Daniel W. Drezner

The Biggest Foreign Policy Screw-Up of 2013

The Biggest Foreign Policy Screw-Up of 2013

At the end of last week, The New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson compiled a list of the top twelve "Geostrategic Gestures of 2013."  Now, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how "geostrategic" is different from "strategic."  This could lead me into going off on a rant about commentators attaching "geo-" or "neo-" to every f**king word in the foreign affairs argot to make it sound more sophisticated… but I’m making a New Year’s resolution to limit those kind of rants to offline conversations, so let’s move on. 

No, what struck me about Anderson’s very good list was that it missed what, in my humble opinion, was the Obama administration’s biggest screw-up of 2013.  Given their foreign policy year, this is quite a statement, but my hunch is that this event led to more collateral damage in international relations* than anything else in 2013: 

The drama started Tuesday after Portuguese authorities wouldn’t let Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane land in Lisbon for refueling while on his way back from a conference in Russia, Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra told CNN en Español.

France, Spain and Italy also wouldn’t let the plane enter their airspace, Bolivian officials said.

With no clear path home available, the flight’s crew made an emergency landing in Austria.

"We are told that there were some unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on the plane," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said.

Now, why was this such a big deal?  It was a two-fer.  First, in going after Snowden so aggressively, the administration put the lie to its claims that Snowden’s revelations weren’t that big of a deal.  Grounding another head of state’s plane is, to use the vice presidential vernancular, a big f**king deal.  Clearly the United States wanted Snowden in custody, and wanted him bad. 

Second, and more significantly, the desperate and clumsy attempt to grab Snowden dramatically altered the perception by other governments about their preferences.  It’s worth remembering that even six weeks after Snowden fled the United States, the rest of the world’s governments were feeling, at best, ambivalent about him.  As I blogged in early July: 

The one thing that all of these actors have in common with the USA is that they are… states.  And if there’s one thing that states of all regime types and ideologies have in common, it’s that they don’t like it when new types of entities try to f**k with their franchise. 

States will war with one another, spy on one another, foment revolution across borders, and what-not.  They are pretty reluctant, however to empower actors that can then use that power to try and erode the principal of the state as the ne plus ultra of governing authority.  This is why countries like Iran and Russia cooperated with the United States during crucial periods of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war on terror.  When states see a threat to the Westphalian order that’s been around for a few centuries, they will act in concert to repel it. 

So long as Snowden was embarrassing the United States and the United States alone, U.S. rivals saw no problem with egging him on.  As Snowden aligns himself more closely to Wikileaks, however, more and more countries will look askance at what he represents

When the U.S. forced Morales’ plane to make an emergency landing, however, Washington signaled that it was equally willing to f**k with the sovereignty franchise. At that point, all bets were off for countries predisposed to not helping the United States. Russia kept Snowden, Latin America kept polishing its resentment against the U.S., the rest of the world kept paying attention to Snowden’s revelations, and the United States lost significant hypocritical capabilities

There’s no way to know for certain what the counterfactual history would have been.  My hunch, though, is that there was a better than 50/50 chance that Snowden would have wound up in U.S. custody. 

Ironically, in a year when the principal critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been its passivity and reluctance to take aggressive action, it was an overly aggressive act that will leave the most long-lasting scar.

Am I missing anything?  What do you think was the biggest foreign policy screw-up?