Shadow Government

With the president on the road, two trends to watch

Two unrelated bits caught my eye in today’s morning clippings and both are worth watching in the coming months. First, a friend pointed out an interesting report tacked on to a gossipy account of President Obama’s visit to Ireland.  You have to scroll down lots of photos of awkward hair moments, but then there is ...

Two unrelated bits caught my eye in today’s morning clippings and both are worth watching in the coming months.

First, a friend pointed out an interesting report tacked on to a gossipy account of President Obama’s visit to Ireland.  You have to scroll down lots of photos of awkward hair moments, but then there is this:

"David Cameron and Barack Obama are to unveil an unprecedented joint national security drive as the U.S. leader makes his first state visit to our shores.

Government sources revealed that the White House has agreed to open up its secretive National Security Council to Downing Street, the first such arrangement in the world.

A joint U.S.-UK national security board is to be established so that senior officials on both sides can convene regularly to discuss long-term foreign policy, defence and security issues, including terrorism.

The deal is intended to signal that the transatlantic ‘special relationship’, which has been under strain over defence cuts, continuing controversy over the release of the Lockerbie bomber and President Obama’s initially cool attitude to the UK, remains unparalleled.

The bilateral group will meet every six to eight weeks – either in person or by video-conference. It will focus on ‘horizon-scanning’ for security or foreign policy issues that threaten the U.S. and UK’s safety or national interests."

This is an intriguing idea that I hope the Obama team will be able to implement. The popular view is that President Obama is so beloved by European elites that his administration must enjoy excellent working relationships at all levels. Insiders know that this is not exactly true. Obama does enjoy high approval ratings in polls, but neither he nor his administration as a whole has been very adept at the nitty-gritty personal diplomacy that can translate popularity into effective cooperation. Informal institutional arrangements that were developed in the last administration — for instance, regular consultations among the national security advisors of the NATO states or the extensive and regular President-to-Prime-Minister video conferences — have languished or been downgraded.

With this new proposal, however, the Obama administration seems poised to take a step in a more positive direction. I participated in one or two of these sorts of efforts back in the day and I came away convinced that they could be useful, but only if they happened with enough regularity and frequency to overcome the normal distractedness and inertia of the bureaucracy. Kudos to the Obama team if they are able to do this.

Second, my attention was drawn (h/t Foreign Policy Initiative) to this blogpost about an outspoken Chinese general, General Liu. Liu seems like a real throwback to the Cold War when hawkish generals berated dovish civilians. The images were more prevalent in fiction than in real life, but there were enough real-world examples to keep the picture vivid and at the center of national security policy debates. That seems to be happening in China now, and it is probably worth more attention than it is getting from our war-weary political class.

I am the last person to suggest we are paying too much enough attention to American civil-military relations, but I think it is not an exaggeration to say that what happens with Chinese civil-military relations may have more consequence for American national security than what happens with American civil-military relations.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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