The Obama Administration sought to capitalize on the fifth anniversary of Osama Biden Laden’s death in an effort to cement the outgoing President’s foreign policy legacy. At the same time, the US was desperately trying to work with Russia to stop the Aleppo Offensive in Syria as protesters stormed Iraq’s highly secure “Green Zone.” Unlike the symbolic victory that was Bin Laden’s demise, the threat of globalized terrorism and self-serving, unresponsive governance are problems not easily solved. With President Obama about to retire, the Peoples of the world have serious concerns as to how, and if, the next US President will lead on these issues.
Obama’s response to top foreign policy concerns like the Arab Spring Revolutions, the Islamic State threat, the Ukrainian Crisis, and the South China Sea crisis draw criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. President Obama and his team have made mistakes, including critical ones such as their mishandling of the Benghazi embassy attack and the hollow “red line” threat issued to Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons. Recognizing the shortcomings of the Obama Administration, there is a chance to learn. That said, the cautious approach of the Obama Administration probably best fits the current mood of the International Community.
Unfortunately, the challenges of the world are growing in number and scope while emerging crises require far more novel solutions than any US President alone can offer. We no longer face a clear threat like the Soviet Union, nor does our foreign policy have a clear goal, e.g., the building of an International Community that fosters stability and development across the globe. In fact, we live in a world where global partners must constantly rebalance their interests, which is something the United States has often neglected to do over the past few decades. That makes it difficult for the US to pursue a clear, coherent foreign policy.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that is threatened by global instability, globalized terrorism, crime, rogue states, and increasingly discontented world powers. The International Community has transformed from a monopolar diplomatic mission dominated by the interests of one true superpower to a multipolar order of democratizing nation-states increasingly seeking to assert their own interests as part of a broader resovereignization process. To make matters worse, the U.S. and the rest of the world are still struggling with the world’s worst economic contraction since the Great Depression, i.e. the Great Recession.
In the post Cold War era, the US was the hegemonic power of a monopolar world. Relative US power and influence has waned with the strengthening of the multipolar democratizing International Community of democratizing nation-states. Democratization means all governments must be increasingly responsive to the needs and wants of their Peoples in order to maintain stability and sustain peace, but it also means the International Community as a collective must represent the views and address the interests of individual nations as near equals.
Under resovereignization and the democratization of the International Community, the US is not an unquestioned hegemonic dictator of global affairs. It is one nation among many that must express and address the interests of its Peoples while balancing those national interests with the interests of other nations and Peoples. Not only must countries pursue their own national interests, they must act as coequal partners with the United States and take on greater responsibility in maintaining the International Community. Just as the governments of the Middle East are learning to provide for their own regional security, the rest of the world must take on more responsibility in global affairs.
Globalization is shifting the balance of economic power with public debt at historic levels. The U.S. military, the keystone of American power, was severely depleted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Although Americans are traditionally left feeling displeased and irritated when they do not have the power to exert their will or help those in need, we must pick our battles wisely while the U.S. recoups its strength and learns the dynamics of this new world order. In other words, the U.S. has lost its ability to demand what it wants and expect the world to deliver, so it must act smarter in order to achieve its long-term and broader interests.
Furthermore, the Ukraine Crisis alerted the West to the “nationalist” sentiments among Russians that the Putin government has used to further its domineering ambitions. Putin has revived the threat of war between major world powers and threatened an International Community devoted to international governance. Similarly, Chinese aggression, which is most apparent in the South China Sea Crisis, has upset the power dynamic of Asia by straining ties with its neighbors. Rhetoric of the 2016 US Presidential Election, e.g. Trump’s “America First” platform, has further exasperated fears that international governance is doomed.
Because the International Community is built on the shared benefits of peace and stability, the powerful must do their best to protect weak countries; otherwise, weak countries will undermine, instead of strengthen, the international community. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran have undermined the legitimacy of the international community for years, yet these rogue states have only come close to tipping the balance in favor of military intervention. Intervention in Libya, for example, was fairly easy, so the failure to act in Libya would have undermined the cohesion and legitimacy of the International Community.
Because intervention in Syria would have been far more challenging for the US early on, the natural tendency of nations to avoid the conflicts of others overwhelmed the push to intervene. With exception to Obama “red line” threat, the failure to act in Syria did little damage to the legitimacy of the International Community, because it was understandable. Although even Obama sees widespread chaos in Libya in the wake of foreign intervention as a failure, the commitment and resources were not there to uphold Libya as the US did for Iraq while the situation was already degrading.
As Russia and China are major world power, the International Community cannot tolerate the blunt transgressions of the two world powers. With regard to the Islamic State, the number of threats from terrorists, state actors, and other entities throughout the Middle East and world are so numerous that devoting military resources to one potential threat would have undermined America’s ability to react to other threats. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign policy has been both slow and weakly effective, yet it is a prudent path in an era of change when none of the options are good and the world does not truly know what will work.
Because security threats in foreign lands cannot be solely addressed by the US, America needs local security forces and leaders to solve the issues that foster these threats. Looking at Iraq, it is important to recognize that the political, security collapse of Iraq was predicted due to the failure of the Bush Administration to address sectarian grievances and political divisions. For the Obama Administration, the rise of the Islamic State, the failure of Libya, and a whole slew of other crises were predictable, yet the alternatives were worse. As such, the next generation of world leaders must learn from past mistakes, but recognize when mistakes were avoided.
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