Shadow Government

The Obama Administration’s Diplomatic Deficit

One of the persistent ironies of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is that a president who initially campaigned on restoring diplomacy has in practice proved so inadequate at diplomacy. A common theme that strings together many of this administration’s foreign-policy deficiencies are failures of diplomacy. Sometimes these failures stem from pure neglect, other times from ...

One of the persistent ironies of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is that a president who initially campaigned on restoring diplomacy has in practice proved so inadequate at diplomacy. A common theme that strings together many of this administration’s foreign-policy deficiencies are failures of diplomacy. Sometimes these failures stem from pure neglect, other times from botched relationships with prickly leaders, mistaken tactics, or severe disconnects between words and deeds. Taken in the whole, it is a poor diplomatic record. Others and I have commented before on President Barack Obama’s puzzling lack of close personal relationships with other world leaders, which contributes to this diplomatic deficit. But there is more involved than just presidential aloofness.

"Diplomacy" of course is one of those oft-invoked yet little understood words. Just what is it? For these purposes, it is the personal employment of the elements of national power in the peaceful pursuit of foreign-policy goals. "Personal" because the involvement of U.S. diplomats (including Diplomat in Chief Obama) in cultivating relationships and dialogue with foreign leaders and emissaries is essential. "Peaceful" because diplomacy is an alternative to the use of force, though the threat of force is an important part of diplomacy and sometimes necessary for diplomacy to succeed. And all "elements of national power" because behind the words used by diplomats are the resources of the nation they represent. Most visibly this is military and economic power, but it also includes institutional influence, the strength of a nation’s alliances, and especially the nation’s history. In other words, diplomacy is much more than just talk, though talk is an essential part of it.

In practice, this means that the words of diplomacy depend as much on who is saying them as what is said. When foreign leaders listen to a U.S. diplomat talk (in contrast to, say, a diplomat from Liechtenstein or Burkina Faso), they interpret those words through their perception of the military and economic power that the United States possesses and the influence that the United States wields in institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. Foreign leaders also assess American words through the filter of history, specifically of past American actions. For example: Does the United States stand by its allies? Does it deliver on its promises, and does it follow through on its threats? Does it show a consistent commitment to international engagement?

Obama’s past hollow threats and "red lines" on Syria have eroded American credibility and now regrettably make a diplomatic solution to that war all but impossible. The administration’s confused and contradictory policies on Iran have likewise emboldened Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to resist a diplomatic settlement. On Egypt, the White House has somehow pulled off the trifecta of diplomatic debacles by alienating the liberals, the Islamists, and the military (in other words, almost everyone). In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki more and more sides against U.S. interests, even while terrorism and instability begin to afflict his country again. The administration’s poisoned relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai mirrors the overall deterioration in Afghanistan. (To be sure, Maliki and Karzai are two of the most difficult characters in international politics and bear much blame themselves, but the pronounced decline in their relationships with the United States is in part a diplomatic failure by the Obama administration).

Elsewhere the picture is little better. The pathetic Edward Snowden affair revealed among other things just how little diplomatic credibility the United States has with China and Russia, as leaders in both countries spurned American pleas, threats, and supplications to send the miscreant back home. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have little affection for or fear of Obama, they decided the diplomatic cost of sheltering Snowden was easily paid. As Eliot Cohen, former advisor to George W. Bush’s administration, pungently observed of the White House’s fecklessness, "Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing [Obama] — and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in."

In the case of Russia, this week’s announcement that Obama is canceling his summit meeting with Putin is merely a minimal needful response (though I agree with Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, that better options would have been to either cancel the entire G-20 trip or make a public statement in Russia denouncing Putin’s authoritarianism). The Moscow visit-no-more itself is not a failure of diplomacy. As Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake describes, the five years of U.S.-Russia relations that preceded it were a sustained failure of diplomacy, as the once vaunted "reset" has finally become disabused of its strategic illusions and ignominious moments such as appeals for "flexibility," unilateral concessions on arms control, and an American blind eye and deaf ear to Russian regressions on human rights all now loom larger as signature moments of myopia. This excerpt from Peter Baker’s excellent New York Times article distills the grim state of affairs:

Andrei A. Piontovsky, a political analyst, said the cancellation underscored a visceral personal enmity between the two leaders. "Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness," he said.

He added that Russia sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.

"The fact is the relations were completely broken for a very long time," he said. "The main raison d’être of Putin’s policy now is to make an enemy of the United States."

These diplomatic deficiencies extend to relations with America’s allies and partner countries as well. U.S.-Saudi relations continue to deteriorate, evidenced most recently by Riyadh’s emerging collaboration with Moscow on a major arms deal. The once promising U.S.-India strategic partnership is stagnant, and prospects for improved ties with other allies in the Asia-Pacific are not promising, following the retirement this year of Kurt Campbell, one of the administration’s most capable diplomats, from the State Department. Ties between the United States and major NATO allies such as Britain and France are beset with tensions more than cooperation in multiple areas. Ironically, one of the few bilateral relationships with recent diplomatic progress is the one between the United States and Israel, thanks largely to Secretary of State John Kerry’s frenetic devotion to relaunching another round of the peace process (whether that is the best use of diplomatic capital at this juncture is another matter).

The Obama administration still has more than three years in office, which is ample time to reverse course and give diplomacy a renewed priority. But doing so will take more humility, resources, and resolve than this White House has thus far demonstrated.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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