Voice

Barack the buck-passer

I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position. 

In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.

Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).  

After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary. 

The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting. 

I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.

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Stephen M. Walt

Beijing bullies the World Bank

Every now and then you read about a seemingly minor incident that illuminates an entire way of thinking about international affairs. And sometimes the harsh light of reality exposes the flaws in a popular body of theory, or at least reveals its limits.

Today, for example, the Financial Times reports that China is trying to get the World Bank to water down its annual Doing Business report, which ranks the world's nations by focusing mostly on the efficiency and transparency of the regulatory environment and thus the ease of starting or conducting new business. For what it's worth, Singapore ranks #1 on the list, Hong Kong #2, the United States #4, Taiwan #16, but the rest of the People's Republic of China ends up in the middle of the pack, at #91.

What's the IR theory angle in all this? For the past couple of decades, a number of IR scholars and China experts have argued that the best way to accommodate China's rise was to enmesh it in a wide array of international institutions. These institutions would bind China into an existing set of norms and rules, help "socialize" it into prevailing global practices, and guard against Beijing feeling like it was being excluded or marginalized. This sort of thinking justified the Clinton administration's entire policy of engagement, and especially its lengthy effort to bring China into the World Trade Organization.

There's nothing wrong with including China in existing international institutions, and doing so undoubtedly facilitates day-to-day cooperation on all sorts of mundane international transactions. In this sense, the institutionalist perspective reflected above remains helpful. But it is a mistake to assume that an increasingly powerful China will just passively accept a set of rules and practices that had been developed by the United States and Europe over the past fifty-plus years.  

On the contrary, like other great powers, China will use its growing power to try to rewrite international norms and rules in ways that will benefit it. As the FT notes: "The row [over the Doing Business report] is an example of China's growing assertiveness at international bodies and its increased willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions."

There's nothing nefarious or imperialistic about such behavior -- at least, not in my book -- because major powers have always tried to rig the rules of global conduct in their favor. You weren't expecting altruism, were you? Or they simply ignore the rules when they turn out to be inconvenient, as the United States did when it went off the gold standard in 1971 or invaded Iraq in 2003. But the fact that such behavior is familiar doesn't mean it will be any less of a problem, and it reminds us that international institutions themselves are at best weak constraints on the behavior of major countries.

In short, if China continues to rise and competition between the United States and China (and others) intensifies, the battleground won't just be confined to the South China Sea, the competition for allies in Asia, or the shadowy world of cyber-espionage. It will also be fought out in the corridors, offices, plenaries, and sidebar meetings at major international institutions. And in these arenas, economic clout and diplomatic skill will count as much or more than aircraft carriers, drones, or sophisticated special forces.

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