By Tyler Sheets
In 2008, with the United States deeply engaged in wars in two countries and in the overarching Global War on Terror, it seemed unlikely that a U.S. president would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The nation-state that Barack Obama, Nobel Prize winner in 2009, would soon lead was characterized by unilateral activity, preemptive aggression, as well as financial irresponsibility and economic instability. The world needed encouraging leadership, and the Obama campaign captured this energy in a monosyllabic slogan: Hope.
Enthusiastic spectators both in the United States and abroad have seen several of their wishes come to fruition since the Obama campaign became the Obama administration. Most importantly to many of Obama’s core supporters, there are no longer U.S. combat operations in Iraq . There is rumor of light at the end of tunnel in Afghanistan. The president has engaged in discussions on climate change in Copenhagen and Cancun, showing that the United States will play a role in the international effort to prevent the worst effects of global warming. Overall, it appears that the United States has been a friendlier character on the international playground.
However, the peace prize winner’s administration has been notably aggressive in ways international observers did not anticipate. The hallmark of this aggression has been the continuation and expansion of drone strikes in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including the targeted killing of the U.S. born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The questionable legality of strikes like these and the high number of civilian deaths that come with them appear to more appropriately coincide with the aggressive, unilateral approach of the Bush administration, not the ostensibly pacific Obama one. Many have noted that these drone strikes have replaced detention at Guantanamo Bay as al Qaeda’s primary recruitment tool. However, since the Obama administration has failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, it is more appropriate to say that the drone strike program has merely superseded Guantanamo Bay as a recruitment tool.
Closer to home the Obama administration’s posture has been similarly aggressive since the 2008 election. To the cheers of the political right, there have been huge waves of deportations of undocumented workers. Before an executive order to stay the deportations of many younger undocumented immigrants—just in time to sway votes in the upcoming November election—the president’s administration set new highs for the number of deportations of undocumented workers. In 2011 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 396,906 individuals, an 89 % increase over the 2008 number.
In most other dimensions of the US-Latin American relationship, experts have characterized the Obama administration’s approach as benign neglect, leaving most intervention and monitoring to regional hegemons like Mexico and Brazil. Ironically, Latin American scholar Peter Smith of the University of California, San Diego used this same description to characterize the Bush administration’s posture toward the region. Even relations with Cuba, which seem to have moved toward greater interaction, have only done so through a reduction of antagonistic effort rather than an increase of positive support by Obama, who had earlier indicated opposition to including Cuba in the Organization of American States at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
Relations with the European Union, on the other hand, have improved significantly since 2008. However, much of this has been a result of the change in tone rather than substance. The massive crowd attracted to an Obama campaign speech in Berlin signified that Germany and much of Europe was ready for the 2008 election to change the world’s political scenery. Under the previous administration, governments in Europe struggled to garner domestic political support for any effort led by the United States, even efforts that foreign officials viewed as important to their national security and international prestige. The successful negotiation of New START, an arms-reduction treaty with Russia, was an important and substantive reminder of the historic and geographic importance of a friend in America. This turn towards friendship on the part of the United States could prove critical as it works to ensure its European investments are protected from the worst of the Eurozone crisis.
The most important foreign policy move—and certainly the most discussed among academics and foreign policy experts—has been the shift toward the Pacific. This is also the most likely foreign policy to change should the next election remove Barack Obama from office. The president has strengthened economic and security relations with the Republic of Korea, including the signing of a free trade agreement; has kept 2,500 Marines on rotation at a base in Northern Australia; and has promised that “we are going to make sure that we protect the capabilities that we need to maintain our presence in the Asia-Pacific.” Yet it is incorrect to say that the turn toward the Pacific was a result of the election. It is likely that John McCain or even George Bush would also have turned their attention to the Pacific. The rise of China has garnered the attention of nearly every country across the globe, regardless of the international diplomatic leanings of the world’s executives. And because the United States’ hegemonic holdings in Asia include crucial waterways in Southeast Asia that the Chinese could potentially contend with, the United States’ turn toward the Pacific has heightened this awareness. However, the causal variable is the rise of China combined with the ever-threatening weapon capabilities of North Korea, rather than Obama’s election.
Mitt Romney has singled out China as a specific area where he aims to improve current policy, specifically by taking an aggressive approach against the Chinese’s alleged currency manipulation. Joseph Nye wrote in an Al-Jazeera editorial last December, “During Obama’s first year in office…Chinese leaders seemed to misread U.S. policy as a sign of weakness.” Mitt Romney has similarly misread the Obama policy of cooperation. With few exceptions, Romney’s comments on dealings with the Chinese have traded cooperation for aggression. Such a shift in tone toward the Chinese does not benefit the United States or China, and is causing angst among U.S. allies within China’s ever-increasing reach. The Obama foreign policy has spent the past three years undoing the perception of the United States as an international bully, and has had some success in cooperative operations like contributive efforts in Libya. However this new, rehabilitated perception of the United States is fragile, and should be strengthened rather than tested over the next four years. The Pacific is a perfect area to strengthen this image.
Romney’s criticism of foreign policy regimes does not end with China. His anatagonism towards Russia’s is long-standing; he laid out his criticism of Obama’s reaction to it in a July 2010 Washington Post editorial accusing the Obama administration of making a plethora of dangerous foreign policy mistakes with New START, the same nuclear reduction effort that helped earn Obama a Nobel Peace Prize, topping the list. The editorial either shows a very poor understanding of the United States’ nuclear relationship with Russia or was intentionally misleading readers to believe the Obama administration has made the United States less safe. Romney’s alternate policy is unclear, but his tone is not. He has called Russia the United States’ “top geo-political adversary”. Though Russia remains the only nation with the ability to destroy the United States, strong nuclear deterrence keeps both nations somewhat cooperative. Romney’s comment has been derided by many foreign policy experts as both false and unnecessarily aggressive.
The challenger continued his verbal assault on Russia during a recent trip to Poland, part of a foreign policy tour on which he controversially called Jerusalem the capital of Israel and made more foreign policy gaffes in the United Kingdom than are worth listing here. In a video recorded surreptitiously at a campaign fundraiser, he claimed the Palestinians harbor no intention of achieving peace. While the Obama administration has made its own series of foreign policy gaffes, several of which the American people viewed as unnecessarily subservient to governments like China and Pakistan, it seems the actual damage will be minimal. Indeed, Obama’s deference in foreign policy has more often than not shown nuanced cultural understanding rather than naïve foreign policy. Romney’s gaffes, on the other hand, are more reminiscent of Bush-era news items, throwbacks from a time when the United States could hardly buy friends. However, if Obama’s foreign policies continue to toe the line of what is legal, leave large numbers of civilians dead, and antagonize foreign leaders, it could be that little will change this November. Aggression will likely stand.
Image by Morning Calm News