Saturday, July 4, 2009

Change and Continuity in the Obama Administration's Foreign Policy

This is a slightly revised version of another talk I gave to the Asia Society's Hong Kong Center in late May, shortly before ending my five-month stay at the University of Hong Kong and returning to the U.S. to take up my new position at the University of Virginia

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Over its first six months since the inauguration, the foreign policy of the Obama Administration has been characterized by a complex blend of continuity and change. Because Obama ran on a platform of change – and in part because there really are significant ways in which his foreign policy differs from that of the Bush Administration that preceded him -- I’ll focus on the elements of change, categorizing them as the “six R’s”: repudiation, restoration, reprioritization, resetting, reorganizing, and revitalizing. But I will follow that with a discussion of the continuities between past and present, and the uncertainties that remain in the new administration’s approach to foreign affairs


1. The Obama Administration has repudiated those aspects of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy that Obama believed to be unacceptable departures from American norms and traditions. These include his decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to end the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as “waterboarding,” and to employ military tribunals to decide the fate of the “enemy combatants” housed there. However, here a surprising degree of continuity is apparent: the Obama Administration has decided to continue the use of warrantless wiretaps to monitor transborder communications with those regarded as possible terrorists, and is having considerable difficulty in deciding where to place (and whether to try) some of the detainees presently held in Guantanamo.

2. The Obama Administration says it will restore what the Obama Administration regards as the traditional American emphasis on consultation with allies, a pragmatic approach to problems, respect for international law, and the use of established multilateral organizations – all to replace what it has claimed was an excessively unilateral and ideological approach by the Bush Administration. But from the very beginning of the administration – specifically, Vice President Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference – the Obama Administration has also set out exceptions to its renewed emphasis on international law and institutions, saying that the U.S. would work through international institutions when they are “credible and effective." He also echoed earlier administrations in saying that, while the U.S. would work together with friends and allies whenever it can, it will act alone “when we must,” and that it will expect its allies to do more in support of American initiatives, especially in Afghanistan.

3. In perhaps the biggest change to date, the Obama Administration has reprioritized America’s foreign policy agenda so as to place greater emphasis on neglected regions and issues. Geographically, this includes a shift of regional focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, renewed attention to Southeast Asia (particularly Indonesia) and the Middle East, and greater attention to the deteriorating domestic situation in Mexico. Functionally, there is a new emphasis on certain transnational issues, including not only the immediate problem of the global financial crisis, but also the longer-range issues of nuclear arms control, economic development, and (above all) climate change. This is paralleled by declining emphasis on terrorism (including a decision to stop using the term “global war on terror”) and, less expectedly, lower priority to the promotion of democracy as compared to economic and political development more generally. These new priorities are evident, too, in particular bilateral relationships – especially that with China, where managing the financial crisis and addressing the problem of climate change have supplanted the earlier emphases on trade and human rights.

4. Drawing a metaphor from computing, the new administration has spoke of “resetting” difficult relations with both rogue states and potential strategic competitors. This is reflected in its expressed willingness for engage in direct dialogue with, or at least new approaches to, countries such as Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. In some cases, like Burma and Cuba, this has also been accompanied by an acknowledgement that past policies have failed to achieve the desired result – although not yet by a clear definition of any alternative. In other cases, it is accompanied by a redefinition of American priorities, such as a renewed attention to strategic arms control negotiations with Russia, and somewhat less attention to the Russian invasion of Georgia. In what are perhaps the most immediately important cases, such as Iran and North Korea, the computer metaphor is particularly appropriate, since the Obama Administration seems to be trying to restart negotiations without changing the objectives, or even the incentives, that were embodied in the original program that guided those negotiations. In these areas, the change in tone is accompanied by continuities in both goals and strategies.

5. The Obama Administration is reorganizing the State Department to provide somewhat greater bandwidth to deal with the daunting agenda of international issues. The most widely reported of these organizational reforms has been the appointment of special envoys to deal with particular problems that can place huge demands on the time of regular officials, such as George Mitchell to oversee Israel-Arab relations, Richard Holbrooke to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, Steven Bosworth to manage the Six-Party Talks on North Korea, Scott Gration to address problems in Sudan, and Todd Stern to handle negotiations over climate change. The combination of previously separate economic and security dialogues with China into a single broader dialogue, co-chaired on the U.S. side by the Secretaries of State and Treasury, might also be mentioned here.

6. Finally, the new administration has committed itself to revitalizing the instruments of American foreign policy, under the rubric of enhancing the country’s “smart power.” This means more attention to public diplomacy and foreign aid, but also more focus on rebuilding American economic competitiveness through investment in infrastructure and education and through reform of the U.S. health care system. It also appears to mean a restructuring of the U.S. military to focus on non-conventional wars rather than on the problem of balancing potential peer competitors.


If these are the six major changes in American foreign policy under the Obama Administration, what are the continuities?
  • As noted above, there appears to be no change in some key American objectives in troubled relationships, including the desire to eliminate the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, and to promote political reform in North Korea, Burma, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere.
  • Although the priority assigned to counterterrorism may have been reduced, and he attention paid to economic development increased, the other tactics used in that effort have not been fundamentally changed
  • There is no movement toward a rapid withdrawal from either Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, the administration’s aim is to increase NATO troop levels in Afghanistan, including the level of American forces if necessary.
  • Although there may be a reassessment of the relative importance of transnational issues, the list of items on that agenda remains more or less unchanged.
  • Above all, there is considerable continuity in overall American strategy toward major powers such as China, India, and Russia, despite some change – as noted above – in the specific issues that the administration wishes to advance.


Beyond this list of changes and continuities in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, there are also some significant uncertainties, both with regard to American policy toward specific issues and regions and, equally important, whether those policies will prove effective.

1. How far will the administration depart from free trade principles both in handling the global financial crisis and then, over the longer term, in negotiating free trade agreements with American economic partners?

2. Will “pushing the reset button” really improve U.S. relations with countries such as Iran and North Korea, unless there is also a redefinition of underlying goals and incentives in ways that make them more persuasive? Indeed, will the more accommodative tone taken by the Obama Administration encourage rogue states such as North Korea and Iran to be more recalcitrant rather than more cooperative, as presently appears to be the case?

3. What will be the domestic reaction to the Obama Administration’s reduced emphasis on promoting human rights in countries like China and Iran? Already, it has come under sharp criticism from the human rights community for this change in tone, particularly after the disputed presidential elections in Iran.

4. How will the U.S. military balance the needs to balance against rising conventional and nuclear powers and to develop the capability to engage in non-conventional conflict? This appears to be one of the most important unresolved foreign policy issues for the new administration, made particularly difficult by the sharp increased in the federal budget deficit.

5. Which are the international organizations on which the U.S. now says it wants to rely? What reforms are envisioned for the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF? In Asia, where there is a growing interest in multilateral institutions but many competing regional organizations vying for support, will Washington decide to continue to support APEC or shift its attention to the East Asian Summit? Will Washington send its top leaders to the ASEAN Regional Forum or the Shangri-la Dialogue? Will it continue to focus on one of these two region-wide security organizations, or place greater emphasis on sub-regional organizations like the Six-Party Talks?

6. Will Congress provide the authorization or appropriations necessary for the administration to implement its policies? This is a particularly obvious problem with regard to any proposed increases in ODA and to the administration’s future military budgets. But, as the recent negative Senate vote on the relocation of detainees from Guantanamo indicated, the White House may face problems in mustering sufficient Congressional support on other issues as well.

7. And, of course, how effective will be the attempts of the Obama Administration to revitalize the U.S. economy and rebuilding its soft power?

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In short, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign policy involves a blend of change and continuity. On balance, however, the degree of continuity is noteworthy – and comes a surprise (and sometimes a disappointment) who expected more change, and a vindication to those who predicted that much of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy was be proven to be both necessary and effective. The greatest uncertainty is whether any of those policies – those that embody change or those that reflect continuity – will be effective unless and until the U.S. can revitalize its economy and rebuild its legitimacy abroad.