Category Archives: Obama and US Foreign Policy

The thwarted greatness of Barack Obama on foreign policy

“No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”

–William Hazlitt

It seems a million years ago that Barack Obama, then at the apogee of his fame, gave his address to half a million people in Berlin in 2008. Curious the see the phenomenon of Obama-mania, I was a drop of water in that ocean of people. What was most striking about being there was the mismatch between the somewhat anodyne nature of what was being said—the speech was staid, sober, reasonable but unspectacular—and the rock star adulation that greeted the speaker.

After the address was over, I bumped into an old Washington hand who I had known from my days in the capital who was now working for Obama. I said only half in jest, “There is simply no way your guy can live up to this.” My friend smiled tightly and replied, “Yes, that is what worries all of us.”

And of course, the tragedy of Barack Obama is that, as he was a merely a human being, he did not.

But while this unfair yardstick was beyond attaining, despite his undoubted prodigious gifts, President Obama also failed in more concrete terms. The many successes of his closet realist foreign policy—which kept America from stumbling into yet another major war in the Middle East, rightly saw Asia as where the action is in the new era, and correctly perceived that the world itself is now multipolar—are ethereal and will disappear as soon as Donald Trump (with his Jacksonian nationalist foreign policy) is sworn in as president.

The other tragedy of the Obama years is that while he was right that realism is the correct way to strategically think about the new multipolar world, he did not tell anyone else of his insight, forgoing necessary fights with the more utopian schools of thought such as Wilsonianism and neo-conservatism. As such, there are no Obama closet realist acolytes to politically carry on his cause. His many wise, measured, and correct foreign policy initiatives (the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal in Asia leaps to mind) in the end amount to nothing lasting.

What Closet Realism as a Foreign Policy Strategy Looked Like

America’s oft-stated Pivot to Asia was the focus of the White House’s overall grand strategic goal. The President wanted America to spend far more time and effort in a region where much of the world’s future growth will occur and where much of its political risk is bound to threaten to kill the goose that just might lay this golden egg. For unlike in Europe, there are simply not any major multilateral institutions that are in place to cushion the strategic blows that fall there; foreign policy remains based on unadulterated power politics.

Further, tactical conditions in Asia were promising for the US. Due to the recent Chinese provocative stance in the South China and East China Seas, many important countries in the region increasingly yearn for America to play a larger role there, if only because realism dictates that favouring a far-away offshore- balancing ally is infinitely preferable to yielding to the domination of a neighbouring bully. Nations such as Japan, Vietnam, India, South Korea, the (pre-Duterte) Philippines, and Australia were all calling for America to do more, a welcome change for a Washington unused to much popularity in other vital hotspots such as Europe and the Middle East.

Vitally, the region’s other great power, China, lurked as the only possible peer competitor to America in the long-term. As such, spending time in the region carefully monitoring Beijing’s progress—building a coalition of Asian allies that makes any future effort by Beijing to become a revolutionary global power far more problematic–made eminent sense.

But for the Pivot to Asia to work, two other corresponding diminutions in America’s global presence were absolutely necessary. First, the US has to do less in Europe. Here America’s non-action over Russian President Putin’s move into eastern Ukraine and Crimea is instructive. Despite the usual beating of hawkish breasts, the Obama White House has managed to do the minimum over the crisis.

The Obama White House’s desire to do less in Europe was mirrored by its efforts to decrease America’s strategic footprint in the thankless Middle East, a region that has caused America no end of heartbreak over the past generation. In both cases, the White House wanted to position America as ultimately a great power off-shore balancer, with the US remaining a major player, but one who safeguards an organic balance-of-power, rather than intensively tending to the daily chores of alliance management in both regions.

All these foreign policy initiatives were informed by a greater strategic insight, that the US found itself in a very different structural position now that the world has become multipolar, an era of many powers. While America remains—much like Lord Salisbury’s late nineteenth century Britain—first among equals, and the greatest power in the world, it also is a fact that other countries are relatively gaining on it, and that there are real limits to the what the US can do, strictures that were not there in the freewheeling post-Cold War days.

Obama grasped this fundamental reality shift, but didn’t bother to tell anyone about it, as it would have been at odds with the dominant utopian Wilsonian school of thought in his own Democratic Party. The president’s standoffish approach to governing meant it was easier to simply not use the White House as a bully pulpit (as say Truman had done), come what may teaching the country about America’s place in this new world. It was far easier to avoid this fight, do the right closet realist thing, and pretend nothing much had changed. While understandable, this diffident political strategy has led to calamity.

Conclusion: The limits of Closet Realism

A foreign policy that cut prior losses (Iraq, Afghanistan), didn’t initiate new adventures (Syria), believed in talking to enemies (Iran), didn’t not waste much time on the impossible (Palestinian-Israeli peace), and focused on the essential (Asia) was all in place. And yet for being right about all this, Obama’s analytically correct Closet Realism will have no staying power, as the White House’s largely neglected foreign policy goes unnoticed into oblivion.

There have been no political battles over Closet Realism. But there has also been no re-education of the American public and its elites; the world has changed, but overall American thinking about foreign policy—never seriously challenged by the Obama administration—remains disastrously mired in an earlier era of easy American dominance.

While Closet Realism has been temporarily, fleetingly, effective, the absence of discussion about both it and the world it was created to deal with risks dooming America to a series of catastrophic failures, once the maximalist guard returns, who, like the Bourbons, never forget anything and never learn anything. The tragedy of Barack Obama is that he was right about foreign policy, but never bothered to tell anyone about the new world he so accurately foresaw.

Published in Aspenia online, January 9, 2017

The Chess Player and his needy friend: What Putin actually wants from Trump

Chess players are a particularly rare bird in the political risk ecosystem. The only major aim of such chess playing—and it is certainly an important one—is the acquisition and retention of political power over the long term.

Chess players’ dogged, patient, rational, long-term pursuit of coherent strategic, political and geopolitical ends flies in the face of the fruit fly-like attention spans of most people in the modern world. In our own time, a mass media which gives me the constant choice of reading literally hundreds of foreign policy articles on any given day means that the endless churn of the short-term news cycle provides a perfect hiding place for political actors with more fixed policy strategies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the living archetype of the chess player as decision-maker, even as his new best friend Donald Trump epitomises all that is wrong with the modern era, in his preternatural neediness, mania for instant gratification, and lack of depth. While Trump is petulantly lambasting the American intelligence services for letting him in on the inconvenient truth that the Russian FSB tried to tilt the election in his favour (it is important to note there is absolutely no evidence this was determinative in any way), the Kremlin is eloquently silent.

But despite the difficulty in spotting them, it is well worth the time to game out chess players. For once analytically brought to ground, the fixed, rational patterns that chess players exemplify means a true analytical understanding of them is possible, as well as a far better understanding of the world in which they live. It begs the question, what does Putin actually want from the new American administration?

Putin’s aims are simple, though achieving them is not. He wants to, in Tsar-like fashion, utterly dominate and control Russian politics. Second, he wants to—much as De Gaulle did in France after the war—restore his proud country to great power status. Everything else is secondary, merely means serving these two overriding ends.

It is in this basic chess-playing context that the rise of a startlingly pro-Russian American president must be viewed. First and foremost, Putin wants to cajole the new administration into dropping America’s former rock-solid support for the sanctions placed on the Kremlin, following Russia’s successful meddling in Ukraine.

The sanctions have proven surprisingly effective, with the Russian finance ministry estimating they have cost the country $40 billion a year. With pro-Russian Francois Fillon likely to become the new President of France and Italy’s support for the sanctions flagging, the constellation of power is right for Putin to do away with this serious economic wound.

Second, Putin wants the Trump White House to codify what is already happening, be it the settlement of the Syrian War on Russia’s terms or the annexation of Crimea. Given the strong impulse in the Trump cabinet (emanating from both prospective National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Defence Secretary designate James Mattis) for combatting ISIS as a priority, a deal over Syria—wherein the US accepts the retention of Assad in return for joint Russian-American efforts to eradicate ISIS in Raqqa—seems eminently doable. And while the taking of Crimea is unlikely to be formally recognised, neither is it likely to be much contested by the Trump White House.

Third, Trump—in line with the hapless EU and the Obama administration—must be kept from coming to the aid of a beleaguered Ukraine. As we have written before, Putin’s strategic interest in Kiev is not in taking over the place, but rather in seeing that it does not emerge as a successful, prosperous, pro-Western alternative to Great Russian nationalism on the Kremlin’s doorstep.

Given the venal, incompetent Ukrainian government this task has been made easier. But at all costs, Putin wants both America and Brussels to accept the present status quo in Ukraine, where a semi-failed, castrated state serves as a constant reminder to the Russian-dominated region of the fecklessness of western promises.

Lastly, and perhaps above all, Putin wants to stay out of the disastrous Trump’s way. The first rule of politics is that when an enemy is about to commit suicide, don’t stand between them and the bullet. As Trump provokes China over trade and tilts away from any form of cooperation with Beijing, and as he demeans the western allies (who admittedly have brought this largely on themselves over decades due to an immoral refusal to pay a fair share for the common western defence), Russia can merely stand by and watch, as Trump antagonises both the past (Europe) and the future (China). Chess players know how to be patient.

Printed in City AM London, January 9, 2017

Salvaging the Moribund Relationship: The New President and Trans-Atlantic Ties

“We don’t see things as they are, we seem them as we are.”

–Anais Nin

Introduction: The world as it flows toward multipolarity

The Anais Nin quotation which opens this piece stands in direct contrast to the realist ethical imperative of Edmund Burke, that to do good we must see the world as it is, warts and all. Both, of course, are correct; Burke holds the key to doing both good and well in the world. Nin presents us with the pitfall—ourselves–that gets in the way of our doing so.

And here, for all their myriad, debilitating problems, the Europeans certainly have the intellectual edge over their American cousins. I am struck in my constant recent travels across the continent how almost all serious analysts of the left, right, and centre (barring the usual euro-fantasists in Brussels) understand that Europe as a political entity is in either relative (at best) or more likely absolute decline as a power on the face of the earth. Between the endless economic crisis (the IMF projects the Italian economy will not return to its pre-Lehman crisis size until a far-away 2025), the structural flaws in the creation of the euro currency, the refugee crisis, and the corresponding rise of populism, to quote Dylan, ‘You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.’ For all their many troubles, at least European analysts clearly see them.

Strikingly, the same is not true across the Atlantic. While in theory most American analysts accept at some level that Europe is in dire straits, they have no real idea—as their European colleagues so definitely do—that the continent is presently beset by existential crises which require all of its member states’ time and energy to deal with, effectively rendering Europe isolationist.

When your house is on fire, you find it hard to have a conversation with a neighbour about the church fete next week. In just such a way, while German decision-makers still talk to their American counterparts about China, what has been lost in the exchange is how theoretical (and immediately unimportant) such a chat is for those in Berlin. Until Americans understand that Europe’s turn inwards is based on its overwhelming present historical challenges—and is not a matter of them absent-mindedly taking their eye off the geostrategic ball—the transatlantic relationship will continue to disappoint.

For if the Americans cannot see the true state of what Europeans are going through, they are even less likely (particularly President Trump’s Jacksonian nationalist aides) to see themselves as they are in the mirror. While the American economy (unlike Europe’s) has bounced back adequately from the Great Recession, the notion that the world is now one of many powers (rather than merely reflecting American effortless dominance) and that this means there are new and real limits on America’s freedom of action, is utterly lost on them. Yet the new Trump administration whistles past the graveyard at its own peril. The tombstones of all former Great Powers are littered with the same epitaph, ‘It’s just a little local difficulty.’

The greatest analytical problem of all is the poisonous tendency of Great Powers to assume their dominance is forever (as they all do), and to expect that their present difficulties will be easily surmounted, signifying nothing. While sometimes that is so, on other occasions intractable political problems spell the dramatic end of a Great Power, or at the very least a change in the overall global power structure. For Donald Trump’s America, while it remains easily first amongst equals in the new multipolar world, failure to precisely see America’s correct place in the new global order almost certainly dooms his overall foreign policy to failure. The simple truth is America no longer calls all the shots in the world. To assume so, and to behave as if this is so, merely accelerates America’s relative decline.

What the Trump Administration Should Do About Trans-Atlantic Relations

Barack Obama, our first multipolar President (even as Trump’s unilateralism as a foreign policy strategy only works if we found ourselves in an age of American structural dominance), successfully downgraded the absolute centrality of the trans-Atlantic relationship, while maintaining it as an important American interest. Best of all, he did this without anyone much noticing.
There were a few grumbles about how the Obama White House didn’t ‘understand Europe’ (meaning in code valuing it enough) but the transition was accomplished without plunging the alliance into crisis. The eminently sensible reason for this downgrade was not due to a lack of understanding of the continent, but instead due to a very good understanding that in the new multipolar world, Europe is not as important as it once was.

This new structural reality guided the Obama administration not to ask too much of Europe, as exposing its strategic haplessness to the rest of the world—changing global perceptions of the continent for the worse—would merely harm America’s closest allies. The first rule of the new administration (and I am sadly certain they will not follow it) should be to follow in the old White House’s footsteps and not publicly demand too much of a Europe that is unlikely to deliver.

In this vein, Obama has quietly let the trans-Atlantic free trade deal (TTIP) languish and then die. He has not pushed Europe (once Chancellor Merkel explained the situation to him) to do more regarding Russia in Ukraine. He has asked little of the continent over the Middle East. All of this has cloaked the basic structural reality that one of the two pillars of Western dominance in terms of global ordering is utterly beset with its own problems, and is unable to function any longer as part of a West that orders the world.

President Trump, in not asking too much, would do well to not make Europe’s endemic weakness more apparent to all. However, being a Jacksonian nationalist, and largely oblivious to the change in global power realties, I fear he thinks a pep talk with Berlin will suffice to make Europe pay its fair share of defence costs immediately. Instead, a more sustained strategy is in order.

Second, and again following on from the Obama White House’s success, the new Trump administration should defer to Europeans when the issues involve European interests more than American ones. Obama, while having deep (and correct) misgivings about the German-inspired austerity plans that have roiled the continent, wisely largely kept such feelings to himself. To pontificate—as Trump does about everything under the sun on twitter–on intra-European problems almost always backfires, leading to the predictable charges of American meddling, and poisoning the trans-Atlantic well further.

Regarding issues on Europe’s periphery, Obama also tread carefully. He kept mum about the refugee crisis, not criticising a hard-pressed Chancellor Merkel when the shortcomings of her policy became obvious. Even over Russia, after hearing the Germans out about the stupidity of arming the Ukrainians, Obama managed to keep his Wilsonian-dominated political party in check. Merkel pointed out the tactical reality that Russia was prepared to expend far more blood and treasure to affect the fate of a state on its border than either America or Europe ever would. Trump, with his lodestar being American national interests above all, is curiously more likely here to follow in Obama’s footsteps than would have the activist Wilsonians clustered around his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Third, the new President—given the nature of the new multipolar world—must work tirelessly to bind the old trans-Atlantic alliance together to engage the rising regional powers across the globe to be stakeholders in keeping stability going in the new, more chaotic era. The good news is that the vast share of the rising powers are both democratic and capitalistic; the West has won the true values argument without noticing. As such, there are no ideological impediments of any kind in engaging Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, and re-affirming ties with older allies such as the UK, Japan, Australia, and Canada.

In any multipolar system (such as in the late Victorian era, with America in the Western Hemisphere, Japan in Asia, Germany in Europe, with the British Empire the only omnipresent power) ordering is done at the regional level. Jointly engaging the new rising powers—something the Obama administration did not even begin to do—must become a major part of what the old trans-Atlantic relationship is about. Almost nothing is more important than that the old locus of stability—the trans-Atlantic partnership– expands to include enough regional ordering powers in our new multipolar era. As such, ‘trans-Atlantic-plus’ is the ultimate key to the success in the new age we live in. However, as Jacksonian nationalists—who are deeply suspicious of entangling alliances in all their forms—are now in charge, this vital strategic task is unlikely to even get off the ground.

What the Trump Administration Should Do About NATO

In line with the structural contours of the new multipolar era—with trans-Atlantic relations still constituting a major interest (if one relatively declining in importance) the new administration should both ask less of NATO, but then hold its allies to perform this lesser overall role far better.

Long gone are the Wilsonian and neo-conservative fervid daydreams about NATO forming the nucleus of some sort of global police force. In the same vein post-Cold War efforts for the alliance to look for a new role—as there were no geostrategic threats on the unipolar horizon of the 1990s—or to go out of business, looks like nothing so much as the amusingly antiquated relics of a brief, bygone era.

I argued then what I argue now. It is a classic error to make either too much of NATO, or too little. While life insurance is not sexy, it is a necessary part of life. NATO exists as the ultimate form of political and geostrategic life insurance for the European continent, a reality which means its viability strongly remains in the interests of both the Europeans and of their American allies.

Further, NATO still keeps the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down (integrated in a multilateral setting is the politer phrase). That is what most Europeans and Americans still want and is the basic strategic reason the alliance has endured. There is no need to go looking for new reasons for NATO’s raison d’etre, when the old reasons more than suffice.

The new administration must make the relevance of its own red lines (as the Kremlin has made its spheres of influence views brutally obvious in Ukraine) crystal clear to both friend and foe alike. While President Obama said all the right things about NATO being America’s red line, he did not use the bully pulpit of the presidency to do so nearly loudly enough. President Trump should have his functionaries keep up a relentless drumbeat on this basic strategic point (I have found repetition is a key to foreign policy clarity) and he himself should use the occasion of an early speech in his tenure to unequivocally and forcefully underline America’s strategic policy.

The new president should also speak plainly, privately, and directly to President Putin about the primacy of NATO in terms of American interests. His exchange should go something like this.

‘It is true that the Baltic states will be hard to defend, and that at the time of their accession there should have been more discussion as to their perilous strategic position. However, we are where we are. I am here to tell you that while Ukraine and Georgia matter far more to you than to us, the same is not the case regarding the Baltic states. For if they are threatened in any way, shape, or form, be in no doubt that America and its European allies will spring to their defence. This is not because of their intrinsic value to us, but because failure to do so would obviously neuter NATO, the most successful military alliance in the history of the world, a primary American power multiplier, and a central American national interest. Be in no doubt, we will do what we have to do to defend any NATO member state because the alliance remains central to American global strategic interests.’

That clarity ought to do the trick. And the President-elect can do clarity well.

In line with the precepts for trans-Atlantic relations I have delineated above (and to which NATO issues must always be a sub-set), the Trump administration should be as privately insistent (not publicly hectoring as President-elect Trump too often is) as it can be about the cancer that has long eaten away at NATO: The lack of equitable burden-sharing. For Donald Trump has exposed a nerve that has become embedded in the American decision-making consciousness. I have found from my own experience that any Congressman—however clueless about the state of the wider world—knows one big thing: America’s European allies simply don’t pay their fair share of our common defence.

It is risible and unfair (and politically poisonous in America) that Europeans cross subsidise their early retirements and generous social benefits on the backs of American taxpayers. And in our new era, with Europe remaining an important but relatively declining American interest, it will no longer be tolerated for long. Far more than Vladimir Putin, this internal political time bomb is the greatest threat to the continuing health of the Atlantic alliance.

Here the fable of the boy who cried wolf causes real strategic danger. Perpetually overly sanguine European decision-makers serially overrate their importance to America, pointing out that the US has been complaining about the lack of European military spending since the dawn of NATO. And indeed, the numbers in 2015 provide for a lot to complain about. Despite solemnly agreeing in treaty form to meet the base 2% of GDP spending target NATO has set for its members, incredibly only 5 of NATO’s 28 members met this modest commitment (the US, Britain, Estonia, Greece, and Poland). At 3.6%, the US spends by far the most, accounting for a politically unhealthy 72% of overall NATO defence spending.

Italy, Germany, and Spain are the primary serious power culprits, at 1.2%, 1.1% and an incredible .8% respectively. Overly sanguine European observers are correct in that in the past in the Cold War if the Europeans had spent nothing at all, the US would likely have come to its defence and established some sort of alliance with the continent, so central was its importance to American strategic thinking.

During the brief period of American hegemony in the 1990s—after the collapse of the USSR and before the rise and rise of China—America could easily strategically afford to pocket the NATO bill. However, in this new era of American nationalism, Europe is no longer as relatively important to America as it once was, nor is a US in relative decline able to blithely continue to pick up the tab. President Trump must make this change in circumstances privately but bluntly clear to America’s European allies, convincing them that this changing strategic reality means that this time the wolf is indeed at the door. If Europe wants to renew its long-term life insurance policy, it is time to actually pay the premium in terms of increased defence spending so the hard-pressed American public will continue to support the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Conclusion: The sad reality of a Jacksonian President

Given the world that we live in, that is what the new president should do regarding trans-Atlantic relations and NATO. However, that is not what the new President will do. Oblivious to the change in the structural nature of the world, Donald Trump is far more likely to barge into the continent like a bull in a china shop, unwittingly causing a major trans-Atlantic crisis. Look for him to publicly demand (rather than privately cajoling) America’s European partners pay their fair share of our common defence.

And look for Europe to do absolutely nothing (or at best as little as possible) about this central (and entirely correct) demand, as they, unlike President Trump, have a thorough understanding of the different and immediate existential crises that bedevil and utterly preoccupy Europe, to the exclusion of all else. At this point a real and dangerous trans-Atlantic crisis is likely to be upon us. As Donald Trump’s public and immediate ‘ask’ will be met by an embarrassed ‘no’ by his allies.

It is then that two things will be made plain to all. First, Donald Trump’s overall foreign policy will be doomed to failure as he simply does not understand the basic state of power in today’s new era. Second, that Europe and America have diverging strategic interests, with an isolationist continent wholly consumed by its efforts to merely survive. Tragically, it is then and only then—after all the unnecessary damage that will be done—that my realist strategy for the trans-Atlantic alliance will then be taken seriously, as a way to pick up the pieces.

Published in Aspenia December 2016