obama foreign policy

Obama Declares A “New American Century”

Obama delivering a campaign speech in 2008. Picture from flickr.com

Earlier today, US president Barack Obama delivered a commencement speech at the Air Force Academy. Or should I say campaign speech.

The remarks are interesting because they offer a window into what his campaign ‘pitch’ is going to be in the run-up to November. From the speech, he seems to have settled around a theme of a “new American century”, which Mitt Romney has mentioned repeatedly and originates from a Life magazine article in 1941 published by Henry Luce.

The theme is convenient for many reasons. First, it can be framed as a contrast to the ‘less glorious’ Bush days. Obama explicitly and colorfully did this in the speech, comparing the “dark cloud of war” to “the light of a new day on the horizon” (which he mentioned again at the end of the speech). He went into specifics too, from his administration’s drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan to its more active leadership in the Asia-Pacific. Because of this progress, he went on, “there’s a new feeling about America”.

I see it everywhere I go, from London and Prague, to Tokyo and Seoul, to Rio and Jakarta. There’s a new confidence in our leadership. And when people around the world are asked “Which country do you admire most?”…one nation comes out on top-the United States of America…Today, we can say with confidence and pride-the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world. Because even as we’ve done the work of ending these wars, we’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership.

Second, it directly refutes suggestions that Obama is pessimistic about America’s role in the world and does not believe in American greatness. This strategy has two parts – first, refuting suggestions of American decline, and second, painting a sunny vision for Americans to rally around.

Busting the myth of America’s decline is something Obama has done before – most notably in his State of the Union address earlier this year. But the speech is much more specific on this point – going through various periods in American history where decline was prophesized (Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam and the energy crisis in the 1970s, and the rise of Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s).

After all this, you’d think folks would understand a basic truth-never bet against the United States of America.

But the real interesting development is Obama’s comments on his vision of America. He starts by claiming America is an exceptional country (something that he has gotten a lot of flak for not saying, rightly or not), and continues on to outline why he believes the 21st century will be another great American century.

One of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. This is one of the many examples of why America is exceptional. And it’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then-just like the 20th century-the 21st will be another great American Century. That’s the future I see; that’s the future you can build.

I won’t quote his entire vision of what an American Century constitutes, but the most attractive feature of this theme is that it turns the notion of a gloomy world with a wounded America on its head. A protracted economic slowdown gets turned into an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its famed resilience. Defense cuts are advertised as efforts to keep the military flexible and versatile. An uncertain order with a declining American capacity to lead becomes a clear-eyed strategy of distributing the “costs and responsibilities of leadership” more evenly.  The closing paragraphs are devoted to America’s essence and spirit.

Finally, I see an American Century because of the character of our country-the spirit that has always made us exceptional. It’s that simple yet revolutionary idea-there at our Founding and in our hearts ever since-that we have it in our power to make the world anew; to make the future what we will. It’s that fundamental faith-that American optimism-which says no challenge is too great, no mission is too hard. It’s the spirit that guides your class-“never falter, never fail.”

That’s the essence of America, and there’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. It’s what’s inspired the oppressed in every corner of the world to demand the same freedoms for themselves. It’s what’s inspired generations to come to our shores, renewing us with their energy and their hopes… That’s who we are. That’s the America we love. Always young. Always looking ahead, to that light of a new day on the horizon.

Four years ago, before Obama took office, I worried in my then weekly column that “the candidate of America’s hopeful future” would “morph into the president of its gloomy decline”. Americans generally like presidents who give them optimism and hope about the future, particularly in times of distress. Obama appears to not only have grasped this, but formulated a clear plan for how to project this image. Let’s see if it works.

Obama’s Asia Policy and US-China Relations

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After his first year in office, US President Barack Obama was criticized for neglecting Asia and coddling China. He showed up to APEC with virtually no trade policy, acquiesced to Beijing unnecessarily on several issues, and had a rocky start with US allies and friends like Japan, India and Taiwan. Lee Kuan Yew, one of Asia’s top strategic thinkers, caused a stir when he warned several policy wonks in his 2009 visit that the vacuum of US policy was giving China a free run in the region.

Since then, Mr. Obama has tried to make amends. He has helped Southeast Asian countries stand up to Chinese bullying in the South China Sea, enhanced America’s commitment to regional multilateral forums, and deepened relations with allies and strategic partners such as Indonesia and Vietnam. He has made more waves in his latest voyage across the Pacific, advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and announcing new US troop deployments in Australia.

And yet the naysayers still aren’t happy. Media hype and Chinese hysteria aside, a host of academics and commentators in the United States and Asia have argued that Mr. Obama’s bold assertion of US interests in the Asia-Pacific alienates a rising China and forces Asian nations to take sides, thereby slowly stirring up the perfect storm that is the next Cold War.

As a student of Cold War history and international relations, it is hard not to fret about China’s rapid military buildup and growing uncertainties about American power. The path to war is arguably paved not only with differing national interests or ideals, but misperceptions, miscalculations and mistrust. And the world is one-for-three in terms of successfully integrating rising powers into the international system without war in the 20th century: successful in the case of the United States, not so in the cases of Germany and Japan.

And yet the perfect storm forecast by some seems like little more than a storm in a teacup. Mr. Obama is advancing US interests in a strategically important region in ways that are good for the United States and good for the region. A strong troop presence is not just about projecting American power; it allows Washington to help protect sea lanes and assist in humanitarian operations as well as contain Chinese aggression in areas like the South China Sea. Similarly, the TPP not only helps the American economy, but at best advances a platinum FTA standard that addresses critical commercial rules and regulations (such as IP, environment and labor provisions), and at least gives Asian nations a choice between this model and a shallower, China-led one. US foreign policy ought to be based on what is best for the United States and its friends and allies, not what China considers “appropriate”. Beijing must understand that and cannot expect otherwise.

Moreover, perhaps himself aware of Chinese fears, Mr. Obama has gone out of his way to insist that US engagement in the Asia-Pacific is not an attempt to encircle or isolate China. In Australia, he said directly that “the notion that we’re looking to exclude China is mistaken”. He went on to state that Beijing was an important part of setting principles for all actors to follow in the region, that its involvement would be good for the United States, but that Beijing would have to realign its policies just like all other countries in order to pursue common goals in the future.

That doesn’t sound quite like beating the drums of war. It strikes a good balance between advancing a US vision in Asia with countries whose ideals and interests are aligned with America’s, and leaving room for potential Chinese involvement. And it recognizes the fact that since most countries in the region do not want to be forced to pick between Washington and Beijing, advancing an exclusivist agenda in Asia in a domineering way might not be the best idea. Instead, a more prudent approach would be one that focuses on enhancing mutual cooperation with like-minded countries as partners rather than just pawns in a geopolitical chess game.

In terms of actions too Mr. Obama can hardly be seen as having been eager to anger or alienate Beijing. Instead, his administration has moved from initially bending over backwards to reassure Beijing to a more balanced China policy, not because of a sudden desire to contain China, but due to a need to reassure US allies and friends after several displays of Chinese aggression. And even so, despite the rise in tough talk of late, the American president still appears reluctant to anger China on substantive issues like Taiwan, which explains his decision to exclude new F-16s from arms sales to Taiwan in September. The general tone of cooperation has also persisted into 2011, with China itself declaring the meeting between President Hu Jintao and Mr. Obama a huge success with efforts made at building a Sino-American partnership of mutual benefit and mutual respect. Barack Obama is clearly not a president who has ruled out cooperation in favor of conflict thus far, and nor does he seem to want to do so in the future.

This is despite increasingly worrying signals from Beijing about its murky intentions and opaque military capabilities. While details remain undefined, it is clear that China is developing a blue-water navy supported by a wide range of missiles, radars, sensors and torpedoes, including a ballistic missile that could deter US aircraft carrier strike groups critical to defending Washington’s allies. Such a force, as Mr. Lee noted, cannot just be for defensive purposes alone.

Even if one challenges forecasts about Beijing’s capabilities, its intentions have not manifested in reassuring ways either, whether one looks at Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, its rare earth rumble with Japan, or the continuing missile buildup across from Taiwan. Even more troubling, Chinese officials are more interested in pointing out the fact that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries”, rather than appreciating the dynamics of this asymmetry. Smaller countries tend to feel more vulnerable vis-a-vis their larger neighbors, and if they are not adequately assured, they will turn to other larger powers (such as the United States) for help. Indeed, the irony of Asia policy in the Obama administration is that its initial naivete about unrealistic cooperation with China gave way to a more prudent and thoughtful approach toward Asia because of Chinese belligerence and its effects on Beijing’s neighbors.

To the extent that a Cold-War style confrontation between the US and China is likely, avoiding it is a two-way street. The origins of the Cold War arguably lay not only in the structure of the international system and the circumstances of the time, but the perceptions and ideals of US and Soviet policymakers who acted within this context. Conflict was not predetermined.

To avert such a scenario, leaders in Washington and Beijing must continue to pursue cooperation on the multitude of issues on which they agree, assess their own and each other’s capabilities, interests, intentions and actions in a prudent way, and engage in dialogue whenever possible to narrow differences and minimize tensions. Both countries need to balance pursuing their own interests and ideals in Asia while being conscious of how their intentions and actions are perceived by the other, thereby reducing the room for misperception and miscalculation. To his credit, Mr. Obama has done fairly well in this regard. Whether his successors and counterparts in Beijing can do the same remains to be seen.

What Obama’s Troop Cuts Mean for Afghanistan


Last week, US President Barack Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops this year from Afghanistan, and 23,000 more by the end of summer in 2012. While the speedy pullout is not as catastrophic as doomsayers suggest and the overall strategy remains the same, it nonetheless makes a challenging task even more difficult.

To some degree, Mr. Obama’s timetable is hardly surprising. Since he first took office, he has wavered back and forth between doing what the realities on the ground demand and what America can afford. And, as with the limited surge into Afghanistan he authorized last year, he has once again ended up somewhere in between where popular sentiment lies and what his generals advocated. The fact that a majority of Americans oppose the US involvement there (which amounts to over $100 billion a year) amid spiralling debt and high unemployment at home so close to his re-election obviously featured prominently in his mind, and understandably so.

But, as others have pointed out, there is also growing evidence that the US military strategy in Afghanistan is working to a certain extent, and that its modest goal – an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its territory with little international assistance – is still achievable. The strategy from 2011-2014, roughly speaking, centers around first consolidating gains in the south in 2011, then increasing the turnover of responsibility to Afghan security forces in that region and boosting efforts in the east in 2012, and, finally, once the insurgency weakens substantially in 2013 and 2014, accelerating troop withdrawals. Of course, the strategy will be pursued alongside other dimensions such as economic development and political reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.

It is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan, and many are quick to point out the negatives, such as Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s inept and corrupt regime and America’s increasingly fraught relationship with Pakistan. But the military strategy in the south has shown good results – in terms of security, political development, education and the involvement of Afghan security forces. The logic of counterinsurgency: that ensuring the safety of the population first can then lead to civilian and political gains later, has largely held true. If these gains can be solidified and the ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy is replicated in the east, that could at least put Afghan forces in control of a significant parts of its territory and thwart a potential Taliban takeover.  

While there are no guarantees that this strategy will work over the next few years, the goal is extremely modest and the implementation has proven effective thus far. Doing it right will no doubt mean more blood and treasure. But that needs to be weighed against the cost of defeat – which could involve Taliban takeover of large parts of Afghanistan and the re-emergence of a sanctuary to either attack America at home or undermine its interests abroad in a region rife with rivalry, extremism, and nuclear weapons. To be clear, no one expects Washington to occupy every country where terrorists roam; the objective is to help shape an environment in Afghanistan where the security forces are able to independently avert the return of a brutal group that endangers US interests. In other words, not nation-building, but preventing national collapse.  

Mr. Obama’s current withdrawal plan makes accomplishing this task, which had a reasonable chance of success, significantly more difficult both in terms of numbers and timing. In terms of numbers, as Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, it will require taking at least one of two key risks: either reducing US and NATO presence in the south and making Afghan forces do more than they are capable of, which could lead to more Taliban counterattacks; or reducing the troop build-up in the east, which would provide the insurgents with sanctuaries from which to launch future attacks. Those risks, however, could be amplified further if some coalition partners follow suit and draw down their forces as well.

The timing of the withdrawal is also important: if the drawdown must occur by the end of summer 2012, a third of American troops will not be able to stay through the critical “fighting season” of that year, in contrast to the plan favoured by Mr. Obama’s military commanders. Withdrawals during this time of the year might help Mr. Obama win an election, but could undercut US chances of averting defeat in Afghanistan. Additionally, if he adheres to his troop drawdown plan with little regard for conditions on the ground, that could adversely affect his chances in other realms – such as political reconciliation with the Taliban. Insurgents are less likely to negotiate when they feel they have the upper hand, or if they perceive that America’s grip is weakening significantly.

Yet, all is not lost. Mr. Obama still has control over which type of forces he can choose to withdraw, and he could try to push the troop withdrawal from the end of summer 2012 to the end of the year, so that most US troops will still be there during the fighting season. But all that assumes he will let ground realities take precedence over political calculations during an election year. Given what we have seen so far, that might not be the best bet.

Is Obama Expecting Too Much From China?

Maybe, hints John Pomfret in yesterday’s Washington Post.

He recounts a May 24 U.S.-China meeting at a state guesthouse in Beijing, where Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the People’s Liberation Army, went on the following tirade:

Everything, Guan said, that is going right in U.S. relations with China is because of China. Everything, he continued, that is going wrong is the fault of the United States. Guan accused the United States of being a “hegemon” and of plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances. The official saved the bulk of his bile for U.S. arms sales to China’s nemesis, Taiwan — Guan said these prove that the United States views China as an enemy.

The Obama administration, which some say has already spent too much time reassuring the Chinese — from postponing Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama to downplaying human rights concerns — with little gain on issues like North Korea or climate change,  has dismissed Mr. Guan’s remarks as an outlier:

U.S. officials have since depicted Guan’s three-minute jeremiad as an anomaly. A senior U.S. official traveling on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plane back to the United States dismissed it, saying it was “out of step” with the rest of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue. And last week in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to portray not just Guan, but the whole of the People’s Liberation Army, as an outlier intent on blocking better ties with Washington while the rest of China’s government moves ahead.

That doesn’t seem to be Mr. Pomfret’s reading:

But interviews in China with a wide range of experts, Chinese officials and military officers indicate that Guan’s rant — for all its discomfiting bluster — actually represents the mainstream views of the Chinese Communist Party, and that perhaps the real outliers might be those in China’s government who want to side with the United States. More broadly, many Chinese security experts and officials view the Obama administration’s policy of encouraging Chinese participation in solving the world’s problems — including climate change, the global financial crisis and the security challenges in Iran and North Korea — not as attempts to elevate China into the ranks of global leadership but rather as a scheme to enmesh it in a paralyzing web of commitments.

“Admiral Guan was representing what all of us think about the United States in our hearts,” a senior Chinese official, who deals with the United States regularly, said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with a reporter. “It may not have been politically correct, but it wasn’t an accident.” “It’s silly to talk about factions when it comes to relations with the United States,” said a general in the PLA who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The army follows the party. Do you really think that Guan did this unilaterally?”

Dean Cheng over at the Heritage Foundation also counsels against taking this Chinese tone too lightly. PLA Major General Zhu Chenghu, who was Mr. Gates’ interlocutor at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and bluntly stated: “You, the Americans, are taking China as the enemy”, is also far from an ‘outlier':

General Zhu is the same officer who, in 2005, broached the idea that China’s nuclear “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons might not apply if China was attacked with conventional weapons. Except that Zhu was subsequently appointed to head the Defense Affairs Institute at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The PLA’s NDU is the equivalent of a military region, with precedence ahead of the actual military regions. More to the point, he is now attending the Shangri-La Asia Security Summit, representing the PRC…Beijing knows exactly what it was doing. In which case, Secretary Gates is seriously misreading the message that China is sending — China’s leadership, both military and civilian, are not interested in deepening military-to-military relations unless the US abandons its commitment to Taiwan.

I would only add that a worrying number of people knowledgeable about China have also expressed grave doubts about Beijing’s willingness to cooperate in recent months. “The truth”, one U.S. official told Council on Foreign Relations China expert Elizabeth Economy late last year, “is that the Chinese do not want to cooperate”. After extensive discussions with foreign policy analysts and Chinese strategists and elites, Brad Glosserman, director of Pacific Forum CSIS – a think tank — concluded that China tends to attribute problems like North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan-Pakistan to these countries’ desire to reshape their bilateral relationships with the United States,  and therefore feels like Washington should bear the burden of resolving these dilemmas, while Beijing has a small, if any role to play (this is similar to the kind of sentiment Mr. Pomfret found). A CSIS survey of Chinese elites also showed that few saw any sense of international responsibility for Beijing globally, with a whopping 90 percent rejecting an international leadership role for China.

Chinese conduct up to this point mostly confirms this. With the exception of not vetoing fresh Iran sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, China wrecked last year’s Copenhagen conference, has thus far refused to take a tougher stance on North Korea despite its clear involvement in the sinking of a South Korean ship, and declined to lift a finger to assist in the Af-Pak region. Meanwhile, China’s blistering military modernization is sounding alarm bells among Washington’s allies in Asia (consider Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew’s concern about China expressed during his last trip to Washington , or Australia’s recent defense white paper). Secretary Gates himself admitted last year that China “could threaten America’s [previously unchallenged] ability to project power and help allies in the Pacific”. And a handful of U.S. experts from across the political spectrum, including some who were previously more optimistic about China, recently concluded almost universally that Beijing had reverted to an aggressive stance in the South China Sea (others also seem to agree).

I agree that U.S. cooperation with China is essential in order for progress to be made on a range of important global issues, and that both Washington and Beijing should try to make this come about. I also realize these matters are tough and don’t yield quick results. I just think the Obama administration, like any other administration in office in the United States, ought to be more honest and realistic about how much and how far the Chinese are willing to go to cooperate. So far, I suspect that even some State Department officials would agree with me when I say that the record hasn’t been very encouraging. If so, the United States should start acting like this is the case, instead of harboring illusions about how China perceives Washington as recent reports seem to suggest.