Superpower headaches

Will Brown looks at the foreign policy agenda facing the Obama administration.

The vitriolic healthcare debate in the US and ongoing economic problems may dominate President Obama’s current agenda but the first nine months of this administration have also put into sharp focus an exceptionally difficult range of US foreign policy problems.

The inauguration of Barack Obama signalled for many in America and around the world a sharp break with the Bush administration. For the left of centre, the Bush years seemed at times almost a caricature of the ugly American bogeyman. Yet even for more mainstream politicians among America’s traditional allies the Bush policies on Iraq, torture, climate change and human rights seemed designed to test old allegiances to the limit.

The ecstatic crowds that greeted Obama in Berlin in during the 2008 election campaign, and more recently in Prague (and to a lesser extent in Britain) in 2009, signalled a hope at least that America could once again be if not an out and out multilateralist, then at least a more benign hegemon.

Declaring ‘America is ready to lead once more’ Obama’s inauguration, like his election, was recognition that the country’s position in the international system was in question like never before in recent history. A series of policies, whether enacted or signalled, were designed to chart a different path from his predecessor.

Yet a careful consideration of some of the most obvious foreign policy challenges facing America, reveals enormous limitations on Obama’s ability to reshape America’s position in the world and its relationships with other major powers.

Western Europe
Even among the countries where the USA’s international ties are the strongest, Obama has not had an easy ride. Certainly the change of direction has done much to reassure western leaders that the Bush administration’s unilateralism has passed.

However, the fact that the financial crisis was ‘made in America’ has severely weakened the USA’s ability (at least in the short term) to claim its economic model is the dominant one. Elements of regulation agreed at the G20 summit in April, and the creation of additional international credit through the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, both signal an attempt by some in western Europe to push for changes in capitalist regulation at America’s moment of weakness. Divisions within the G20 over the extent and methods of financial regulation may continue to be a source of tension.

This is not limited to the economic sphere. The unwillingness of NATO allies to commit more troops to Afghanistan continues to frustrate US attempts to make progress on that front. Disagreements about the use of force outside of NATO’s area of operations have been a persistent source of tensions and the Obama Presidency won’t resolve these easily.

Obama’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq modestly reinforces a policy direction already adopted, if very reluctantly, in the later Bush years. Yet even with the best of intentions, a pull-out is conditional on some level of political stability in the country and that may well become more difficult the closer to the end game we get. Recent increases in violence indicate that the Iraqi terrorists and the Al-Qaeda threat may still pose severe problems.

The Afghan-Pakistan problem
US policy has increasingly  come to a belated recognition of the intertwined nature of the problems that surround US attempts to secure political stability in, and ultimately some kind of exit from Afghanistan.

If routing the Taliban in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks was initially successful, the subsequent operations have been anything but. The re-established ‘warlord’ economies based around poppy production and rampant corruption in government have only partially been offset by the creation of a nascent Afghan army. Extensive election fraud, low turnout and mounting casualties all pose increasingly difficult questions about what an acceptable solution in Afghanistan might be.

Yet the unwillingness or inability to commit more ground troops (particularly by NATO allies and in no small part because of Iraq) and the lack of development, have been compounded by gathering instability across the border. Not only has Pakistan become a source of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the Taliban is also posing a growing threat to Pakistan’s fragile government. The threat of an ‘Iran-style’ revolution is now firmly on the American policy agenda and the potential for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to fall into Islamist hands is far from an idle worry.

Iran, Russia and proliferation
An increasingly hostile relationship developed with both Iran and Russia during the second Bush term. Obama’s early policy indicates an attempt to repair relations with Russia in an effort to strengthen the USA’s hand in dealing with Iran.

The basic objection to Iran’s nuclear ambitions have remained in place and are likely to do so – the prospect of an nuclear armed state on the Persian Gulf oil supply lines, and within striking distance of Israel, is the stuff of US strategic nightmares. Tougher UN Security Council action against Iran has long been hampered by Russian and Chinese objections.

Conciliatory moves towards Russia (questions over the future of the controversial eastern Europe missile defence shield, renewal of strategic arms limitation talks) are intended to entice greater co-operation. The prospect of more direct negotiations with Iran also are an attempt to open the door to a non-military solution.

However, ‘tough-minded diplomacy’ – claimed to be the touchstone of the new administration – requires others to be diplomatic in return. The tough stance by the Iranian regime after testing domestic opposition doesn’t bode well. The sense of US weakness on this issue, and the very real obstacles in the way of military action against Iran, limit America’s diplomatic hand as well. As if to reinforce the point, on the very day Obama held aloft the goal of a nuclear-free world, North Korea tested the latest version of its missile technology and ramped up its nuclear testing programme.

Such signs of US weakness may be a welcome change from the early Bush years even if, at the time of the Iraq invasion, many on the left as well as the neocon right severely over-estimated the extent of the USA’s ability to alter the world in its own interests (as opposed to its ability just to do harm). But a world shaped by the interests of current Russian or Chinese governments, much less an Iranian one, will be hardly more palatable than one bestrode by an American colossus.

It is ironic that just when the US gets a president seemingly intent on fashioning more progressive international outcomes, America is less able to achieve them.


  1. […] have been harder to achieve. Ongoing challenges to the USA’s world leadership (see my article, Superpower Headaches), divisions between Europe and the US, signs of recovery and a re-activated financial lobby have […]

  2. gary kent
    6 September 2009

    I’d just add, in relation to Iraq, that the other major issue that may affect the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops is the growing conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region which is about the status of disputed territory, including the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds are wary that these issues won’t be resolved without external pressure and could be resolved by force.

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