All posts tagged Obama

U.S. Self-Perception and Foreign Policy

Posted by / 5th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -

If one thing were ever true about America’s own interpretation of its foreign policy and role in the global arena, it is that it is unapologetic. The American public’s worldview is shaped and informed by selective historical memory that is perpetuated in classrooms nationwide. Such memorializing of particular events fuels an almost messianic national psyche, which provides a basis of popular support for often self-defeating foreign policy initiatives. The disastrous campaign to defend U.S. interests in Afghanistan and ensuing damage caused by drone strikes throughout the Middle East are two prominent illustrations of such failures. This in turn, calls for the diversification of competing historical narratives in America’s public education in order to prevent its population from holding a limited understanding of the past and allowing unreasonable ideology to propel overseas ventures. A more comprehensive understanding of past events may not change the outcome of certain policy measures per se, but it will at minimum provide a more receptive space for debate and thus allow for a diverse range of opinions to weigh in on detrimental policy proposals.

The American National Psyche

Whether it results in a well rounded or even restricted understanding of the past, history is continuously filtered for contemporary interpretation for which may be called selective historical memory. It is the strategic remembering and convenient forgetting of prior events that make societies contextualize the past as if it were a present reality. By strategically selecting interpretations, there are many truths to a single event but never a single truth, therefore designating it the creation of a common history. In the case of nation states like America, it is capturing the trials and tribulations of past events that most vividly contextualize the meaning behind possessing U.S. citizenship. Consequently, the selectivity of events in U.S. history have created a mentality that often fails to take many diverse and often competing narratives into account, which impact the creation of and support for self-defeating policy initiatives abroad.

So what is the collective mindset that every patriotic citizen tends to feed off of in support for U.S. foreign policy measures? It is a mentality enshrined in the concept of ‘rally around the flag’. Americans are vulnerable to the call for action in the form of serving the ideas of liberty and freedom, as they are mistakenly told that these concepts hardly exist anywhere else as much as they do within their borders. Historical events that have been convoluted into self-serving nationally recognized and absolute truths fuel this mentality. And so it is through skewed perceptions of U.S. efforts to end the Second World War, its self-congratulatory response to the civil rights movement, erroneous impressions of spearheading woman suffrage, tolerance of dissent over the Vietnam War, and after traumatizing events like 9-11, they see themselves as the ultimate embodiment of democracy, free speech, capitalism, and equality. Therefore, even through their faults they celebrate themselves for being well-rounded and lenient, understanding and charged with a moral imperative to disperse these ideals throughout the world. In this same sense, they personify the biblical injunction to become a ‘city upon a hill’ as called for in Matthew 5:14 and echoed in the words famously used by John F. Kennedy and then later by Ronald Reagan to depict the enormous trust and responsibility placed upon Americans. In being founded by diverse immigrant populations looking for a better future, U.S. citizens best capture the historical image of well-seasoned veterans that have fought, struggled, and found unification amid differences that cannot be located elsewhere, and that supposedly serves as an example for humankind to follow.

These ideals are reinforced in the tolerance of ethnic diversity, religious freedom, strong racial and gender equality standards, and the ongoing desire of so many foreigners that attempt to cross over its borders. Thus, people who have filtered through the education system are parented by the baby boomers and the “American dream(ers),” who see their country as a land of opportunities, where an endless work ethic knows no bounds in the quest for material success and having the mere chance to live free from fear and persecution because you may be different. To this extent, Americans advertise themselves and their resolute frontier as a safe haven. Though undoubtedly well intentioned and honorable in its original quest, these American ideals are often vocalized through a preference for positive historical narratives. The resultant American national psyche has a tendency to overstep the boundary from national pride to idiosyncratic provincialism, exemplifying the hazard in not having competing narratives that better educate the popular public support for foreign policy initiatives.

A downward spiral

With such enamored manifestos being present in most countries, the problem with the American psyche then becomes its tendency to give a false impression of its own importance, dangerously straddling the line between national political self-interest and a moral imperative. We have all heard the “U-S-A” chants and witnessed the on-and-off again preoccupation America has with overseas conflicts, as it curiously self-appoints itself as the globe’s psychiatrist. This Wilsonian diagnosis is not new. What has become a recent trend is how this memorialized psyche has transformed into a militaristic platform for oxymoronic foreign policies that are overly aggressive.

The repercussions stemming from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are substantial and can be directly tied to the selective historical memory and lack of competing classroom narratives. There is little doubt that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 unsettled every American. And for good reason. The traumatic image of the collapsing twin towers, a lack of information surrounding the emerging Taliban terrorist faction, and a controversial national debate over the urgent need for a proper response presented the American psyche with its first millennial challenge to personify its originally good virtues and properly rehabilitate transgressing neighbors. Yet, what matters is not whether the actions of the U.S. were justified by moral discernment, but rather how this populist mentality harmed its national interests in nation building and seeking security. By targeting the Taliban and its allies, America declared war on a terrorist faction and not even a sovereign state. What’s more, the U.S. neglected the ongoing civil war taking place within Afghanistan, amongst other colossal challenges. But when God is on your side, every adversary can only be the devil. Therefore, a failure to eradicate the region of their Taliban and later Al-Qaeda adversaries, the subsequent substantial loss of military personnel, the generation of anti-Western sentiment in streets across the globe and among foreign elites, and the trillions of tax dollars that went down the drain made the decision to go to war a self-defeating policy – one that could have been more properly calculated had the American historical narrative been more objective in its approach. It is erroneous to claim that the U.S. public would have altogether abstained from the blunders that followed in Afghanistan had they not had such an engrained national psyche, but at least the breadth of opinions leading up to the war would have varied.

The destructiveness that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced the assumption that the U.S. was peddling global hegemony, but overlooked the subsequent asymmetrical warfare tactics (i.e. the Predator and Reaper drone attacks) as America’s way of projecting its selective historical memory onto the international scene. President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding the 2013 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, underscored the fact that these “signature strikes” were targeting adversaries not necessarily for what they had already done, but because they displayed key patterns of terrorist behavior. This sounds an awful lot like the reflection of the American psyche that endorses the saying that, “America does not negotiate with terrorists.” The downward spiral of America’s unchallenged supremacy that it enjoyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union is partly the result of this rather cloudy approach to war that has moved from conquering foreign adversaries to their total obliteration, as they are seemingly attacking America not because of what it does, but rather what it represents. In return, the U.S. has somehow made perfect sense of complicated identity practices surrounding terrorist factions and engaged in the parallel: killing its enemies for who they are and not necessarily for what they do. In a moment of introspection, Obama later observed:

“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

This demonstrates how recently, America’s foreign policies that were originally designed to fortify and grow their regional clout have failed partly because of a lack of rational analysis of alternative historical narratives. By demonizing the enemy in such a way, the U.S. has managed to create foreign adversaries all over the Middle East, undermining America’s image as a sincere force for freedom and social justice. So if Obama’s caution is to be realized, Americans must cautiously expand the scope of competing historical narratives in the classroom in order to ‘make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom’.

If history can teach us one thing, it is that every state has a pinnacle of success followed by downfall. Being a relatively young country that has yet to experience true national blunder strengthens America’s perpetuated historical narrative as one of dignified successes, supplying the national psyche with evermore justification to buttress foreign policy initiatives that demonstrate the same moral authority and economic power as in the 19th century Manifest Destiny fervor. Reinforced by past triumphs, the collective mindset of the U.S. has moved from a once self-serving yet successful nationalism that suffused the “American dream” to a self-defeating motivation that has generated oxymoronic foreign policy moves.

By diversifying the amount of competing narratives in American history education to include different perspectives on how and if an event actually occurred, pluralism will logically take its course in filtering and often correcting the memories of past events. Furthermore, it will help prevent U.S. public opinion from engulfing itself in a narcissistic view of America’s role in the globalizing world at large. Until that day, past events such as the war against terror in Afghanistan and extensive drone strikes across the Middle East remain tokens of the dangers of U.S. selective historical memory that loom over its foreign relations, undermining the democratic rationale that it traditionally sought to champion.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Notes on the Ukrainian Battlefield

Posted by / 10th March 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , , / -

The Russian military is in control of Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea. Three months ago, at the Vilnius summit, now ousted president Viktor Yanukovich decided not to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union and postponed further negotiations. We know that these two events are linked, but often fail to understand the way the situation developed into a full-fledged crisis. There are a number of lessons to be learnt as to how and why the situation unfolded the way it did. The European approach to Ukraine has been flawed from the start, and Brussels did not sufficiently realise how it would impact Ukraine in socio-political terms. As the country spiralled into chaos, European elites assumed a mediating role they could not properly handle. Ultimately, the West has entered into a great, uncertain and dangerous geopolitical confrontation with Russia that nobody wanted and that endangers future cooperation. It all stems from a fundamental lack of awareness about the main features of today’s international system. The West is living in the past and, unfortunately, this is being understood the hard way.

The spark

By itself, the AA had the potential to upset regional relations, but not to the stark geopolitical heights we are witnessing at the moment. The problem became apparent when the Ukrainian political system processed all the elements surrounding the AA, including the practical step of accepting or rejecting it, in a way that amplified existing latent tensions.
Before the AA made it to the headlines, the issue was framed by Moscow in economic terms. With global multilateral channels experiencing exhaustion, the world is veering towards both the regionalization of trade and attempts to establish biregional trade blocks. The former comes in the shape of the Customs Union binding together Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, itself part of a bigger integration project called the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEc), while the latter is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and the EU.

The TTIP, if negotiations prosper, would be a game changer in terms of trade, and European economy’s improvement in no small part depends on it. In this scheme of things, Ukraine’s role in EU’s future is secondary. Thus, the recent importance of Ukraine is only due to the European Eastern Partnership (EEP), Brussels attempt to revitalize its approach to the East. Launched in 2009, the aim of this policy is to support political change along the lines of democracy, the rule of law and market economy. However, the EEP is flawed at its core, because it is not adjusted to current realities. Its implementation relies upon a set of economic incentives, much like the EU did in the nineties, when its economic might was on the rise and its integration model run more or less smoothly. Nowadays, this is simply not the case, and the pitfalls of this policy have had an impact on what was offered to Kiev under the AA.

On the other hand, Ukraine is truly important to Moscow. Economic considerations weigh heavily in how Russia relates to its neighbour, with whom it is often said to maintain a ‘fraternal rivalry’.

Global Trade Alert, a think tank monitoring global trade, ranked the Russian economy as the most protectionist of 2013. This protectionism is partly in tune with the failure of multilateral attempts of boosting trade worldwide, but also is instrumental to the privileges of sectors of Russian oligarchy. However, now that players are shifting towards further integration along regional and biregional lines, Russia risks being marginalized. Focusing on the customs union within EurAsEc is Russia’s answer to these changes.

Naturally, Moscow is not only pursuing an economic agenda by creating and leading an Eurasian trade block. There are wider geopolitical issues at play, not the least of which is the Kremlin’s quest to maintain its political influence in its periphery and its own country under tight control. Economic regionalism competes with global dynamics, and thus prevents the usual subtle influences that might generate internal pressure towards regime change.

However, this regional development strategy is also a way for Russia to improve its industrial capabilities and prevent overdependence on exports of primary resources, mostly oil and gas. Without Ukraine, the EurAsEc would be much more Asian than European, and that would run against Russia’s desire to remain close to Europe, with whom it wishes to relate, but from a more robust economic position. The Russian economy would struggle if Ukrainian trade flows- now equally distributed between East and West- start leaning more heavily towards the EU. Ukraine is simply too important for Russia, and the correct functioning of a customs union, by definition, would demand that Ukraine did not enter a free-trade agreement with the EU.

Because of its potential effect on Russia’s development, the AA was bound to generate disputes between Brussels and Moscow. However, these by themselves would have been limited. The current crisis is a failure of the Ukrainian political system and the result of highly questionable behaviour by foreign actors, mainly European political elites and the Kremlin.

Ukraine is a politically, economically and culturally divided country. What seems best for its western regions (or, perhaps, what is positively perceived by its population), is often rejected by the more industrialized and Russia-dependent Ukrainian east, and vice versa. This was precisely one of the problems of the AA. Its free-trade agreement did not account for the complexity of economic conditions within the country because it had not been tailored to Ukrainian needs. Certainly, in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion, the free-trade provisions under the AA with Ukraine were very similar to those also planned for Moldova and Georgia. In other words, the EEP approach to the region is excessively general. A critical question is how the free flow of European goods can pose a threat to local production, but, especially, much more consideration should have been given to Ukraine’s own territorial economic imbalances and their relation with historical differences and sources of political animosity. Also, Ukraine is facing bankruptcy and in need of urgent financial aid, something the EU at the time of the Vilnius summit was not offering and that Putin was keen on giving.

Last but not least, Yanukovich is obviously a factor to be considered. Seen by many as a corrupt politician and the ultimate responsible for the government’s mismanagement of the country, Yanukovich had his own concerns about the AA. While it should not be disregarded that the agreement might have meant a dubious benefit for the Ukrainian economy and that this might have been a factor in Yanukovich’s decision, it is certain that he did not fancy its political conditionality: allowing imprisoned political rival Yulia Timoshenko to receive medical treatment abroad and undertaking political and judicial reforms. Thus, facing an agreement that was not so shiny on economic grounds and that threatened his political position, Yanukovich chose the less costly partner, Putin’s Russia. Looking beyond Ukraine, this seems to be the sign of times for the EU: Europe has lost much of its attractiveness and economic might, so it should come as no surprise that it loses ground to competitors that, like Russia, are less ‘virtuous’ but happier to use their wealth for geopolitical objectives.

The rest of the story is well known and takes us to the beginning of the crisis: the anti-government protests at Kiev’s Maidan square, the so-called ‘Euromaidan’.

The crisis: Phase I

What started as a dispute over policy quickly turned into demands for Yanukovich’s resignation, which created a dangerous political conflict that dragged in regional players with interests at stake. While Russia was working more in the shadows, European political elites were visible, rather outspoken and certainly supportive of the street protests, with EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and other European officials visiting Euromaidan. Brussels ruled out the possibility of three-party talks to try to reformulate the AA to account for Yanukovich’s and Putin’s concerns; the Kremlin, on its part, had repeatedly stated that the customs union was not compatible with a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU, which is true. Because of this, the situation has been increasingly portrayed as a ‘civilizational choice’ for Ukraine and a zero-sum game for the rest.

Up until the tragic face-off on 18th and 20th February, there were timid and failed attempts to bridge gaps and stabilize the situation. For example, on 28th January prime minister Nikolay Azarov resigned, and later government posts were offered to opposition leaders, who rejected them. It is also worth noting that on 17th February, a day before the bloody events of that week, an amnesty for all those imprisoned during protests was granted and it was being discussed some meaningful political changes, like a return to 2004 constitution, which would have meant a reduction of presidential powers. At the beginning, this seemed to defuse tensions – several public buildings were abandoned. However, on 18th February clashes erupted in front of the Ukrainian parliament after opposition leaders accused rivals of not being committed to reforms, and eventually the police moved in for a total crackdown on Maidan.

The political climate in Ukraine grew so bitter over time that the spiral of tension and violence stemmed fundamentally from internal political polarization. Nevertheless, external players did not promote stability. Any efforts of international mediation cannot prosper if the mediator is also a stakeholder. This is particularly true if the mediator- the EU in this case- has been very vocal in expressing its alignments.

An analogy from the Cold War might illustrate that conflict resolution is at odds with the intervention of external stakeholders. In the civil conflict that devastated Central America during the eighties, there was no room for dialogue until the US retired its support for Nicaragua’s ‘contras’, which ultimately led to the disentanglement of the conflict from East-West competitive dynamics. It was precisely then when an external actor unrelated to the conflict could mediate to ease the peace. That mediator was the European Community. Bearing this in mind, the question is who can mediate in a European crisis where the EU is part of the problem. The answer is simply that there is not an actor with a profile high enough to take on this task.

In the absence of such a heavy-weight state, the only solution would be a multilateral organization, which brings to mind the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE). Unfortunately the problem is that this organization, almost since its inception, has been rendered irrelevant.

OSCE, established in 1995 as the institutionalization of the spirit of 1975 Helsinki’s Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, was former French president François Mitterrand and Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev bet to create a genuinely European, neutral and multilateral space for security cooperation in the “greater Europe” area, which includes Russia. However, although OSCE might have suitably filled the gap of security governance in Europe and, judging from current events, it hinted at a considerable sense of forward thinking, the times were that OSCE could not gain enough traction. In a true ‘end-of-history’ fashion, in much of Western Europe and in the US there was the feeling that the international power struggles of the past had gone for good, so Western organizations were all Europe needed to be a peaceful region. Accordingly, NATO added to its military nature a political profile in 1994 with its ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme (PfP). PfP’s objective was to manage the profound transformations in the East and the potential risk of regional stability through a network of NATO-centered political and military contacts with the ex socialist states. Thus, NATO displaced other embryonic regional mechanisms for security cooperation, dealing a blow to OSCE’s aspirations, which since then has had its considerable structure mainly devoted to electoral monitoring, overlapping with the Council of Europe.

Europe does not have a genuinely multilateral institution for security cooperation, and this lack of governance mechanisms has implications. A hypothetically robust OSCE might have had a positive impact on the Ukrainian crisis, provided, of course, it would have been allowed to intervene by local parts. While ex prime minister Azarov said his government would not reject OSCE’s assistance in normalizing the situation, opposition’s Arseniy Yatseniuk, now prime minister, stated the following on 1st February at the Munich Security Conference:

“We believe that at this point we should try to solve the problem in Ukraine via our direct contacts – contacts between Ukraine and our western partners. There are, of course, options such as the OSCE mission and the UN, but those are options that should be used if the situation is completely hopeless. [There should be] bilateral [attempts to settle the crisis], namely with the involvement of our European and American partners.”

Last call

On 21st February a deal between the government and opposition was signed after days of bloodshed. The deal was brokered by the foreign affairs ministers of Germany, France and Poland –the EU, as such, lost protagonism as the violence escalated. The text called for the withdrawal by protesters from public spaces, the formation of an unity government by all the signatories, the restoration of 2004 constitution, political reforms to reduce presidential powers, an investigation into acts of violence and, importantly, presidential elections to be conducted not later than December 2014 (they were scheduled for February 2015).

The agreement, whose terms were favorable to the opposition, signaled the moment for compromise. There was hope for progressive normalization through institutionalized politics and, ultimately, elections. However, the agreement did not last a day. For reasons still unknown, on 22nd February Yanukovich disappeared from Kiev, leaving the governmental district completely unguarded. Days later, at a press conference in Russia, he would say that he did it because he feared for his safety under the threats of “hooligans”. After protesters took control of the presidential administration buildings without resistance, the parliament set presidential elections even earlier, on 25th of May, and voted to oust Yanukovich. With the votes of the opposition and of a number of members or parliament from Yanukovich’s party (probably seeking their political survival) the president was removed from power. With this, the opposition leaders satisfied the demands of protesters, still camped at Euromaidan, who had booed them the day before after they announced an agreement with the president had been reached.

Yanukovich’s removal was a breaking point. Regardless of the quality of democracy in Ukraine, Yanukovich was a democratically elected president with whom an agreement for early elections had been reached. After he vanished from Kiev, the opposition could have acted with more restraint simply giving more time to the situation to become clear, but they chose not to. Western governments, on their part, quickly declared their support for the interim government formed by opposition figures, sanctioning their uncompromising behaviour.

Without time for proper normalization through elections, the inevitable result of this was political disintegration. If democratic politics are devoid of a minimum level of compromise, the situations boils down to a pure political struggle, which, in Ukraine, is built along geographical and ethnic lines. Because democracy was not given time to create a source of legitimacy for any political outcome, the warring parties have come to a point where they simply do not recognize each other. Parts of the Ukrainian population with closer ties with Russia felt threatened. This anxiety was reinforced by the interim government’s decision to ban Russian as an official language, a manoeuver that is as symbolic as harmful and that spurred concerns by the same European officials that, now taken aback by the hectic pace of developments, had brokered the agreement.

This turn of events, of course, infuriated Putin.

The crisis: Phase II

Crimean secessionism is steadily advancing its objectives and, thanks to Russia’s military occupation preventing Kiev from reining in, they might just achieve it. There are many reasons why the Kremlin is so determined to bring about this outcome, and include securing the strategic post of Sevastopol by creating a protectorate over Crimea, gaining additional leverage over Kiev’s new government, sending a message to the West and playing the nationalist card at home. Russian intervention will no doubt affect Kiev’s new government, adding a new factor of political instability to an already troubled situation. Ukraine is facing bankruptcy. Although Western support came along promises of financial assistance, emerging figures are not even close to the amount of money Kiev says it needs. It should also be pointed out that the EU’s decision to financially support Ukraine is a reversal of the position held at the Vilnius summit and before, so its likely motivation is the consolidation of European political gains stemming from Euromaidan.

Kiev does not recognize Crimea’s self-declared referendum to reincorporate to the Russian Federation, scheduled for 16th March, deeming it “illegal” according to Ukrainian constitution. The West, of course, also parallels this criticism. However, before legality it comes, inevitably, the issue of legitimacy or, more precisely, whether the conflicting parties regard each other as legitimate. As we have seen, Kiev’s and Crimean’s authorities simply do not recognize each other. Similarly, the Russian intervention in Crimea is clearly against international law, but this is not a legal problem, but one of politics or, in other words, of a fight of wills. It is in that realm where analysis is urgently needed.

The discussion about law might be more fruitful from a political perspective. As it can be easily seen, in a situation like this international law is nothing more than a discursive weapon of little practical use. Law does not work as a deterrent against big players because its enforcement is highly problematic. For obvious reasons we cannot expect the Security Council to do anything, and those who might take measures against Russia are having second thoughts about it –humiliating themselves given their previous stance. It seems the use of force is out of discussion, economic measures to punish Russia are extremely inconvenient for the likes of Germany, France or the United Kingdom, and the freeze of personal financial assets and travel bans are, at best, cosmetic and face-saving actions; the boycott to Russian membership of the G8 is also a symbolic measure. The EU, that went to Ukraine in a quite bombastic fashion is now showing fractures; in the US, both the White House and much of Congress are reinforcing the recently assumed view that the European periphery is an European business – Obama calling for OSCE involvement speaks volumes about this.

When great powers are not willing, international law is a limited catalyst of cooperation and conflict resolution. However, law is not the only tool to facilitate that. As it has been explained here, there is a need for better governance mechanisms. And again, the OSCE pops into the picture, but if it could not do anything before when the situation was less complex, what can be expected from it now?

Whether the West likes it or not, the concept of ‘sphere of influence’ has returned not only to political discourse, but also to analysis. It was about time. Post-Cold War triumphalism blinded the West to the fact that the nineties and the beginning of the past decade were a historic abnormality: never before there was a sole global superpower running unchallenged, and today we are witnessing a return to the normalcy of the past. Accordingly, Europeans and others have to develop institutions adjusted to this reality. The need for it is acute: NATO’s decision to suspend military-political cooperation with Russia, which was part of the PfP’s philisophy, shows that the cooperation avenues of the immediate post-Cold War tend to break under pressure, turning into fields to stage retaliatory measures –which, in this case, complicates NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, that now would not be conducted through Russia, but hostile Pakistani soil.

By asking Kiev to show restraint and by signaling that it has no appetite for intervention, perhaps the West is starting to show some evolved awareness about its own role. One can only hope the interim government grasps the message and refrain from acting militarily against Crimea, since without NATO support that would be suicidal. Ukrainian new leadership should remember what happened to Saakashvili’s Georgia in 2008. Too bad this sensible behaviour on the part of the West comes now, and not much earlier, when it was time to invest in meaningful and sustainable mechanisms for regional cooperation to accommodate a resurgent Russia.


You might also want to read:

BBC’s Ukrainian Crisis Timeline
Carl Bildt, “Ukraine Has Postponed and Opportunity to Prosper”, Financial Times
Oleg Popadiuk, “Ukraine In Between the Unions: the Customs Union and the EU”, Russian International Affairs Council
Alexey Fenenko, “Russia’s Near Abroad, still Too Far Away”, Russia Direct
Pavel Koshkin, “Ukraine: Battlefield between Russia and the West?”, Russia Direct


Nobody Wants to Play with Barack Anymore

Posted by / 2nd July 2013 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , , / -

When US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem last week to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what will have gone through his mind when Netanyahu made him wait for an hour? Perhaps he felt that the prime minister did him a favour. By signalling the complete lack of trust between the two administrations, and by symbolizing the impotence of the highest representative of President Barack Obama, pressure was taken off Kerry’s shoulders to return home with, as he calls them, actual “positive outcomes”. Performing the obligatory ritual of negotiating peace in the Middle East has been a Sisyphean task during the best of times, but these days it is a particularly thankless job for the US State Department. This is not because peace is out of reach- ’twas always thus, and always thus will be- but because United States leadership has become a nuisance on the international stage. It is flapping its geopolitical arms around like a child who is no longer the centre of attention at the playground, and who is desperately trying to get his audience back with new, exciting ideas. And the other kids no longer care. Representing that child must be emotionally draining, even for someone as unflappable as John Kerry.

The White House under Barack Obama has continued its decline which began during the Bush presidency. It went from being an undisputed world leader to that of a powerful but slightly antiquated, uncomfortable and strangely irrelevant presence on the world stage. The United States remains a source of great influence and prestige. It is still unmatched scientifically and economically, and it is still the most important source of global culture and innovation. But its formal representative and voice to the outside world- the president and his administration- have become the child that no one wants to play with. The German kid has the moral high ground, the Russian kid the chutzpah and the Chinese kid the cool toys.

Obama knows it. First, he tried to scare the world into following him. There was the almost obligatory episode about Iran, in which Obama, just like every of his predecessors since 1979, tried to argue that Teheran’s nuclear programme is an existential threat to the world. And then there was the awkward and perplexing stand-off with North Korea. As the former cool kid you know when you are in trouble when you get into a shouting match with a toddler half your age. More recently, there has been the confused- and quickly rebuffed- hard-line towards Syria.

When the stick failed, the White House tried carrots. In the past weeks alone they have launched major international initiatives on non-proliferation, climate change, and Kerry’s doomed mission to kick-start a US led peace process in the Middle East. The first was shot down by Moscow in a matter of hours, the second lacks any credibility at home, and the third started off with their only true ally in the region arriving late and grumpy. It is quite a feat to be disliked by both the Israeli establishment as well as environmentalists in San Francisco.

Clearly, throwing initiatives at a wall and hoping that some of them stick is not working out for Obama. It can no longer distract the world’s attention from Washington’s political incompetence. Initiatives devoid of substance can no longer compete in an age in which Edward Snowden dominates the global psyche.

The world does not look to the United States for leadership anymore. Times have changed. The War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, drone assassinations, Guantanamo Bay, and now the NSA wiretapping revelations have reduced the White House to near irrelevance as a source of guidance. Its leadership depended on credibility, on being the light on the hill that Americans like to portray themselves as. Bizarrely, Russia and China are quickly becoming more credible actors on the international stage. Not because they are a beacon of morality- they clearly are not- but because they do not pretend to be. Their influence comes from hard power, and they know it. Everyone knows it. Foreigners do not have to listen to sanctimonious and hypocritical speeches when doing business with them, and it is no wonder that as a result they are a hit in many parts of the world.

Susan Rice, the incoming national security adviser, said in response to the Snowden leaks that she thinks that “the United States of America is and will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world, the largest economy, and the largest military, [with] a network of alliances, values that are universally respected”. Only the last bit about universal values is relevant, and on that she is wrong: the US has lost its way in that one, crucial regard. US long-term influence never came from its military capabilities or even economic prowess. It was always based on something more intangible, something to do with purpose, with hope that human societies can grow and eventually prosper. The world was willing to forgive the United States its mistakes, as long as it provided such hope. The American nation was even allowed to throw a few tantrums, even damage its surroundings, as long as it was willing to learn and grow. It projected a sense of naive optimism that the old guard in Europe had lost long ago. Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, and destructive power games were fiercely criticised, but did not undermine that sense of universal hope. Their most important foreign policy was their national identity.

When Obama won the 2008 elections on a platform of hope and change, he tapped into that global thirst for leadership. Not one based on hard power or even diplomatic strong-arming, but based on representing a society that was essentially optimistic and well-intentioned. By not delivering that promise to return to a world based not on fear but on optimism, he put the nail in the coffin of his country’s position as main voice for the global community. His mandate was to change the vicious dynamics that were slowly undermining the White House’s leadership in a quagmire of complex Washington dynamics. Instead of being that moral beacon- Nobel Peace Prize endorsed, no less- he made the world see US political leadership as an obnoxious little kid with too many economic and military toys at its disposal. Nobody wants to play anymore, no matter how many games little Barack can think of.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail