The Limits of Foreign Policy

What America may be losing in the 21st century is its ability to choose when it wants to assume the point position of world affairs.

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President Barack Obama makes a statement regarding the budget fight in Congress and foreign policy challenges in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by telephone Friday, the first conversation between American and Iranian presidents in more than 30 years. The exchange could reflect a major step in resolving global concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

The Economist is widely read as a conservative voice on economics and international affairs. In general, it can be counted on to argue a "less is more" approach to governance. When it comes to foreign policy, however, The Economist wants America's government to do considerably more for the world's sake.

A survey on American foreign policy in the magazine's Nov. 23 issue was followed quickly by a positive assessment of the prospect of the recent Iran agreement as a potential building block for broader stability in the Middle East. Whether the survey's conclusion – a call for the U.S. to shake off its own pessimism and declare a new "morning in American foreign policy" – holds up will depend in large part on whether that agreement becomes a stepping stone to more lasting efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program. The agreement demonstrates both the value of the additional diplomacy The Economist survey recommends and the potential ripple effects each individual diplomatic effort may have on other U.S. alliances. In addition, while the survey discusses the dangers of an administration straying off message, it does not comment on what should happen when public opinion compels change in a policy that the administration has consistently supported. The Obama administration has seen pertinent examples of both.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

If Some Diplomacy is Good, More is Better. 

News of Secretary of State John Kerry's six-month agreement on Iranian nuclear program was just breaking as The Economist's Nov. 23 issue went to press. The survey therefore could not address the deal in detail or fit it into its arguments for change in U.S. diplomacy (it has commented on the deal favorably in subsequent articles). Secretary Kerry's non-stop global outreach falls within the survey's call for the U.S. to, "make better use of diplomacy." It quotes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamenting that the U.S. has, "fewer diplomats than it has players in military bands." Secretary Kerry's frenetic travel pace has amounted to a one-man diplomatic horn section.

Yet the Iran deal is a good recent exploration of whether more diplomacy is always better. Imperatives on both sides drove its limited structure. The Obama administration needed to be proactive on the world's biggest proliferation issue. Conversely, the government of newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani wanted to begin to bring Iran out of diplomatic isolation, but could not be seen to be giving away the store on an initial round of talks. Some of the strongest criticism of the deal came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who flatly contradicted the Obama administration's view that it made the world "safer." Strong rhetoric on both sides of the issue is to be expected and Secretary Kerry has subsequently moved to address Israel's response to the agreement.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Time will tell if the interim deal's real value – opening the door to a more comprehensive agreement – will be lasting. It makes sense politically that it would. Today, however, it is an example of how every U.S. diplomatic action in one area makes waves that ripple into another. Any push for "more" diplomacy must take this kind of timing into account as a first-order issue.

Stay on Message. 

One survey recommendation aimed squarely at the Obama administration is the lack of a foreign policy strategy that is consistently articulated and backed with consistent action. The survey argues President Obama set and moved "red lines" in U.S. policy towards Syria, creating uncertainty around U.S. intentions and undermining the sense that the White House would stand behind its future proclamations. This is a legitimate criticism that has been leveled at the administration extensively.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

What goes unmentioned in the survey is the trouble the Obama administration has cultivated by staying consistent. On counter-terrorism policy, particularly the expanded use of drone strikes, the current administration has been criticized by both the right and left for continuing policies established by President Bush. Drone strikes ordered from the White House have eliminated terrorist leaders with low cost to U.S. military personnel. They have, however, made President Obama vulnerable to charges of perhaps overstepping accepted norms on the use of force. America's drone capability, like its broader military capacity, leads the world. Its defenders argue that, responsibly run, the drone program makes the world safer. Whichever side one takes, it is clear that as more time elapsed between major terrorist incidents in the U.S., a brighter spotlight shone on counter-terrorism policies drawn up in the more immediate wake of 9/11. While policy stayed consistent, public opinion on drone use shifted underneath and compelled government response, if not immediate change. To preserve a policy in response, the president needs to do more than stay on message, he needs to re-sell the policy to the public.

The Economist writes about "America's once boundless confidence" and the need to restore it. Whether U.S. confidence has ever been "boundless" for long is highly debatable; whether it is a good thing, more so. Strong global leadership has been America's default position about as often as isolation. Plenty of foreign policy problems – the aftermath of the Iraq invasion most recently – have stemmed from excesses, not deficits, of confident activity. U.S. efforts toward Iran reflect a new temperance regarding what it can accomplish abroad. What America may be losing in the 21st century is its ability to choose when it wants to assume the point position of world affairs. It has been pushed there before, and will be again.

Michael Crowley is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association. He has previously worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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