Secretaries of Safe

Obama’s likely national security picks are going to reinforce his innate caution -- for better and for worse.

In each of the most recent two-term presidencies -- Reagan, Clinton, Bush -- the second term has featured a foreign policy significantly different from the first. One of the reasons for this is that presidents typically shuffle their national security staff between terms. In the Clinton era, the forceful Madeleine Albright replaced the difference-splitting Warren Christopher at the State Department. George W. Bush disposed of Colin Powell, whom he didn't listen to, in favor of Condoleezza Rice, whom he did, and then replaced the bellicose Donald Rumsfeld with the cautious Robert Gates at the Pentagon. Now we know that Susan Rice will not replace Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama's secretary of state, and it seems very likely that John Kerry will do so instead.

As I wrote recently, Kerry is more like Hillary Clinton in both temperament and worldview than any other even plausible candidate to replace her. And because Obama respects Kerry without being close to him, as has been true of his relationship with Clinton, foreign policy will probably continue to be formulated in the White House, and executed by the State Department. (During the second George W. Bush administration, by contrast, the center of policymaking shifted to State.) The break between Obama I and II will thus almost certainly be less drastic than Bill Clinton's change from waiting for Europe to act to seizing the mantle of leadership, or George Bush's from bombast and unilateralism to, well, slightly less bombast and unilateralism.

But administrations do change policy or mood for two other reasons: Because the world changes, and because officials learn from their mistakes. For Obama, 2013 will be different from 2009 because the Arab world is in tumult rather than paralysis, Europe is struggling to survive as a coherent entity, Iraq is yesterday's news, Afghanistan is waning rather than waxing, China's booming growth can no longer be taken for granted, and so forth. The administration has uniquely advertised its own change in posture by talking up the "pivot to Asia."

But what about second thoughts and lessons learned? The Bush administration discovered that going it alone has a high cost, and that legitimacy must be earned and not merely asserted. Of course, no one admitted that at the time; it just became obvious through action. The military, where mistakes cost lives, has institutions dedicated to scrutinizing past behavior; the civilian world is deathly afraid of admitting errors in public, and rarely does. One senior Obama administration official with whom I spoke eagerly ticked off a list of changes in the world, but then balked at the idea that he and his colleagues had misread their own environment.

But they have, if not at all as disastrously as George Bush and his team did. Obama believed, and those around him believed perhaps even more strongly, that his own oratorical and convening gifts -- the sharp break from Bush which he was prepared to make -- was itself a powerful diplomatic tool that would raise America's standing in the world and change its relations with adversaries and rivals. The policy of "engaging" even adversaries like Iran and North Korea was based both on a calculus of mutual interest and on the magic of a new moment and a new man. But it turned out that the "Obama Effect," as one senior State Department official called it, was much weaker than expected. "The idea was that there would be something reciprocal from bad actors," the official said, "and we found out very quickly that wasn't the case. We've gone back to a more traditional sort of approach."

Obama believed that Bush had unnecessarily alienated almost everyone -- bad actors, Russia, China, Western allies -- and that a new policy of "mutual respect for mutual interests," as he often put it, could serve as an emollient. The new policy worked in Europe, the one region where leaders and citizens cherished Obama's gifts as much as American voters did (or more). It worked temporarily in Russia, whose leaders wanted to patch up relations with the United States in the aftermath of the war with Georgia. It did not work in China, however, where both Obama and Hillary Clinton hoped that putting aside irritants like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights would lead to progress on a range of bilateral and global issues. China, like Iran, did not see its interests as "mutual" with those of the United States, and so simply pocketed the American show of respect.

One official I spoke to argued that Clinton had never been quite as persuaded of the magic of engagement as Obama had been, and that in any case both understood that trying and failing to repair relations with Tehran and Beijing put Washington in a stronger position to get tough with them afterwards. That is, no mistake -- so no lesson. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that it's hard to learn a lesson from a policy which does not work out as you had hoped but also does not ruinously fail. But the proof of the learning process is in the subsequent action. White House policy towards Iran, Russia, China, and others now feels more traditional than "transformational," to use a word once very much in vogue. There has been a regression to the mean.

And this is true beyond the realm of bilateral relations. In early speeches and in his national security strategy, Obama laid great stress on rebuilding international institutions. He has, in fact, embedded the G-20 at the heart of global economic policymaking, but he has also learned the limits of bodies like the United Nations. "American leadership," says an administration official, "will depend on our capacity to mobilize a coalition of countries to solve a particular problem" -- that is, on what George Bush would have called "a coalition of the willing." And Obama's conduct of the war on terror has of course come to resemble Bush's. A policy initially described as "countering violent extremism" -- and intended to mix soft power, diplomacy, development, criminal justice, and military strikes -- has gradually given way to a militarized approach involving drones and special forces.

On balance, we should be grateful that Obama has learned useful lessons from mistakes of modest proportions. White House policy in the second term is likely to be more chastened, and to raise fewer expectations that it cannot satisfy. The pivot to Asia will allow the president to operate in a region which does not require impossible choices under the most urgent conditions. And a national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would offer the prospect of stability, caution, and realism.

I wonder, though, if there is a danger of some learning some lessons too well. Obama has found that the world is more intransigent than he had thought, and American influence more limited. This has reinforced his own cautionary impulses. He now faces a calamity in Syria, and he has responded by giving it a wide berth. John Hannah of FP's Shadow Government blog recently accused Obama of failing to act decisively in Syria out of craven political calculations.  I think Hannah is right that Washington should have acted weeks or months ago, but wrong about the motive for inaction. The president and his team are now deeply imbued with an awareness of the limits of American power in the face of profound upheavals. They know all too well that a forceful American role can make things worse.

As George W. Bush erred on the side of recklessness, Obama is now erring on the side of caution. He should have helped to organize and equip the Syrian insurgents while the rebellion was still largely local; now the war is turning into an international jihadist cause, and thus giving the United States and other outsiders yet more reason to hesitate. The effect has been to allow a very bad situation to get very much worse. Lessons may have been learned. But a president who was once prepared to take risks to change the world seems to have lost sight of his courage.


Terms of Engagement

The Climate Scofflaw

Is the United States really the impediment to a universal compact on global warming?

Despite President Barack Obama's vow, in his first post-reelection press conference, to take decisive action on climate change, the global climate talks in Doha are dragging to a close with the United States, as usual, a target of activists' wrath. The Obama administration has shown no interest in submitting to a binding treaty on carbon emissions and refuses to increase funding to help developing countries reduce their own emissions, while the United States continues to behave as a global scofflaw on climate change.

Actually, that's not true -- the last part, anyway. According to the International Energy Agency, U.S. emissions have dropped 7.7 percent since 2006 -- "the largest reduction of all countries or regions." Yes, you read that correctly. The United States, which has indeed refused to sign the Kyoto Accords establishing binding targets for emissions, has reduced its carbon footprint faster than the greener-than-thou European countries which have done so. The reasons for this have something to do with climate change itself (warm winters mean less heating oil -- something to do with market forces -- the shift from coal to natural gas in power plants) and something to do with policy at the state and regional level. And in the coming years, as both new gas-mileage standards and new power-plant regulations championed by the Obama administration kick in, policy will drive the numbers further downwards; U.S. emissions are expected to fall 23 percent between 2002 and 2020. Apparently Obama's record on climate change is not quite as calamitous as reputation would have it.

The West has largely succeeded in bending downwards the curve of carbon emissions. But the developing world has not. Last year, China's emissions rose 9.3 percent; India's, 8.7 percent. China is now the world's No. 1 source of carbon emissions, followed by the United States, the European Union, and India. The emerging powers have every reason to want to emulate the energy-intensive economic success of the West; even those, like China, who have taken steps to increase energy efficiency, are not prepared to do anything to harm economic growth. The real failure of U.S. policy has been, first, that it is still much too timid, and second, that it has not acted in such a way as to persuade developing nations to take the truly difficult decisions which would put the world on a sustainable path. 

There's a useful analogy with the nuclear nonproliferation regime. In an earlier generation, the nuclear stockpiles of the United States and the Soviet Union posed the greatest threat to global security. Now the threat comes from the proliferation of weapons to weak or rogue states or to non-state actors. But the only way that Washington can persuade other governments to join in a tough nonproliferation regime is by taking the lead in reducing its own nuclear stockpile -- which the Obama administration has sought to do, albeit with very imperfect success. In a word where power is more widely distributed, U.S. action matters less in itself, but carries great weight as a demonstration model -- or anti-demonstration model.

Logic would thus dictate that the United States bind itself in a global compact to reduce emissions, as through the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) it has bound itself to reduce nuclear weapons. But the Senate would never ratify such a treaty. And even if it did, would China and India similarly bind themselves? Here the nuclear analogy begins to break down, because the NPT mostly requires that states submit to inspections of their nuclear facilities, while a climate change treaty poses what looks very much like a threat to states' economic growth. Fossil fuels are even closer to home than nukes. Is it any wonder that only EU countries and a few others have signed the Kyoto Accords? A global version of Kyoto is supposed to be readied by 2015, but a growing number of climate change activists -- still very much a minority -- accept that this may not happen and need not happen.

So what can Obama do? It is possible that much tougher action on emissions would help persuade China, India, and others that energy efficiency need not hinder economic growth. As Michael Levi, a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the United States gets little credit abroad for reducing emissions largely thanks to "serendipitous" events. Levi argues, as do virtually all policy thinkers and advocates, that the United States must increase the cost of fossil fuels, whether through a "carbon tax" or cap-and-trade system, so that both energy efficiency and alternative fuels become more attractive, and also to free up money to be invested in new technologies. This is what Obama's disappointed supporters thought he would do in the first term, and urge him to do now.

Obama is probably not going to do that either. In his post-election press conference, he insisted that he would find "bipartisan" solutions to climate change, and congressional Republicans are only slightly more likely to accept a sweeping change in carbon pricing than they are to ratify a climate-change treaty. The president also said that any reform would have to create jobs and growth, which sounds very much like a signal that he will avoid new taxes or penalties (even though advocates of such plans insist that they would spur economic growth).

All these prudent political calculations are fine when you can afford to fail. But we can't afford to fail. Global temperatures have already increased 0.7 degrees Celsius (or about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Disaster really strikes at a 2 degree Celsius increase, which leads to large-scale drought, wildfires, decreased food production, and coastal flooding. But the current global trajectory of coal, oil, and gas consumption means that, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's chief economist,  "the door to a 2 degree Celsius trajectory is about to close." That's how dire things are.

What, then, can Obama do that is equal to the problem? He can invest. Once the fiscal cliff negotiations are behind him, and after he has held his planned conversation with "scientists, engineers and elected officials," he can tell the American people that they have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the future, for themselves and for people everywhere. He can propose -- as he hoped to do as part of the stimulus package of 2009 -- that the U.S. build a "smart grid"  to radically improve the efficiency of electricity distribution. He can argue for large-scale investments in research and development of new sources of energy and energy-efficient construction technologies and lots of other whiz-bang things. This, too, was part of the stimulus spending; it must become bigger, and permanent. 

The reason Obama should do this is, first, because the American people will (or could) rally behind a visionary program in a way that they never will get behind the dour mechanics of carbon pricing. Second, because the way to get to a carbon tax is to use it as a financing mechanism for such a plan. Third, because oil and gas are in our bloodstream; as Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, puts it, "The only thing that's going to drive fossil fuels off the market is cheaper renewable energy." Fourth, the United States cannot afford to miss out on the gigantic market for green technology.

Finally, there's leverage. China and India may not do something sensible but painful, like  adopting carbon pricing, because the United States does so, but they will adopt new technologies if the U.S. can prove that they work without harming economic growth. Developing countries have already made major investments in reducing air pollution, halting deforestation, and practicing sustainable agriculture; they're just too modest. It is here, above all, that the United States can serve as a demonstration model -- the world's most egregious carbon consumer showing the way to a low-carbon future. 

Global warming-denial is finally on the way out. Three-quarters of Americans now say  they believe in global warming, and more than half believe that humans are causing it and want to see a U.S. president take action. President Obama doesn't have to do the impossible. He must, however, do the possible.        

David McNew/Getty Images