Secretary of State. She has clearly stated that the priority would be to make friends and not search out enemies. The first olive branch to the larger world is already out. I think this initiative is specifically targeted at EU because the need to strengthen relationships with China and India was mentioned separately. Already, the ball has been kicked into EU’s court, it is for them to respond and help carry this forward. If done with a view to long term relationships, sweeping the grudges and complaints under the carpet, this could be the beginning of a new era in international diplomacy that could lead to a less volatile world. I believe that the cards are with the Europeans and less with the incoming US administration. One must not expect the sole credible global power to stand hat in hand outside the gates of ‘empire Europe’.

I have no hesitation in admitting that the transatlantic western alliance has been the stabilising factor in an otherwise chaotic world for a long time. The inability of this alliance to control or at least slow the global slide into insecurity can be attributed to the less than dignified manner in which the European nations were treated by the Bush administration over a number of issues. There is a need to rebuild this relationship, not because there are no other agencies that could work towards establishing stability, but because a strong transatlantic alliance still has the potential to wield enormous clout globally, a requirement that is staring us in the face now. I put forward three foundational factors that would make it easier for both parties to move forward in concert.

The first is realistic strategic assessment.

Only if a realistic strategic assessment of the contemporary security environment and the possible future direction it will take is carried out and generally accepted can any relationship move forward. There will be strategic differences of opinion between any two nations, but these differences should not be made into irreconcilable stances, instead acceptance of the view of the other and a certain amount of willingness to compromise would be the way to go. I refer back to the need to give secondary priority to purely national demands. The strategic differences I believe will stem from the US need to be more involved in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East region and therefore the need to leave the European region to be contained/dealt with by EU. For the US this is not a negotiable situation. Therefore, the EU will need to be more proactive to the movements of Russia and its peripheral nations. The US will of course have to assure Europe of their backing, especially in the provision of a viable nuclear umbrella and support for NATO at least by way of resources. On the question of NATO I am not very sure that the attempts to bring the old Soviet Republics within its ambit is a good move vis-à-vis the chances of such a move rattling the Russians to take further aggressive actions. The current security climate is not conducive to containing any further Russian actions; they are not pin pricks any more and cannot be ignored. Realistic strategic assessment is the only way for the nations to address common challenges in a unified manner while attempting to sort out issues that concern individual countries by themselves or by bilateral action.

The second is realistic expectations.

I have already detailed what I believe would be the expectations from both sides of the Atlantic. I think the way forward is for very nation involved to accept the need for cooperation, for individual as well as the larger global good. This has to come form an understanding that the power and might of the US is insufficient to ensure stability around the globe, however hard it tries. As an aside, the other nations of the world must also understand that they cannot expect the US alone to carry out the ‘policing’ required to ensure peace and stability. Why should they? The US is perhaps the safest place in the world in terms of security form terrorist attacks! From the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, European nations have used their considerable soft power to make belligerent nations desist from taking precipitate action that destabilises their region and which ahs rippling effects—economic, religious, racial, ethnic—across the globe. It is obvious that this approach has not worked. One’s expectations from friends and allies must always be realistic, lest a sense of being let down permeate into the relationship, souring it at least from one side and in all probabilities for both sides. A lot needs to be done on this front to keep relationships on an even keel. The first step would be for acceptance all around about expectations, keeping in mind that there is no gain without pain. I am reminded of a fighter squadron’s unofficial motto ‘no guts, no glory’!

The third is setting realistic end-states.

There is a need for every alliance and coalition to state up-front the desired end-state which should be realistic and achievable. Grandiose dreams of democratising the world in short order by force can only lead to dissent and misunderstanding not only with other coalition members but even within one’s own country. I believe that it is an arrogant stance for any nation to take, however powerful and influential it may be. Realistic end-states will have to be laid down within the broader geo-political agenda while connecting the complex security challenges of the longer term that have a commonality in a global sense. The end-state that everyone aspires to is global stability, a tall order under any circumstances. However, nations of the world should all be aligned towards the same direction in all activities that are undertaken to establish a stable international order. In this endeavour, especially in a world that is already multi-polar, international power sharing is a must. Power sharing is a compromise, one that cannot be wished away in the current global circumstances. The US is still the global leader in all aspects of national power, but the rise of China and India as economic powers and their demonstrated intention to become regional powers, with all the transformation that entails, cannot be ignored in any global assessment. End-states to actions aimed at containment of global security challenges must factor in the role that these two nations will play in any such activity. Essentially end-states must be oriented to long term security requirements and must accept international power sharing as a norm. Only then will it be realistic and achievable.


The Bush presidency pushed Australia into the limelight in its ‘war of terror’ because of the Australian government’s willingness to commit troops to all US involvements as part of the coalition of the willing. For the US this was expedient because it brought a ‘western’ nation into the fray albeit with insignificant contribution by way of troops and resources. The important fact was its presence, especially with a number of European nations being recalcitrant in the Iraq conflict.

So what will happen when the new diplomatic offensive is put into effect? If the US-EU cooperation efforts take wing, then the importance attached to Australian contribution to US conflicts will proportionately reduce. Second, there will be a request, explicitly put, to increase Australian contribution by way of troops on the ground in Afghanistan. The domestic political situation is somewhat ambivalent regarding this issue and the government of the day—from either side of politics—will find it difficult to accede to the request. This could further reduce the influence and importance that Australia has in the US administration. For some inexplicable reason, Australia tends to play personality dominated foreign policy games with its most important ally and therefore does not seem to have a long term policy that transcends petty politics of the day. With the new US administration taking a critical view of the current US policies vis-à-vis alliances, coalitions and foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives, Australia has to be very careful how it plays with the cards that it is dealt. Deft and visionary handling of relationships at this very critical period is the need of the day.

I have added this short Australia analysis here only because I am a citizen of Australia and am obviously concerned that the nation should not be going into the start of a one-way street. The mending of fences between the US and EU, which in my opinion is bound to take place, will have a salutary effect on the US-Australian relationship. Australia will do well to watch these developments.


About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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