How to Lose Friends and Alienate Allies
Why America’s friends in Europe are wishing for the good old days of George W. Bush.
The Obama administration has achieved a landmark heretofore considered impossible: they are making America’s allies homesick for the administration of George W. Bush. This week, news broke that Poland’s foreign minister was caught on tape earlier this year disparaging the United States. Radek Sikorski bitterly said Warsaw’s ties to Washington were "worthless," then followed it up with some even saltier language. It’s actually a measure of America’s importance that the surreptitious recording caused a sensation, forcing Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to face a confidence vote in Parliament. The indiscretion will probably cost Sikorski his prospects for the job of EU foreign policy chief. But he’s not wrong about America. The United States has become an exasperating ally, and even countries that are inclined to support us are hedging against because of the Obama administration’s conduct. Neither our threats nor our assurances are believed. Clawing back that credibility will be an expensive undertaking.
For sure, the United States is always frustrating for other countries to deal with: our political system is contentious and difficult to navigate, often surprising allies with congressional activism on trade and sanctions. Our public prefers simple explanations and clear-cut outcomes to the often unglamorous and elusive work of diplomacy and negotiation. We are impatient, demanding, and preachy. We often make problems worse and then cut our losses, leaving others to deal with the consequences. And we’re strong enough that we can absorb such losses, whereas other countries with smaller buffers are hugely affected by our choices. British historian Arnold Toynbee best captured even friendly countries’ wariness about our involvement, saying: "America is like a large, friendly dog in a very small room: it wants so much to please you that it starts wagging its tail and knocks all the furniture over."
Nobody believes the Obama administration wants to please them, though. The president’s supreme indifference is among the foremost complaints of our friends; they no longer believe we care enough to help solve their problems. That was the heart of Sikorski’s complaint: that the United States was doing nothing about Russia’s growing threat, was in thrall to the idea of a pivot to Asia at the expense of long-time allies in Europe, and was leaving those countries that support American policies the most exposed. The John McCain campaign had a funny hit-and-run web ad at the time of candidate Obama’s Berlin speech in 2008 mocking him as a vacuous celebrity like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. That belief is now widely shared internationally: the president is a celebrity, not a statesman.
Both the policies and their implementation are to blame for the anger and disappointment. At the highest level of abstraction, the Obama administration champions soft power but shies away from promoting the values associated with America or acknowledging the universal appeal of our political creed. Thus the administration cannot explain where we stand on the Arab Spring: we are neither standing by our authoritarian allies nor supporting the creation of political cultures and institutions to foster more accountable governance. It should be clear from the president’s Cairo speech, but those fine words dropped like a stone in a lake because there were no policies stemming from it. Then, the White House made erratic and inconsistent choices when confronted with fast-moving events. People taking great risks to change their countries — people who should be America’s natural allies — feel abandoned. Worse, they feel betrayed by our indifference after the expectations President Obama excited.
So when the president says "Afghanistan is a sovereign country that is going to have to deal with its own security," countries around the world hear the limits of our interest. All the more so when the White House hinted that another mangled election in Afghanistan would be cause for America to pull its troops from the country; then, when the election was held with a minimum of violence and fraud, he used it as the reason we could draw troops down further and faster than military commanders recommended. Countries reliant on U.S. power understand that they’re being played. It is a luxury of the strong to be ignorant — but weak states can’t afford to trust us when we’re this unreliable.
President Obama fundamentally misunderstands the nature of alliance relationships. He believes that weak, poor, war-torn societies emerging from repressive governments should be judged by the same standard as we are — that they should make brave choices and expansive political compromises. But that is not the nature of frightened people in dire circumstances: they go small, not big. Their societies are characterized by a lack of social trust and institutional constraint. If we want outcomes of brave choices and expansive political compromises, we need to stand by and steady the people making these decisions. We need to strengthen them with our involvement and help build a leadership capable of making tough choices. The administration instead threatens allies with abandonment: choose fast, because we are leaving. And the Obama White House completely misses the irony of this brittle president who can’t broker congressional deals but proselytizes about inclusive government.
It is the result of not paying consistent attention — tending the garden, as former Secretary of State George Shultz described it — that the administration is lurching from crisis to crisis. The world is not newly dynamic and complicated; it has always been so. What is new is an American foreign policy that does not invest in foreign relationships to steady the many rocking boats.
Iraq is the canonical example. So committed was President Obama to ending the war in Iraq that he squandered the progress expensively bought by the surge. Having turned a blind eye when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki manipulated the 2010 parliamentary election, leapfrogged constitutional restraints, politicized the security services and turned them on Sunni Iraqis, the Obama administration is suddenly now — as the country is falling to ISIS jihadists — interested in brokering an inclusive Iraqi government. This would have been a fine approach at any time during the past 5 years. Instead, the Obama administration was silent when Maliki ordered the arrest of his Sunni vice president just after meeting with President Obama. He was silent, too, when the Sunni finance minister was arrested. And yet he wonders why reformers aren’t striding bravely forward? In Baghdad mid-week, Secretary of State John Kerry promised "intense and sustained" American involvement in Iraq. There may now be drones flying over Iraqi territory, but no one who has experience in dealing with this administration would believe Kerry’s pledge. The re-conquest of Iraq will be much costlier than the maintenance of the Iraq of 2008 would have been — especially to Iraqis, whose resentment we will be dealing with for decades.
President Obama has repeatedly suggested we shouldn’t care more about others’ security than they do. That is a smug and fundamentally misconstrued idea about societies in crisis. Of course they care more than we do about their security. But they also have fewer options and resources than we do to ensure it. They may even have different ideas than we do about how to ensure it. And yet the Obama administration condescends to tell other countries what their interests should be, while doing precious little to try and understand what they actually think their interests are or their strategies for attaining them.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice arrogantly counseled allies in public that "collective action doesn’t mean the United States puts skin in the game while others stand on the sidelines and cheer. Alliances are a two-way street, especially in hard times when alliances matter most … we expect every ally to pull its full weight." Would you trust that government to stand up for you in a crisis?
Foreigners and friends abroad are right to question our promises. They are no longer even surprised by the contradictions rife in Obama administration foreign policy — when the State Department rings forth with a statement that the mass death sentences issued by Egyptian courts are "fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance" the day after Secretary Kerry was in Cairo assuring our support to strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
Many foreigners disliked the Bush administration policies. They even disliked the Bush administration, with its brash ignorance. But they liked America, even as they worried how hardened we were becoming after 9/11. And they loved Barack Obama, because he represented a tamer America, one that worked through international institutions and brought U.S. policies into line with European norms. The damage Obama foreign policy has done to America’s image is to make countries homesick for the sharp edges of the Bush administration. That was Radek Sikorski’s point.