Rothkopf’s rose-colored glasses

Rothkopf’s rose-colored glasses

Over at his blog, David Rothkopf makes the case that the Obama administration is engineering a "sweeping" change in American foreign policy. He’s made this case before. Not only is the administration shifting focus from the Middle East to Asia, Rothkopf argues, it is putting economics back at the center of U.S. policy. And there’s more! The Obama administration has rebuilt alliances, restored America’s image, and recommitted itself to a rules-based, multilateral foreign policy:

We are not only winding down our wars in the Middle East and shifting our focus to Asia, not just moving away from massive conventional ground wars against terrorist but mastering more surgical drone, intelligence and special forces-driven tactics, not just closing the book on exceptionalist, unilateralist policies and moving to toward multilateralist, rules-based approaches, not just setting aside reckless defense spending and moving toward living within our means, not just ditching the binary "you’re with us or you’re against us" rhetoric for policies open to more complex realities (as with China, our rival and key partner), but we have also made a pronounced move toward recognizing that the foundations of U.S. national security are also economic and so too are some of our most potent tools. 

There are bits of truth to what Rothkopf says, of course, but there’s an awful lot of puffery–and some outright contradiction. Take for example the juxtaposed claims that Obama has abandoned  a unilateralist and exceptionalist policy and "mastered more surgical drone, intelligence and special forces-driven tactics." There’s a problem here. The vaunted shift toward a targeted killing policy in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere is not being done multilaterally. Quite the contrary. The Obama administration has had little time for the complaints of UN human rights officials, for example, about its targeted killing program. It does not seek Security Council approval for cross-border strikes, including the one that killed Osama bin Laden, even though international law arguably requires that. Very much like previous administrations, the Obama administration talks up multilateral instruments when convenient and mostly ignores them when they’re inconvenient.  

What’s more, the U.S. policy shift on terrorism in fact evinces a belief in American technological exceptionalism, not a rejection of it. The United States would not accept the claim of most other countries to a doctrine of self-defense as broad as the one upon which it relies. The Obama administration is–quite cleverly–exploiting the existing technology gap; once drone strike capabilities become more widely available, the U.S. will likely push for more restrictive norms.

None of this means that the U.S. counterterrorism policy is not effective and politically savvy; in many ways it is. But to simultaneously laud the administration for crafting a stealthy new type of warfare and for embracing international rules is really too much.

Rothkopf’s logical leap reflects broader flaws in the glib claims that the Obama administration is much more multilateral than its predecessor. It’s essential to distinguish between the first and second Bush administrations. They were dramatically different when it came to the role of key multilateral institutions. The first Bush administration bypassed the UN on Iraq and all but declared the organization defunct. The second Bush administration returned to the fold, rejoined UNESCO, and helped engineer a dramatic increase in UN peacekeeping operations. The first Bush administration engaged in a proxy war with the International Criminal Court around the globe; the second acquiesced to the court’s investigation in Sudan and even offered intelligence support to the court.  

What’s more, talk of multilateralism and unilateralism in foreign policy is often weirdly circumscribed. Bypassing the UN to invade Iraq was unilateralism. But what about neglecting the Doha round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization or going AWOL when it comes to boosting the International Monetary Fund’s lending power in the face of a potentially catastrophic European debt crisis?

The Obama administration has engineered some notable achievements in the multilateral realm. Its work at the UN Human Rights Council, for example, has been very productive. (Unsurprisingly, it’s been mostly ignored by conservative critics of that body.) Perhaps most important, the administration is far superior at the atmospherics of multilateralism, which are important. Its unilateralism is less obvious and, in some ways, less jarring to the rest of the world. But the return of America’s approval levels to fairly normal levels in many parts of the world indicates that plenty of people realize something Rothkopf doesn’t: things haven’t changed nearly as much as the rhetoric would suggest.