- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
As indicated late last week by the first half of my foreign policy report card, President Obama has put a first class team in place to manage his international agenda and so far they are working well together. But what about the policies themselves? It’s early yet, of course, but it’s worth asking-where have they made their mark and what kind of marks is that likely to get them.
Remaking the American Brand, Grade: A
Job one was slamming the door on the George Bush Era then locking it, boarding it up, doing a “Cask of Amontillado” brick wall on top of that, and then depositing the whole thing in Yucca Mountain for safe keeping. Related to this was getting out there, introducing Michelle, and letting intelligence, charm and competence tell the story. My belief is most of the world wants to like America so this task was not quite as hard as some had made out (which makes Bush’s alienation of the planet all that much more of an accomplishment), but Obama has shined as the new front man for the “new, improved” good old USA.
North Korea, Grade: B
Oh, right. As if I am stupid enough to evaluate the North Korea policy in the wake of Bill Clinton’s historic visit… Well, actually the outcome was easy enough to predict; Clinton wouldn’t have gone if the release of the two journalists weren’t a pretty sure thing. The North Koreans wouldn’t have accepted him if they didn’t think it was time to take a little breather (as we periodically do) from all the heavy breathing. But the long-term issues will remain. Clinton himself once said nuclear weapons were North Korea’s only cash crop and so they will likely keep playing the game we’re used to. Frankly, if Clinton hadn’t gone, I think I would have given a D on this front because they have been toying with us on the nuclear issue and our multilateral efforts have been ineffective. Also our policy has been virtually identical to Bush’s. Or maybe I would have given the administration a “C” because I enjoyed Hillary’s mudslinging with the Dear Leader a few weeks ago. It was lousy diplomacy but had a higher truth content and more comic content than such exchanges usually do. (Come to think of it, I wonder how our former president and Kim Jong Il handled the “funny lady” who looks like a “pensioner going shopping” comments at dinner tonight? And however they handled it, if only we could have gotten a glimpse of the “Annie Hall” subtitles that would have revealed what they were really thinking.”)
Iran, Grade: C+
The big plus in the current team’s policy re: Iran is clearly the move toward engagement. The big negative is clearly the move toward engagement. They cancel each other out which is why I give them a “C.” Engaging with Iran is the right thing to do. This is a country with the greatest possibility of leading the Middle East toward democracy and integration with the west. It is sophisticated, cosmopolitan and too diverse to pigeonhole just because the views of a few leaders are crazed. (We in the United States should have learned this lesson from how we wanted to be treated when W was at the helm.) But as has been said here before, engagement is a tactic — not a policy objective. We were so eager to achieve it that we were late in condemning the unrest in the streets in Tehran. And I fear that the success or failure of engagement in Iran will be seen as so central to the President’s ultimate foreign policy grade that we may be too accepting of the promises of a regime with almost two decades of history of breaking promises. I give the plus because I think Hillary Clinton leads a group of tough-minded policymakers in the administration on this issue and I think there is still a decent chance we may get the best of both worlds: engagement and the ability to respect ourselves the next morning.
Israel and Palestinian Territories, Grade: B
As discussed here earlier, we may be on the verge of a historically bad patch in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The United States feels the need to get tough just as an Israeli administration comes in that is inclined to defend the indefensible (which is the expansion of settlements). But frankly, only through such toughness will the United States be able to be an effective intermediary in defusing this chronic crisis.
Also: the administration has been hugely more engaged on this front than their predecessors… which is a big plus. But we have to ask: when push comes to shove, will the administration be as tough with the Palestinians as will be necessary? Will a perhaps too soft stance on Iran create a deeper rift with an Israel with legitimate security concerns regarding a nuclear Iran? My guess is we will make some progress on this front in the next three years…more than at any time since the Clinton days. But now that we have established that we recognized what needed to be changed…we need to prove that we recognize what also needs to be preserved in our relationship with Israel.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, Grade: D
This is the “Be Careful What You Wish For, War.” The administration framed this as the good war during the campaign and now it has become theirs. This is where their military management skills will be tested. This is where their geopolitical mastery will be tested. And, I believe, this is where they will start to fail those tests … not because they won’t be working the issues as hard as possible or putting their best people on the problem. Rather it is because ancient ethnic divisions, geography, religious politics and history make victory … victory of any sort … almost impossible. The best we can hope for is to get some bad guys and get out, hand the problems over to locals and forge a partnership with the other great powers in the region, notably India and China to contain the spillage from a place that is likely to be an open wound on the world for decades to come.
Iraq, Grade: B-
Look, Obama was elected to get us out of here and that’s what he’s doing. Having said that, watch closely as to what happens as we leave. My sense is a combination of government incompetence and corruption and the intractability of local problems is likely to produce festering unrest that keeps 50,000 or so U.S. troops in this country for…well, maybe not John McCain’s 100 years…but a long time. (Which was the point McCain was inartfully trying to make, I think.) And if you want to start a betting pool, I say the over-under on an independent Kurdistan is 2020 and I’ll take the under.
BRICs-Russia: C, China: A-, India: A-, Brazil: B-
The Obama team has made a great contribution by recognizing the rightful place of these emerging powers within whatever organization ultimately succeeds the G8. But the policies with each country have been a mixed bag. The most important of the relationships by far is with China…it’s the most important bilateral relationship in the world by far. Obama has put in place a terrific ambassador, early meetings have gone pretty well and most importantly, the clear message has been sent about the centrality of the relationship. If the Chinese are beating us up a bit on economics well, turn about is fair play…and an important dimension of a relationship among equals. While the Indians gave Hillary a hard time on climate, her trip and the up-coming meeting in Washington with PM Singh suggest this relationship too is entering a new era. The U.S.-India relationship has never been more vital to us or to them … that’s a good thing. So far the relationship with the Russians has left everyone a little uneasy. I happen to think that’s roughly how we should feel about the Russians, but it is hard to say the relationship is in especially good shape and we are cutting them a little too much slack. (Did you notice the Russian-Iranian naval exercises a few days ago?) Lula and Obama have a natural affinity and we are also sending a great ambassador to Brazil but the cave to Sen. Grassley on the ethanol tariff takes away something the Brazilians wanted a lot. So, the future of that relationship will really depend on what the U.S. does to help Brazil claim a larger role on the international stage.
Europe, Grade: B
The Euros started out loving Barack. But the administration dragged its feet on European proposals for major global regulatory reform in finance and the Euros dragged their feet on upgrading their help for the United States in AfPak. It’s going to get worse if the “special relationship” we have with the U.K. … which has been crucial in managing our other relationships in the region … is damaged because, as seems likely, the next British PM is a guy, David Cameron, who the Obama team is going to have a tough time getting along with. It’s going to get worse still if our budget constraints start having us cut back further on our international military activities and more pressure will be applied to Europe to step up. But so far so good on this front and it seems likely that given strong working relationships at the highest level with France and Germany, things should be fine. (Although it’s quite a thought: the U.S. could be closer to Sarkozy’s France than to Cameron’s U.K.)
Latin America, Grade: C
Face it, the U.S. only cares about Latin America when it has to. So far, Obama and company have given Mexico good attention and although the security situation in that country remains unsettled and that could lead to a likely resurgence of a PRI that may be harder for Obama to deal with, it is hard to imagine any U.S. administration handling the relationship better. There has been slight movement on Cuba. I mark the administration down a whole grade on this point since there should have been major movement on Cuba-the removal of a policy that is so bad I really hate to speak its name. Sin embargo, even worse are likely to be the consequences of our hesitant policy toward Hugo Chavez. Read the recent NY Times article on what Venezuela has been doing with the FARC in Colombia. Chavez may be a tinpot crackpot but he is working to undermine democracies in the region like Colombia … and of course, Venezuela … even as he continues to proclaim his democratic legitimacy. This is a place where the clown show in Trinidad is going to look worse and worse as engagement with this truly bad actor is quickly ruled out.
Africa, Grade: B
So far the administration has made the case that it wants to do more for this relationship. Now, of course, it actually has to do more. Thus far, the issues of the region have gotten precious little bandwidth and the failure to put in place someone to run U.S. A.I.D. hasn’t help. So…good message but the proof is in the pudding. (Also, the over-under on the next time we send U.S. troops to Africa is 2015. I’ll take the under. In other words: a dangerous policy mistake to watch is under-estimating the geopolitical importance of Africa going forward.)
Multilateralism, Grade: C
High marks are earned for starting to mothball the G8 in favor of the G20. Low marks for sluggish and limited trade policy, likelihood of a punt in Copenhagen, very limited results at most summits, failing NPT and no good successor in sight, and not very effective use of the UN to date. (Though that could change I do have a lot of faith in Susan Rice to change it.)
So, there you are. Ruminate. Admire. Cast aspersions. I can take it. Where I am right now Washington seems far far away and I am finding new clarity. (Or possibly suffering from oxygen deprivation.)
Middle: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Top Right, clockwise: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images, KNS/AFP/Getty Images, David Silverman/Getty Images, ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images