From D-Day to today: US foreign policy is at a turning point

Protect and defend: President Obama takes the pledge at West Point’s graduation ceremony. EPA/Peter Foley

As President Obama looks across the beaches of Normandy for the ceremony commemorating the D-Day landings, he could be forgiven for feeling ambivalent. Certainly, these are sites of great tragedy and a reminder of times when the threats were truly impending. Yet, as President Roosevelt might have reminded him, they also were simpler times, when Europe yearned for American action, the enemy was transparent and the public at home was united in its support of America’s mission.

Since 1945, America’s foreign policy elite has been convergent in their support of engagement, insistent that American leadership is required for the maintenance of security, economic prosperity and the promotion of democracy worldwide. But recent rumblings of discontent by populist forces at home, notably among Tea Party advocates, seems to have punctured that sense of unanimity.

Opinion polls also suggest the American public is tired of too much military engagement, worn down by the cost of two wars in terms of blood and treasure – although they still wholeheartedly support both economic integration and international institutions. The findings of a Globescan/PIPA global poll published this week amplify the political problem of American engagement. The poll shows a continued trend of disapproval of United States policy around the world, prompting Americans to ask, why engage if we are so unappreciated?

In this context, critics and advocates alike may characterise last week’s speech by President Obama on US foreign policy as a turning point. The Times even headlined an editorial “American Retreat,” suggesting the forces favouring isolation are now gathering a tailwind. Editorials in both The New York Times and The Washington Post made comparable points.

The reality is somewhat different: the president rejected the popular idea making the rounds that American needs to retrench. In contrast, he explicitly grouped two different forms of policy engagement under the still sacrosanct umbrella of “American leadership”. The first is a willingness to act precipitously when America’s “core interests demand it”.

Threats to Americans and their allies will be met by unilateral force if necessary. “On the other hand,” he said, when issues are of global concern “we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilise allies and partners to take collective action.” This second multilateral component, the president noted, requires that we “explain our efforts clearly and publicly” so not as to “erode legitimacy with our partners and our people” and “to strengthen and enforce international order.”

It was a far more humble formulation than we have come to expect of American presidents. Yet this was a clarion call for a new and more flexible form of engagement, essentially defying those isolationist voices. It is one that America’s allies should welcome, not fear. They are always complaining that America is too assertive – such as in the president’s preference for far more comprehensive sanctions against Russia over Putin’s actions in the Crimea. Now they worry about the president’s more modest approach that allows them to lead.

American liberals worry about disengagement. The fear at home is a different one among right-wing critics of Obama. They have recourse to a familiar refrain: a willingness to affirm “international norms and the rule of law” is a sign of weakness. Pandering to the United Nations poses a threat to American sovereignty and risks embroiling the US in initiatives that are costly and don’t serve its interests.

Yet such criticism – from at home and abroad – ignores a fundamental truth: America has been pursuing such a two-pronged strategy for more than a decade. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have selectively mixed efforts at assertive unilateral leadership with those of sponsoring global initiatives.

Teamwork: US foreign policy is more geared to supporting multi-lateral operations. EPA/Ian Langsdon

Examples of American efforts at traditional forms of more aggressive leadership are familiar: from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the failed efforts to push through initiatives on climate change, reform at international institutions like the World Bank, and peace settlements in the Middle East.

Sharing the burden

What has been less evident on the radar – and thus far less debated – is the effort of both administrations to provide the support for international initiatives in a variety of important policy areas. The Bush administration’s wholehearted and effective implementation of the UN’s policies on human trafficking cajoled and coerced both its allies and enemies into instituting new initiatives against people trafficking around the world.

These efforts have been enthusiastically sustained by the Obama administration. The same is true of the anti-piracy initiative off the coast of Somalia: there a joint European-US force has enjoyed overwhelming success, reducing the number of attacks and even resulting in pirates standing trial in American courts. More recently, American support both for the anti-Islamist initiative in Mali and against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda has proven effective in neutering their respective threat.

The example of a sponsoring strategy that has come closest to piercing the public’s consciousness is that of America’s support for the intervention in Libya. The US provided logistical and military support without incurring casualties and achieved its goal of unseating a dictator at a nominal cost. Rather than recognising the mission’s success, Republican critics gleefully seized upon a reputed loose-lipped White House aide’s comment that this was “leading from behind”. They suggested that such initiatives were unacceptable simply because America was not seen to be in charge.

These examples are beneficial to the US because they involve burden sharing and are therefore less costly in both blood and treasure. They sanction the use of aggressive American action that would otherwise be subjected to intense international criticism. They allow for relatively easy withdrawal strategies because, by their very nature, American power and prestige is not itself at stake – America is simply part of a team.

And finally, as the president hopes will be the case, these initiatives have begun to help restoring America’s lost legitimacy. This is something it needs in abundance if America is to achieve its foreign policy goals in a world of transnational threats. President Obama’s words at West Point did not signal a change: they recognised one – and it was in the form of America’s foreign engagement, not its degree of engagement.