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American Foreign Policy Through Past and Future Elections--Adjusting the Sails

American Foreign Policy Through Past and Future Elections--Adjusting the Sails

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Published by Christine Leonard

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Published by: Christine Leonard on Sep 10, 2012
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American Foreign Policy Through Past and Future Elections: Adjusting the Sails
In February 2011, I listened to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tell my classmates at WestPoint and me
, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big
American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head
examined.” It was then that I realized that the world I signed up to fight in would be drastic
allydifferent from the one I will enter upon graduation.U.S. foreign policy has shifted since the Obama administration took office in 2009. It willdoubtless continue to change after the 2012 election, regardless of whom Americans elect;the strategies of both candidates resemble each other far more than they would care to admit.But geopolitical demands will outweigh any differences in personal philosophies anyway.The primary force driving the changes that have occurred is a need to find new ways toexercise U.S. power abroad now that Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the impracticality of 
conventional action against today’s threats. Furthermore, a weakened economy and
increasing multipolarity have forced the United States to adapt.The most striking chan
ge since Obama’s election has occurred in U.S. counterterrorism
practices. The need for robust counterterrorism action has not diminished -- if anything, it hasgrown, with increased al Qaeda presence in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere inAfrica -- but the way counterterrorism is carried out, and the primary way the world feels thesting of the American military machine, have transformed. U.S. wariness to commit largeground forces after the extended occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq has increased focus on
the United States’ domestic problems. Meanwhile
, technological innovation and a blurring of the roles of the military and intelligence agencies have ushered in the era of the drone strikeand other covert action. At the same time, conventional forces are being drawn back. InYemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the United States has shown a remarkable propensity to
violate other countries’ sovereignty in pursuit of its own national security interests. One
example was the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.The Obama administration, faced with the delicate challenge of maintaining U.S. power andcredibility abroad while constrained by growing isolationist sentiment at home (due to adecade of war and economic quandaries), has adopted a strategy of counterpunching. In thisstrategy, the United States asserts its power decisively in the face of challenges abroad. Thebest example is how the United States has dealt with an increasingly aggressive China. TheUnited States has given military aid to many other East Asian states, built new Americanmilitary bases in the East Pacific, and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an extensive
 
diplomatic tour of China’s
neighboring countries. The efforts have reassured U.S. allies thatthe country will not simply shy away from conflict in a time of domestic economic difficulties,and that, although the United States is wary of direct commitment of forces, the exercise of U.S. power in balancing rising threats has not receded.A major initiative of the State Department has been to re-engage diplomatically with formerrivals. Recall the attempt to reset relations with Russia, and efforts to negotiate overeconomic interests with China. The United States has, however, largely failed in theseinitiatives. Russian-American relations have not improved; if anything, they have grownworse following Russia
’s
double-dealing during the ongoing uprising in Syria, along with itsreluctance to hem in Iran. China has been just as difficult, spurning economic agreements andremaining skeptical about American motives.More successful than those attempts to rekindle relations with rivals have been attempts topreserve the strength of international institutions through multipolar action -- the antipiracyforce in the Gulf of Aden, NATO action in Libya, and nonproliferation efforts. Allowing theFrench to take the lead on Libya signaled that the Obama administration believes in theviability of NATO in the post-Soviet era, and that it is willing to do what it takes to ensure thatit persists.Given these shifts over the past four years, it would be imprudent to claim that nothing willchange after the coming elections, regardless of who wins the presidency. For one, in the nextfour years it is almost inevitable that Iran will produce working nuclear weapons. Whether itchooses to do so is largely a measure of what role the Iranians see themselves playing in thefuture -- and how much appetite they have for Israeli bombs and American missiles.An armed Iran will certainly provoke a response from Israel and the United States. There are
merits to Kenneth Waltz’s argument in
Foreign Affairs
that a nuclear Iran would balance anuclear Israel and bring about more stability in the Middle East. And the Iranian regime hasnot proved itself to be irrational and bent on destroying Israel at all costs. However, Israel anda considerable part of the American public disagree with that view, and leaders from bothcountries have made clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The United States could notavoid looking like it is backing down and thereby lose credibility if it fails to follow throughwith its threats.However, the United States has no stomach for a conventional occupation, and a protractedair campaign against Iran would serve to punish the state without permanently destroying itsnuclear program. Furthermore, it would almost certainly serve to polarize against the West
 
even those Iranians opposed to the current administration. The best option would be for Iranto develop the nuclear capabilities but not the weapons, with American and Israeli leadershipstriking secret deals with the Iranians. Such deals would be entirely dependent on thewillingness of Iranian leadership to negotiate; keeping the negotiations secret would makethis option more palatable for hard-liners on both sides.Second, in the next four years, re-engagement with former rivals will get harder. Tensionsbetween the United States, China, and Russia have already become more apparent. TheSouth China Sea disagreements will not dissipate soon, and may even create an internationalcrisis if China seizes any Indonesian or Vietnamese vessels. Syria is growing more volatile,and unless Russia withdraws its support, relations between Russia and other Western powerswill only continue to sour. Finally, if Russia and China take positions on Iran counter to thatof the United States, tensions will undoubtedly rise higher than they have in the past decade.U.S. pr
essure on China’s human rights abuses will serve to heat things up further. Re
-engagement with former rivals may remain the American strategy, but given looming crisesand the great-power rivalries inevitably stoked by these crises, American relations with Chinaand Russia will likely get worse before they get better, and U.S. foreign policy will slowly turnaway from re-engagement.Third, multilateral action will become more important. Two forces will shape the nature of American multilateral action in the next four years. The first is the growing strength of a
number of the world’s medium powers, in particular
, Brazil, India, and Turkey. United Statesaction will need to be conducted with more attention to working with allies than in the past.The second is a growing distaste for global institutions in the face of new global realities.NATO, lacking any singular threat to act as a keystone, could crumble as the interests of member states diverge. Furthermore, the financial crisis and strife within the eurozone havemade similar cooperation an unpalatable course for most states.Multilateral action will thus become the norm in American operational ventures. Theintervention in Libya might be a blueprint for one in Syria, and perhaps even in Iran.However, from an economic perspective, states are likely to retreat from agreements thathave the potential to ensnare their financial systems in too perilous an arrangement. TheUnited States will need to learn to navigate these diverging trends if it is to retain its globalprimacy.Like a former champion learning how to fight more capable opponents, the United States isbecoming more judicious with its punches. However, although American action abroad willmanifest its
elf in a different way than in the past decade, I’m still willing to bet that foreign

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