US FOREIGN POLICY – MANDATE FOR CHANGE OR REALITY CHECK?
By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.
29 May 14. The marked change in US foreign policy calling for greater ‘collective action’ with allies abroad will not have been lost on those in Europe to whom a key part of the Obama administration message was presumably aimed. Whilst unilateral action will never be ruled out no longer will US foreign policy demand its prospect by right. We have heard it before but the strong message that future intervention in US eyes should be a collective NATO and United Nations responsibility is a message that Europe’s politicians busy cutting back on defence capability cannot ignore.
Few will deny that Obama’s renewal of vows that diplomacy and its use within conflict resolution must be the key element of foreign policy objective in relation to national and international defence objectives. They may also welcome the notion that no longer, unless America is directly threatened, will US foreign policy demand the prospect of unilateral action. But the jury is out on whether they will see this policy as one of weakness or strength in terms of the message it sends to potential adversaries.
Sceptics will no-doubt lie in wait and I doubt change on this scale will pass through US Congressional oversight unchallenged. Nevertheless, calling on US allies to take a larger share of responsibility is neither new nor indefensible. The political argument behind US foreign policy change will stand accused of merely being a defensive tactic to cover up ongoing criticism of weak leadership and foreign policy weakness. This may have some degree of merit but even if true it should go some way toward clearing the air that will allow the administration to better move forward foreign policy objective through the second and final half of the Obama presidential term. On the other hand I suspect that Republican critics will continue to play on Obama administration indecision over Syria together with uncertainties created by Russia’s annexing of the Crimea and the ongoing interference of Russia in the sovereign affairs of Ukraine. For all that I suspect that with Afghanistan still fresh in the mind Obama’s foreign policy objectives are more in line with public thinking than many of his critics will give him credit.
There was much to commend in yesterday’s speech not least acceptance that not all problems have a military solution. “The need to build international support and legitimacy for our actions” and to “better think through the consequences of those actions” are valid points that should not be dismissed lightly. Conversely the point that neither isolationism nor interventionism makes smart foreign policy will I hope have been noted by Obama’s many critics.
While some may choose to see the latest US foreign policy directive pointing toward a slow return to Woodrow Wilson style non-interventionism sentiment I prefer to see this as the US realising that collective policies have far better chance of succeeding than do unilateral actions.
Pursuance of diplomacy as a primary objective in conflict resolution, as Secretary of State John Kerry has been attempting to demonstrate in the Middle East in recent months and also in Iran and Ukraine can hardly be argued as being wrong. Pursuing policies demanding international consensus and accord together with collective action are certainly not wrong even if the record of past success is sometimes thin on the ground. But it is as well to remember that if you go down this road, however appealing and however seemingly right, the unfortunate consequence is that potential adversaries have a habit of seeing such policy as being weak.
But while the way forward for US foreign policy through a multilateral approach working through international institutions such as NATO and the UN is sound it is the duty of all parties involved to ensure that these organisations are fit for purp