Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's Missing Piece

As many of you well know, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union Address last night. (Okay, it wasn't technically a "State of the Union Address", but for all intents and purposes, it acted as one.) As expected, his focus was planted solely where it should be: on repairing the sorry state of the domestic economy and attending to neglected domestic policies. But what was urgently missing from these remarks was enough attention to challenges outside of US borders, particularly a vision for the world.

To be clear: Obama's priorities seem to be in the right order. Yet the weight he gave each priority in his address to the nation was skewed too much toward domestic priorities. Put another way, prioritization is not the same as single-mindedness.   

Before going on, though, it should be stated that his domestic policy seemed well-organized, smart, and focused on the right areas. Beside the immediate stimulus plan, Obama said that he would focus his energy on three areas: energy, health care, and education. He talked about instituting a carbon cap in the US market and making clean energy technology profitable. Although he shrugged off the specifics of a health care plan, Obama rightly stressed the importance of universal health care for competitive business and the significance of preventive health care. (A note: Obama has made a clear political commitment to obtaining universal health care within a year when he said health care reform "will not wait another year." If he fails, then this could drain a good bit of political capital.) In education, Obama declared that the high high school drop rate would be reigned in and that significant college tuition credits would be given to students in exchange for volunteering. These are all positive steps to take.

And attending to all three issues is imperative for the long-term health of the US economy. But so is a global system of free trade, a halting of climate change, and stable international relations. Of course, none of the the latter concerns can be attended alone. 

Yet of Obama's 5,902 words spoken last night, 515 were in reference to foreign policy. That's 8%. In an hour-long speech, that is about 5 minutes. 

I don't want to overplay the numbers; they are relatively arbitrary by themselves. But it gives you an idea of the lack of attention given to foreign policy.

More importantly is what the remarks lacked in substance. In three sentences, Obama said that he would soon be unveiling his policies for Iraq, Af-Pak, and the general struggle against terrorism. Then he paid respect to American troops and spent a couple sentences denouncing Guantanamo and torture. 

For the moment, let's forget that he provided no specifics on the important issues above. Understandably, this was not the forum to discuss the nitty-gritty of securing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. As promised, Obama will likely roll these details out in the coming weeks.

Then the president went on to make a valiant -- but failed -- effort at presenting a grand foreign policy. He stated that the US needs the world just as the world needs America -- a true statement. Obama declared that a "new era of engagement has begun" in which the US will negotiate with friends and foes alike, using "all elements of our national power" to tackle global problems in concert with other nations. This sounds very near to Joseph Nye's concept of smart power. (Clinton invoked the term explicitly in her confirmation hearing -- see page 4.) Obama even goes on to give the approaching G20 meeting in April as an example of how the US must engage with the world.

But neither engagement nor smart power is a grand strategy. They are tools in a foreign policy toolbox. They are means to an end. But what end? 

Sure, we want a stable Afghanistan, a democratic Iraq, a stop to climate change, peace and development in Palestine, etc. Everyone can agree that they want the most pressing problems resolved. But it is not enough for any country, especially a global superpower, to leap from crisis to crisis, reacting to flashpoints as they present themselves. The US must have a vision. America must actively shape the world it wants to see five, ten, or twenty years from now. 

And on a bureaucratic level, a lack of grand strategy is destructive. If the scores of policy planners in the State Department, Defense Department, and Commerce Department are not linked by a common overarching strategy from the White House, then the administration risks disparate and conflicting policies across issues and regions. Policy planners must have general guidelines from which to work.

Far be it from me to declare the grand vision for the United States, but there are various strategies that could be pursued by the US for, let's say, the year 2025. (Conveniently, I will pose them as rhetorical questions.) Should the US still be the unquestionable, sole superpower? Should a more robust system of international law regulate state behavior and begin to shape a more powerful world government? Should a multipolar system of 4 or 5 global powers be working together to provide international security? Should all failed states be nonexistent? 

I have a thousand of them. It is easy (and quite fun for policy wonks) to come up alternative visions for the world. But this should not be an academic exercise. It is a governing necessity. 

After last night's speech, we all know what the ideal US economy would look like under the Obama Administration: buildings powered by solar panels, booming clean energy companies without the burden of employee health care, and a population dominated by a highly educated workforce.   

But based on last night's remarks, I defy you to tell me what the ideal international order would look like under the Obama Administration. You cannot. And that is the missing piece.    


  1. I don't know if I agree with your blog comments about how Obama should have spent more time outlining a foreign policy vision in his speech from the other night. While I don't want to see him get so mired in our domestic problems that he forgets about fixing the foreign policy debacle of the last 8 years, we are in the middle of the greatest recession since the 30s. Now is not the time to be articulating an American vision for international relations. Too much is in disarray here at home - a foreign policy vision can wait. I say that Obama needs to let Hilary do her job as Secretary of State and be his mouthpiece for the time being while he wades through the much of financial re-regulation here. I do agree with you, however, that a path for the bureaucrats to follow is necessary and that time will be wasted if he doesn't articulate that path soon. But this can wait at least a year.

    Also - I know that you asked the rhetorical question of whether or not America should be the only superpower, but many of your comments from earlier paragraphs seemed influenced by an idealistic sense of American superiority. (This sentence, for instance: "America must actively shape the world it wants to see five, ten, or twenty years from now.") What do you think? Maybe the statement is just an acknowledgment that for the time being America is still the only superpower so it has to be the one to shape the world? I don't think you intended to come across as a superior American, but it is interesting how growing up in this country influences how you feel about the world, right?

    It's interesting because when I was in law school, I took several classes on international law, including the general survey class on international law, international human rights, international trade and national security law (which was fascinating, let me tell you). I was a firm believer in the UN - up until they utterly FAILED to keep Bush from invading Iraq. As I get older, however, I wonder if my idealism about international relations and comity is misplaced. Technically speaking, there is no way to enforce international law. Sure we have the ICJ and the ICC, but they can't really FORCE any nation to follow their judgments. And the US has many times stated that they just wouldn't listen when the ICJ found for the other side. The UN has shown itself to be completely corrupt and ineffective. There has to be a better way to get countries to work together, to protect the weak from the overly aggressive, etc., and enforce international norms when needed. But I don't know what that way would be and I'm not sure that Obama (and by extension America) should be the country leading the way.

  2. prioritization re: I accounted for this in my post. I didn't say that foreign policy should take precedent or even be *equal* to domestic policy (it usually isn't anyway). But a president is not just the chief executive; he is the *commander-in-chief*. This is key. He was elected (and is responsible under the Constitution) to do both. Every president up to this time has been able to walk and chew gum at the same time; I have no doubt that Obama can as well.

    American superiority re: You seem to misunderstand/mischaracterize my argument here. You used a quote as evidence, but forgot to consider the immediate predecessor: " is not enough for *any country*, especially a global superpower, to leap from crisis to crisis, reacting to flashpoints as they present themselves." [My emphasis.] Every country... no... every social agent in the world (this includes organizations and individuals) should have a vision. A person ought not live life from event-to-event without an overall framework. Neither should a nation-state.
    So no. The US is not the only global power that should have a vision for the world -- whether or not it is the only superpower (that is debated). Further, since this principle normatively necessitates around 200 national visions, it is of paramount importance that states work together to try to forge *common* visions, less we have 200 competing, uncoordinated motives in international politics. (Hence, the importance of international governmental organizations [IGOs].)

    international law/organizations re: at evidenced above, there is necessity for international organizations. Unless you prefer the somewhat perpetual state of conflict and war of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (and the 20th wasn't so hot either!), then you *must* have neutral IGOs with loyalties to no one state. (Ideally, their loyalties should be to every citizen of the world equally.) Of course, the reality is more complex because states *fund* and *run* IGOs like the UN, so power politics still matter greatly. And of course, IGOs are still run by humans, so by default, they are imperfect and corruption can/does occur. (However, "completely corrupt" is an unfounded statement. Corruption is the exception in the UN and its related bodies, not the rule. And I would like to see your evidence for "complete" corruption.)
    Your last sentences got to the root of IGOs, though. What is the alternative? The US government often shows signs of corruption; should we give up on it altogether? Of course not. The key is better governance. The same applies to the international level.
    And I agree with you that international law and, especially, IGOs suffer from a deficit of enforcement. But how can you both realize the problem and then propose to move in the opposite direction of the solution. The solution is not to defund and dissemble international law or IGOs. To the contrary, more effective international governance requires better funded and more empowered international bodies.

    All of this, though, assumes that your *vision* is one of better international governance through IGOs and international law. This requires a vision in the first place. What does Obama want? The argument comes full circle...

  3. Obama did what every public speaker does, especially in time of crisis and magnified interest. He spoke to the main interest of the audience, in this case, everyday Americans worried about jobs, homes, family. Unfortunately, most everyday citizen doesn't think beyond self interest and leaves larger issues like foreign affairs to intellectuals. In my opinion, not a good idea beacause often intellectuals get caught up in their own idealistic or realistic world, and forget the daily stressors faced by Joe blow from windy city. Personally, I wish we had more Kevins than Joe Blows, but that would require massive evolution in homes, and schools that produce thinkers. Cindy

  4. Thanks, Cindy. But I'm not sure I'd want many more Kevin running around -- too many opinions! :)

    I agree that the US audience, unfortunately, often has a difficult time realizing the effects of international affairs on their daily lives.

    But I disagree with you that it is the primary job of the president to only speak to what most people in the audience know about (i.e. domestic affairs). Let's put aside that he is America's commander-in-chief and head diplomat (so it his job under law to think/talk about foreign affairs). MOre importantly, he should use his privileged position of knowledge and a bully pulpit to *explain* to the American people how international affairs affect them.

    You say that it requires a "massive evolution". I'd say it requires massive education. And it begins with our leaders.

  5. I don't agree with you on this one - I agree these issues were not addresswed; but, I truly believe given time [maybe more than a month in office] he will focus on these issues and give us a detailed policy. Even Obama, I believe, would agree with your questions and there importance. But, we must get our "house" on order if we are to lead by example and not by military might. Give him just a little more time?

  6. I understand what you are saying in that he may eventually describe his policy. But there is *one time* every year that he has the ear of every American: the State of the Union. And it is his responsibility as commander-in-chief and head diplomat to use that opportunity to educate the people on his foreign policy.

    As I said in another response on my blog, every president up to this point has been able to chew gum and walk. So can Obama. At the height of the recession in the 1980s, Reagan didn't just forget about his grand strategy of seeing capitalism prevail against communism. Obama can do both. And he must. Or else we will become a reactionary superpower, being shaped by crises around the world.