Stephen M. Walt

Time to start working on Plan B

If I were President Obama (now there’s a scary thought!), I’d ask some smart people on my foreign policy team to start thinking hard about “Plan B.” What’s Plan B? It’s the strategy that he’s going to need when it becomes clear that his initial foreign policy initiatives didn’t work. Obama’s election and speechifying has ...

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 09: U.S. President Barack Obama turns to wave goodbye after making remarks about finanacial institution regulation reform in the East Room of the White House October 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama supports the creation of Consumer Financial Protection Agency. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If I were President Obama (now there’s a scary thought!), I’d ask some smart people on my foreign policy team to start thinking hard about “Plan B.” What’s Plan B? It’s the strategy that he’s going to need when it becomes clear that his initial foreign policy initiatives didn’t work. Obama’s election and speechifying has done a lot to repair America’s image around the world — at least in the short term — in part because that image had nowhere to go but up. But as just about everyone commented when he got the Nobel Peace Prize last week, his foreign policy record to date is long on promises but short on tangible achievements. Indeed, odds are that the first term will end without his achieving any of his major foreign policy goals.

To be more specific, I’d bet that all of the following statements are true in 2012.

1. There won’t be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel will still be occupying the West Bank and controlling the Gaza Strip. More and more people are going to conclude that “two states for two peoples” is no longer possible, and that great Cairo speech will increasingly look like hollow rhetoric.

2. The United States will still have tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Victory will not be within sight.

3. Substantial U.S. personnel will remain in Iraq (relabeled as “training missions”), and the political situation will remain fragile at best. 

4. The clerical regime in Iran will still be in power, will still be enriching nuclear material, will still insist on its right to control the full nuclear fuel cycle, and will still be deeply suspicious of the United States. Iran won’t have an actual nuclear weapon by then, but it will be closer to being able to make one if it wishes.

5. There won’t be a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

6. Little progress will have been made toward reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia may complete a new strategic arms agreement by then, but both states will still have thousands of nuclear warheads in their stockpiles. None of the nine current nuclear weapons states will have disarmed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is still unratified three years from now.

Other achievements that we won’t see include the balancing of the federal budget, a major revamping of global financial architecture, reform of the U.N. Security Council, a significant increase in the size of the State Department or the foreign aid budget, or the completion of new trade round. I’m not even sure we will have closed Gitmo or ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by then.

Assuming he wins re-election, therefore, President Obama is going to be looking at a foreign policy “to do” list with remarkably few boxes checked off. And somebody ought to start thinking about this possibility now, because wise statecraft ought to anticipate the circumstances one is going to face a few years hence, instead of focusing solely on what’s in the in-box today.

So what’s Plan B? I’m still wrestling with that issue myself, but here’s a quick sketch of some of the fundamental ideas. Plan B begins by recognizing that the United States remains the most secure great power in modern history and that most of damage we have suffered recently has come from scaring ourselves into foolish foreign adventures. It means rejecting the belief — common to both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists — that virtually every global problem requires an American solution and “American leadership.” It acknowledges that social engineering in complex traditional societies is something we don’t know how to do and probably can’t learn, but it takes comfort from the fact that it is also a task that we don’t have to do. It accepts that there are a few bad guys out there that do need to be confronted, captured, and sometimes killed, but understands that the more force we use and the heavier our footprint is, the more resistance we will ultimately face. And yes, Plan B understands that sometimes bad things will happen to Americans, and there is nothing we can do to completely eliminate all foreign dangers. Get used to it.

Plan B means playing “hard to get” more often, so that other states don’t take us for granted and so that they bear a greater share of common burdens. It means exploiting balances of power and playing divide-and-conquer, instead of trying to impose a preponderance of U.S. power on every corner of the globe. It prizes the individual freedoms that are the core of American democracy — freedoms that are threatened by a steady diet of foreign wars — and it recognizes that other societies will have to find their own way toward more pluralist and participatory forms of government, and at their own pace. It seeks to maintain armed forces that are second to none but eschews squandering lives or money on peripheral wars that are neither vital nor winnable. It rejects “special relationships” with any other state, if by that one means relationships where we support other states even when they do foolish things that are not in our interest (or theirs). 

And Plan B proceeds from the belief that other states will be more likely to follow America’s lead if they look at us and like what they see. America used to dazzle the world by offering up a vision of opportunity, equality, energy and competence that was unimaginable elsewhere. The danger now is that America is increasingly seen as a land of crumbling infrastructure, mountainous debt, uninsured millions, fraying public institutions, and xenophobic media buffoons. Over the longer term, getting our house in order back home will to a lot more to shore up our global position than conducting endless foot patrols through the Afghan countryside.

Postscript: Some smart observers — such as Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic — have a more favorable view of Obama’s performance to date. They discern a trademark style in Obama’s cautious and reflective approach to most policy issues: he sets forth general goals, waits to see how others react, gauges the limits of the possible, and then decides on a course of action. There’s probably something to this view, and surely the patient examination of alternative policy options makes more sense than relying on one’s “gut instincts” and then stubbornly refusing to admit the possibility of error.

Whether one relies on calm deliberation or a president’s entrails, however, the proof of any approach to policymaking is its ability to deliver tangible results. And here the jury is still out. My concern is that Obama has yet to use American power — in either its hard and soft forms — in ways designed to shape the calculations and actions of both allies and adversaries. Where Bush erroneously believed that the United States could simply dictate to the rest of the world, thus far Obama seems unwilling to wield American power against stubborn opponents or withhold U.S. support from recalcitrant allies. His speeches are a valuable tool, but ultimately others need to know that there is resolve and purpose and tangible actions behind them. Sometimes foreign policy is like community organizing — i.e., you’re trying to herd diverse groups to work together for a common goal and your task is to overcome suspicions so that the common ground can be seized. But at other times it’s more like a gang war. And when it’s the latter, you have to take names, draw lines, and use the power at one’s disposal to get the outcomes you want.

Think about it this way: how many foreign leaders are now grateful because the United States has backed them and their prospects are improving, and how many governments are now worried because the United States is successfully using its power to undermine or thwart them and force them to rethink their positions?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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