Voice

Time to start working on Plan B

If I were President Obama (now there's a scary thought!), I'd ask some smart people on my foreign policy team to start thinking hard about "Plan B." What's Plan B? It's the strategy that he's going to need when it becomes clear that his initial foreign policy initiatives didn't work. Obama's election and speechifying has done a lot to repair America's image around the world -- at least in the short term -- in part because that image had nowhere to go but up. But as just about everyone commented when he got the Nobel Peace Prize last week, his foreign policy record to date is long on promises but short on tangible achievements. Indeed, odds are that the first term will end without his achieving any of his major foreign policy goals.

To be more specific, I'd bet that all of the following statements are true in 2012.

1. There won't be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel will still be occupying the West Bank and controlling the Gaza Strip. More and more people are going to conclude that "two states for two peoples" is no longer possible, and that great Cairo speech will increasingly look like hollow rhetoric.

2. The United States will still have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Victory will not be within sight.

3. Substantial U.S. personnel will remain in Iraq (relabeled as "training missions"), and the political situation will remain fragile at best. 

4. The clerical regime in Iran will still be in power, will still be enriching nuclear material, will still insist on its right to control the full nuclear fuel cycle, and will still be deeply suspicious of the United States. Iran won't have an actual nuclear weapon by then, but it will be closer to being able to make one if it wishes.

5. There won't be a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

6. Little progress will have been made toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia may complete a new strategic arms agreement by then, but both states will still have thousands of nuclear warheads in their stockpiles. None of the nine current nuclear weapons states will have disarmed, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still unratified three years from now.

Other achievements that we won't see include the balancing of the federal budget, a major revamping of global financial architecture, reform of the U.N. Security Council, a significant increase in the size of the State Department or the foreign aid budget, or the completion of new trade round. I'm not even sure we will have closed Gitmo or ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by then.

Assuming he wins re-election, therefore, President Obama is going to be looking at a foreign policy "to do" list with remarkably few boxes checked off. And somebody ought to start thinking about this possibility now, because wise statecraft ought to anticipate the circumstances one is going to face a few years hence, instead of focusing solely on what's in the in-box today.

So what's Plan B? I'm still wrestling with that issue myself, but here's a quick sketch of some of the fundamental ideas. Plan B begins by recognizing that the United States remains the most secure great power in modern history and that most of damage we have suffered recently has come from scaring ourselves into foolish foreign adventures. It means rejecting the belief -- common to both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists -- that virtually every global problem requires an American solution and "American leadership." It acknowledges that social engineering in complex traditional societies is something we don't know how to do and probably can't learn, but it takes comfort from the fact that it is also a task that we don't have to do. It accepts that there are a few bad guys out there that do need to be confronted, captured, and sometimes killed, but understands that the more force we use and the heavier our footprint is, the more resistance we will ultimately face. And yes, Plan B understands that sometimes bad things will happen to Americans, and there is nothing we can do to completely eliminate all foreign dangers. Get used to it.

Plan B means playing "hard to get" more often, so that other states don't take us for granted and so that they bear a greater share of common burdens. It means exploiting balances of power and playing divide-and-conquer, instead of trying to impose a preponderance of U.S. power on every corner of the globe. It prizes the individual freedoms that are the core of American democracy -- freedoms that are threatened by a steady diet of foreign wars -- and it recognizes that other societies will have to find their own way toward more pluralist and participatory forms of government, and at their own pace. It seeks to maintain armed forces that are second to none but eschews squandering lives or money on peripheral wars that are neither vital nor winnable. It rejects "special relationships" with any other state, if by that one means relationships where we support other states even when they do foolish things that are not in our interest (or theirs). 

And Plan B proceeds from the belief that other states will be more likely to follow America's lead if they look at us and like what they see. America used to dazzle the world by offering up a vision of opportunity, equality, energy and competence that was unimaginable elsewhere. The danger now is that America is increasingly seen as a land of crumbling infrastructure, mountainous debt, uninsured millions, fraying public institutions, and xenophobic media buffoons. Over the longer term, getting our house in order back home will to a lot more to shore up our global position than conducting endless foot patrols through the Afghan countryside.

Postscript: Some smart observers -- such as Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic -- have a more favorable view of Obama's performance to date. They discern a trademark style in Obama's cautious and reflective approach to most policy issues: he sets forth general goals, waits to see how others react, gauges the limits of the possible, and then decides on a course of action. There's probably something to this view, and surely the patient examination of alternative policy options makes more sense than relying on one's "gut instincts" and then stubbornly refusing to admit the possibility of error.

Whether one relies on calm deliberation or a president's entrails, however, the proof of any approach to policymaking is its ability to deliver tangible results. And here the jury is still out. My concern is that Obama has yet to use American power -- in either its hard and soft forms -- in ways designed to shape the calculations and actions of both allies and adversaries. Where Bush erroneously believed that the United States could simply dictate to the rest of the world, thus far Obama seems unwilling to wield American power against stubborn opponents or withhold U.S. support from recalcitrant allies. His speeches are a valuable tool, but ultimately others need to know that there is resolve and purpose and tangible actions behind them. Sometimes foreign policy is like community organizing -- i.e., you're trying to herd diverse groups to work together for a common goal and your task is to overcome suspicions so that the common ground can be seized. But at other times it's more like a gang war. And when it's the latter, you have to take names, draw lines, and use the power at one's disposal to get the outcomes you want.

Think about it this way: how many foreign leaders are now grateful because the United States has backed them and their prospects are improving, and how many governments are now worried because the United States is successfully using its power to undermine or thwart them and force them to rethink their positions?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Letters

Realism, Really?

Steven Clemons and Stephen Walt sound off on Paul Wolfowitz’s critique of realism and Obama’s foreign policy.

Paul Wolfowitz's provocative critique of foreign-policy realism ("Think Again: Realism," September/October 2009) has several flaws.

For one, he punts on the Iraq war. By dropping the subject, he misses a fundamental reality: The power a president inherits when he or she gets the keys to the White House is not the same from president to president.

President Barack Obama, in his early foreign-policy moves, has found his "inner Nixon" and made a number of key realist-like gestures -- not because Nixonianism was lurking just under the skin of his campaign for the White House all along, but because he had to. John McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign, also would have been compelled to find his "inner Nixon," because the United States is substantially constrained today and viewed by much of the world as a superpower in decline.

The Iraq war punctured the mystique of America's superpower status and exposed military limits, followed later by economic limits that have undermined the confidence of key allies in American power and dependability. Had the Iraq invasion not occurred, and had George W. Bush's team dealt a crushing blow to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and come home, the world and America would be in a different place. In those circumstances, Obama might have been the type of values crusader that Bush got to be-at least for a short while.

Another issue I wish Wolfowitz had raised is the importance of America's demonstrating by example the kind of democracy it hopes others aspire to. We saw how the reactions to the September 11 attacks and the buildup to the Iraq war led to a national security pathology in the United States in which core democratic values, including our beliefs about universal human rights, were undermined. This kind of example is something that authoritarian governments salivate at-and true democrats abroad revile.

Steven Clemons

Director

American Strategy Program

The New America Foundation

Washington, D.C.

 


It is easy to understand why Paul Wolfowitz dislikes "realism." On the most significant foreign-policy decision since the end of the Cold War -- the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq -- the realists who opposed it were right and Wolfowitz and the other architects of the war were dead wrong. No wonder he begins his article by saying that this "is not the place to reargue the Iraq War." I'd try to exclude Iraq from discussion if I were him, too.

Contrary to Wolfowitz's claims, there is no "debate" between realists and idealists over the desirability of democratic government and human rights. I know of no realists who oppose the peaceful encouragement of these values, and Wolfowitz offers no examples of any. The real issue, as the Iraq debate revealed, is whether the United States and its democratic allies should be trying to spread these ideals at the point of a gun or sacrificing other important interests in order to advance them.

Wolfowitz is correct about one thing: Barack Obama is probably not a "realist." He is essentially a pragmatist. But his administration is chock full of traditional liberal internationalists, many of whom backed the Iraq war in 2003 and still think America's mission is to right wrongs wherever they may arise. That's why we are plunging deeper into Afghanistan and why the foreign-policy establishment continues to think we are making progress every time Washington has to assume responsibility for fixing some foreign problem.

The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter whether Obama is a "realist" or not. But the sooner he starts to act like one, the better off the United States will be.

 

Stephen M. Walt

Robert and Renée Belfer

Professor of International Relations

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

 Stephen M. Walt is a blogger for ForeignPolicy.com.