- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Perhaps it’s just the summer doldrums or the various small setbacks that second-term presidents routinely suffer. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration’s foreign policy is running out of gas, despite the arrival of a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, and a new national security advisor.
On Egypt, U.S. policy is neither hard-nosed realist nor a principled defense of democracy. Indeed, I can’t quite figure out what the U.S. policy is except that the Egyptian generals are still going to get the customary U.S. baksheesh and the United States will do its best to nudge them into something it can plausibly defend as kinda, sorta democratic. On Syria, I’m glad the United States hasn’t gone the Full McCain (defined as a blindfolded dive into a shark-infested pool), but it would be nice if someone explained to the world what U.S. policy is. On Iran, the arrival of a new, more moderate president — something the administration was positively panting for back in 2009 — seems to have elicited the most timid of policy responses. Instead of a serious diplomatic initiative, Americans just get to hear more lectures from Prime Minister-Who-Cries-Wolf Netanyahu, who seems to think the United States owes his country another Middle East war. (And while I’m at it, when did CBS News’ Bob Schieffer forget how to ask serious questions? If he plans on retiring anytime soon, a second career hosting paid infomercials beckons).
Maybe I’m being too harsh. The transatlantic trade talks seem to have survived Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency spying in Europe, though it will be a long slog before a deal is reached. Despite the sequester, the U.S. military (especially the Special Forces) is busy partnering with foreign militaries around the world. (But am I the only person worrying that the most extensive U.S. connection to a lot of countries seems to be through their generals?). The foreign-policy bureaucracy in Washington is still busy churning out talking points for the next set of summit(s), principals’ meetings, or visits from foreign dignitaries. Of course, the vast, top-secret intelligence and counterterrorism empire created after the 9/11 attacks is continuing to burn up $billions, collect gazilla-bytes of data, and Keep Us Safe against a wildly overstated threat.
Of course, compared with the challenges that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Dilma Rousseff, Xi Jinping, Manmohan Singh, François Hollande, and David Cameron are facing these days, I’ll bet the view from the White House looks pretty good. But think back to where Obama started back in 2009. Remember that dizzying array of initiatives he launched back then? The Cairo speech, heralding "two states" for "two peoples"? Gone, baby, gone. The Prague speech on nuclear disarmament? There has been some modest progress, perhaps, but nothing you’d call a breakthrough. Climate change? Obama’s latest set of initiatives was a step in the right direction, but mostly it proved he’s still very good at making a speech. And don’t get me started about Afghanistan: I’m glad the United States is finally going to get out, but it’s with a whimper, not a bang (or a victory).
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t he always complaining that the United States is trying to do too much in international affairs? And didn’t I recently label Obama a "buck-passer" and suggest that this isn’t such a bad approach for this particular period of U.S. foreign policy? So if the United States is "running on empty" these days, why am I not rejoicing?
Here’s why. I’m certainly pleased that the United States isn’t doing foolish things like invading Syria or bombing Iran. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas where greater energy, effort, and focus are needed. What I don’t see is a clear sense of what the administration is trying to accomplish in the time it has left in office, or a well-developed strategy for reaching those goals (whatever they might be). Barack Obama’s administration had lots of good instincts from the very beginning, but it never developed a clear set of strategic priorities (i.e., what steps would bring the American people the greatest benefits in terms of security and prosperity) or a well-articulated program of initiatives designed to accomplish those ends. And surely we know by now that a really well-crafted Obama speech is not by itself a policy or a strategy; at best it can be one element of the PR campaign.
So I’d like some reporter with more access than I have to ask the president, Susan Rice, or maybe John Kerry the following question: What are the two most important foreign-policy objectives that you intend to achieve by the time you leave office in January 2017? Follow-up: How are you going to use American power and influence to ensure you succeed?