President Obama’s foreign policy has been savaged for lacking consistency and showing few if any real results, the kind that can be credited with either improving U.S. security or contributing to stability around the world. The reboot he outlined Wednesday probably won’t either.
Six years into his administration, one that has seen Syria’s Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons on civilians and Russia’s Vladimir Putin steal land from Ukraine, Obama is trying to quiet his critics and convince a weary public that there is a strategy driving his approach. And that strategy can be called multilateralism.
“We should not go it alone,” Obama said in a graduation speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “Collective action, in these circumstances, is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”
The biggest problem for the president is that this doctrine, such as it is, may do nothing to either win over the doubters or solve global problems. Why? Because it is dependent on America’s ability to convince allies and adversaries alike to take on a greater role in finding common solutions, something at which the U.S. government does not excel.
Admittedly, the challenges facing this White House would be daunting for any administration: Repel Putin in Ukraine and Eastern Europe; contain China’s aggression in the Pacific Rim; stabilize shaky Middle Eastern regimes, such as Egypt, that can help partner on counterterrorism efforts; find a solution to end the bloodshed in Syria. All while making sure Item 1 on the action list remains checking the spread of Qaida offshoots.
“Flexible multilateralism” doesn’t exactly sound like a winning bumper sticker.
Yet it is hard not to think about Putin and Assad when considering the Wednesday speech. Indeed, Obama may never recover from the one-two punch of Assad crossing the president’s “red line” and Putin’s incursion into Crimea. The multilateral approach the president said he favors has so far shown paltry results in both instances. “They show how hard it can be for world opinion to move at the same speed as the U.S.,” said Blaise Misztal, director of the Foreign Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. At the same time, he said, “there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to make muscular assertions of American power after the fact.”
And that’s what frustrates policymakers inside the security and diplomatic community, in the United States and beyond. The daunting challenges that face the United States and its allies can often serve as excuses for an overly limited, nuanced, and, frankly, confusing response.
That may help explain why Obama has seen public approval of his actions on foreign policy drop so precipitously since his 2012 reelection even though the American public is becoming decidedly anti-interventionist. “If you look around the world stage, the U.S. does look ineffectual right now,” said Misztal.
Still, this multilateral approach will be increasingly relied on not just to grapple with traditional threats but to counter terrorism as well, Obama has implied. “We need partners,” he said. As examples, he cited training security forces in Afghanistan and Yemen, working with other governments in Somalia and Mali, working with Europe in Libya, and aiding the regimes in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq to help violence in Syria from spreading outward.
Even as it might sound like tonic to a country exiting two disastrous wars, Obama’s minimalist turn may be viewed by some critics as a means by which to evade accountability should no progress be made in Ukraine, or Iran, or Syria. And it should continue to hand those who favor a more aggressive stance fodder for criticizing this administration, including potentially, Hillary Clinton, should she run for president.
As the president said himself on Wednesday, “Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”
That may be true, but “flexible multilateralism” doesn’t exactly sound like a winning bumper sticker, either.