2016 State of the Union – Obama’s Foreign Policy: A Patient and Discipline strategy?

Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In his final State of Union, President Obama reflected on his past seven years in office, but most importantly tried to shape the debate on the campaign trail and for the next decades. On the question of foreign policy, President Obama raised two aspects: threats facing the country and his conception of leadership and American’s role in the world. One of his initial questions early in the address was  “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Such question has driven Obama’s foreign policy choices these last seven years and will continue to live on.

ISIL – The Non-Existential, but Omnipresent Threat

His contextual framework was very narrow and limited. President Obama skipped over most of the regions of the world in order to pinpoint terrorist networks like the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”  Since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US has evolved in a unipolar and more recently multipolar world order. In this new global order, many states have failed and are now the roots of today’s regional chaos causing civil war, mass murders, fueling mass migration, and hosting terrorist networks.

In addressing the threat represented by ISIL, President Obama underlined that the first priority is protecting American people and going after terrorist networks. American foreign policy makers, as well as European partners, have been using tough rhetoric in order to defend their actions against ISIL, such as “rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.” Such argument fits in the continuous war that the United States has been waging against terrorism since President Bush in 2001. But how constructive have these ‘tough’ rhetorics been in addressing the problem?

A Disciplined Leadership

Once again, President Obama has called for restrain in using extensive military force in fighting ISIL. He recalled the lessons learned in Vietnam and Iraq. And this brought Obama to talk about his vision of leadership and the way the US should be using its power. “There’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy” argued Obama “that uses every element of our national power.” Such statement does reflect on the way President Obama has responded to emerging and pressing crises like Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and so forth. Many experts and political leaders have compared such reflective type of leadership as a sign of weakness and

Credit: Politico.eu
Credit: Politico.eu

inaction contributing to the decline of American power and grandeur. But this reflective type of leadership ought to be merged with the Obama doctrine, which has been a foundation of his presidency.

Part of Obama’s foreign policy has been to increase cooperation with international partners especially European and some Asian powers. Obama underlined the need for the US of “rallying the world behind causes that are right.” In order to describe – and sale to a skeptical American electorate – the positives of international cooperation, President Obama listed a series of ‘successes’ like international efforts in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, the fight against Ebola, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TTP), the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and so forth (read several analyses on Iran, the TPP, Cuba, and Syria). Each issue, at the exception of the fight against Ebola, is still ongoing and requires legislative approval/support. Interestingly enough, President Obama did not mention one core international partner like the European countries, deeply involved in the fight against terrorist networks, or international organizations and so forth. Obama’s multilateralism was principally an American definition of the term, which could be summed up by his comments about the TPP. “With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do.”

Foreign Policy, or the Impossible Task

Obama’s comments on foreign policy were a long segment of his address. The section illustrated the overall tone of the address: a response to the constant attacks on the campaign trail and an assertion of the results of his strategy and policy choices. For such reason, it was a weak part. Narrowing the foreign threats at ISIL and other terrorist networks, and briefly mentioning climate change, was a disappointment. As mentioned, ISIL does not represent an existential threat to the US. The war on terrorism is seriously affecting and limiting the grand strategy of the US.

On the strategic aspects of the Obama doctrine and the successes of his foreign policy, once again it is difficult to identify any clear successes (as it is for any presidents). The Obama doctrine has permitted the US to use lethal force around the world without waging war on country, while violating core principles of international law. Merging the concept of multilateral successes and the issues from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq, to Colombia in the same sentence may be far stretched as well. Historically, this segment of the address has been used in order to comfort the democratic base, infuriate the hawks, and sadden the foreign policy experts.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

RIP Cold War – Cuba, Diplomacy and the Miamian Emotional Distress

Kerry

 

Listening on the radio John Kerry’ speech and the sounds of the trumpets and drums accompanying the rise of the American flag in Havana from Miami was an historical moment. It marks the end of the Cold War politics thanks to a sound diplomatic move by the Obama administration under a complex emotional cloud in the mind of some American policy-makers and Cuban-American citizens. Cuba and its authoritarian regime are the reminiscence of the “amber of Cold War politics” that technically ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. If the ceremony led by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, symbolizes in some regards the last days of Cold War politics, it can be perceived from Miami as some sort of treason.

The US Mission in Havana

Kerry’s visit and remarks in the Cuban capital of Havana is historical as it is the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba since 1945. The ceremony comported of Kerry’s remarks, the rise of the US flag by the three marines that brought it down for a last time in 1961, and a poem read by Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. The opening of the diplomatic relations with Cuba should not be framed as an Obama gamble, but rather as a sound diplomatic move by the Executive Branch (read here a previous analysis on the concept of diplomatic victories regarding Cuba and Iran). However, the opening of the US embassy, which officially took place on July 20th, does not mean that the embargo on Cuba has been lifted. Only Congress can decide and vote on the future of the embargo. Even if travel to Cuba has increased since January, travel restrictions for American citizens are still in place. In addition, American and Cuban diplomats are still confined to the capitals in terms of movements. They both require authorization in order to travel outside of the capitals.

So far, the leadership of the US mission in Cuba will be in the hands of long-time diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis. The Obama administration is waiting on the nomination of an Ambassador for Cuba. Such nomination will have to go through the confirmation by the Congress and will most likely translate into a deep ideological fight between the Democrats and the Republicans. In addition the nominee could become a hot-potato for both Democrats and Republicans currently seeking for the nomination of their respective parties for the 2016 presidential elections.

The Power of Diplomacy

The diplomatic opening between the US and Cuba is in many instances a textbook case of the diplomatic literature. The traditional definition of diplomacy implies that diplomacy is an act of negotiation processes between states. Diplomacy permits to inform the foreign policy making of states. Such diplomatic opening seeks to normalize US-Cuban relations by advancing American interests despite the ideological foundation of the Castro regime. Based on such assumption that Obama should not interact with the Castro regime because of the authoritarian nature of the Cuban regime, the US should in fact cancel most of its diplomatic missions and rethink some of its most important ones like the ones in Russia (a ‘managed democracy’), China (Communist regime), Pakistan (authoritarian), Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and so forth. For the US not to be diplomatically engaged with such powerful and relevant state would be a serious strategic error.

The diplomatic smoothing of the US-Cuban relations demonstrates a certain strategic rationality by the Obama administration informed by fact rather than political ideologies. “We [the United States and Cuba] are separated by just over 90 miles” said President Obama in his speech in December 2014 announcing the opening of the relations. “But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.” President Obama underlined that the opening of the relations marked a policy turn and “will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.” If the embargo’s primary goal was to contain Cuba leading to the survival of the Castro regime for over five decades, then it has succeeded. However, if the embargo was implemented in order to lead to political change and transition in the long term, then it has failed. August 14th ceremony was “a day for pushing aside old barriers” said John Kerry “and exploring new possibilities.”

The Emotional Embargo

Naturally, some American policy-makers, like two senators and presidential hopefuls, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, are all in favor of maintaining the embargo. In a speech last week at the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York City, Senator Marco Rubio argued: “President Obama has rewarded the Castro regime for its repressive tactics and persistent, patient opposition to American interests.” He went on denouncing the fact that the Obama administration has offered “legitimacy to a state sponsor of terror.” If all three are seeking for the support of the powerful Cuban leadership in Miami and South Florida, the case of Marco Rubio may be a little different as he in fact illustrates the general feeling of the Cuban-American community of absolute opposition to interact and deal with the Castro regime. In some level Kerry responded in his address to such concern by arguing that “we [the United States] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”

If most of the United States does not take heart at the opening with Cuba, for Cuban-Americans, whom are making of a powerful lobby in Washington D.C. in influencing Congress, it is a different narrative. A recent poll produced by Bendixen & Amandi illustrates such argument. 69% of Americans living outside Miami support the normalization of relations with Cuba against 41% in favor living in Miami. In addition, 60% of Americans born in the US support the end of the embargo.

Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015.p.9
Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015. p.9
image2
Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015. p.24

The Cuban file illustrates a generational gap between the elder generations – born before 1980 – and the younger ones (as well called ABC, American-Born Cubans) – born after 1980 – maintaining the status-quo. The concept of ‘emotional embargo’ is very much present in the mind of the Cuban-American community creating an emotional reaction to the policy-change of the Obama administration, which has been perceived as a betrayal from the leadership. The opening of the US embassy in Havana is principally a symbolic move because most of the work remains to be done. Obama is in fact dealing with a complex situation of working with an authoritarian regime on the one hand, and seeking to assist Cuban dissidents and civil society on the other.

A Timely Opening

The diplomatic relations with Cuba is a fascinating foreign policy case for several reasons. First, it holds a strong emotional and human dimension upheld within the mind and heart of many Cuban-American citizens. Some have accepted the situation, others are still,

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

understandingly, opposed to any relations with the Castro regime. Second, diplomatic relations are not about approval of ideologies and political regimes, they are about ‘government to government’ relations. “The establishment of normal diplomatic relations” argued John Kerry “is not something that one government does as a favor to another.” Nixon did it with China as part of the ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s and he was certainly not trying to empower Mao Zedong. Third, diplomatic opening is not an illustration of weakness but rather of character. Diplomacy was not designed to maintain relations with ‘friends’ but rather with ‘foes’ and ‘enemies.’ Opening relations with Cuba will allow both countries to turn the page of the Cold War and move on into the 21st century.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

 

Vinyl Diplomacy – A refreshing look at US Diplomacy

Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)
Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)

Diplomacy is more than high-level meetings behind closed-doors. Diplomacy is primarily the art of building relationship between humans. However, it seems that this core component has been lost leading to a decline of Diplomacy in its role, perceptions and successes, at least since the end of the Cold War. Even though American diplomacy seems to have failed on many levels, as demonstrated in this piece, there are still some glimpses of successful use of diplomatic instruments, like music, in order to deepen ties between nations and individuals. The rise of ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in an over militarized diplomacy can speak volumes about American soft power.

The Militarization of Diplomacy and its Demise

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the American hegemony, diplomacy has been confused between foreign policy and defense policy. How many times since 9/11 has the Secretary of Defense taken the lead on issues that should be first undertaken and/or overtaken by diplomats? In the US, the Department of Defense, in charged of military affairs and the use of force, tend to have too much power over the decision-making processes in diplomatic affairs and the solution implemented. Diplomacy should always be first, followed by military power, in the last resort.

The most obvious case was the race to the Iraq war in 2002-03 when diplomacy was sidelined, and even diminished/discredited, by the Bush administration in order to use the ‘almighty’ american power against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Diplomacy, at least the American and British, was irrelevant and to some degree useless. The Anglo-American couple undermined the primacy of international law, diplomacy and international organizations like the United Nations. One of the most memorable moments on the road to Iraq was the speech made by Colin Powell, at the time US Secretary of State, before the

Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA
Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA

United Nations Security Council demonstrating that Iraq had in its possession weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The fact that Powell was a four-star general leading the American diplomatic service demonstrated the militarization of American diplomacy. In the last decade, the US has not conducted proper diplomacy where it should have been; military power has been now framed as part of diplomacy. Well it should be the other way around: first, diplomacy (but credible policies with a ‘real’ support at home) and then the threat of military power in order to provide the stick. In the post-9/11 world, diplomacy is now perceived as a sign of weakness from the highest-elected officials and large segment of population.

One of the most interesting case is the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The current negotiations are complex, difficult, and lengthy. Diplomacy is and should be all of the above. The fact that the legislature, and especially the Republican party, continuously threaten to deepen sanctions against Iran and even use force affect the credibility of the American diplomatic machine. This raises important questions: Can diplomacy bring everything wished for the two negotiating parties? No and it has never been the case. Now, is the use of force against Iran a credible scenario? No. Americans are not ready to start a war requiring at least 100,000 soldiers on the ground with an endless war in sight. Americans have grown war-weary since the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the fascinating components behind the lack of trust in diplomacy and negotiation lays in the polarization of domestic debates. How can a country show unity and trust in its diplomatic body when domestically the different political forces are unable to communicate, interact, negotiate, and compromise? Once again the failure of American diplomacy is not caused by the complexity of the current global issues and/or the inability by American diplomats to do their jobs, but in fact by the degree of incoherence and cacophony in domestic political debates.

Vinyl diplomacy

Photograph: State Department
Photograph: State Department

So how can American diplomacy address these problems? What elements could be integrated in order to do diplomacy? In a recent interview for PRI’s the World, Matthew Barzun, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom has been working on his ‘vinyl diplomacy’ (listen to the interview here). In this enlightening and refreshing interview, Matthew Barzun talks about his love for music and how the US embassy has become a concert hall featuring bands like the National and Belle and Sebastian with spectators counting Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse among others. As he argues in this interview, “Diplomacy at its fundamental level is about connecting with people. And it’s not just elected or official government-to-government relationships. … We actually do get the government leaders but in a different context. all together in one place, united by a love of music and the particular band we’re featuring that night.”

The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ is a wonderful initiative with most likely real success in building human relations outside of closed-meetings. It is a trademark of the diplomat in charged and demonstrate one of the many ways to strengthen ties between countries. Certainly, doing ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in the UK could seem routine in between two close-partners and among anglo-saxon countries. The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ falls directly under the broad umbrella of American soft power. Would any other world ambassadors initiate such type of diplomacy?

Last but not least, Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, asked Matthew Barzun about one of his favorite songs. It was difficult to resist and underline a common pleasure for Iron & Wine’s ‘The Trapeze Swinger.’ Let’s finish with one of America’s best dimension of soft power, music.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Discussion on the shift in Cuba-US Relations

Credits: AP Images
Credits: AP Images

The day of the announcement by President Obama of a new course in relations between the United States and Cuba, La Voix de l’Amérique wanted to discuss about this historical moment for the United States. As declared by Obama, the embargo has been in effect for over five decades with debatable success. Obama announced that “we [the US] will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.” The technicalities behind the shift in US policy was possible with the assistance/help of the Pope and the Canadian government. However other reasons may have contributed to this new course.

EU-Cuba relations, a factor in the shift of US policy?

The US has in recent years been in a difficult position considering the recent opening of relationship between Western countries and Cuba. For instance, the European Union renewed its relationship in 2008 with Cuba. The EU-Cuba relations are taking place through bilateral and regional basis. As described on the EEAS website, the EU is a considerable partner for Cuba, as the EU figures:

  • the second most important trading partner with Cuba, accounting 20% of total Cuban trade,
  • the second biggest source of Cuban imports with 20%,
  • the third most important destination for Cuban exports (21%)
  • Cuba’s biggest external investor
  • 1/3 of all tourists on yearly basis come from the EU

Additionally, in April 2014, the EU opened a new round of negotiations with La Havana in order to launch a bilateral agreement on Political Dialogue and Cooperation. “The EU intends to accompany Cuba in the ongoing process of change and modernization by providing a stronger framework for political dialogue and improved cooperation.” Experts argued earlier in 2014, this EU policy could certainly affect Cuban policies, but as well US policies towards La Havana. They ended up being correct. For these reasons, the US cannot fall behind in term of influence in its neighborhood. Obama understands the geopolitical realities and the need for the US to solidify its ties with the island.

Nicolas Pinault of La Voix de l’Amérique asked several questions concerning the reasons behind the shift in US policies, the likelihood of the new Congress to approve Obama’s renewed Cuban policies, and the feeling of Cuban-American in Florida about the different strategies of US policies towards Cuba in either maintaining the status-quo or opening the relations with Cuba (Listen to the interview, in French, here).

Dimensions of the new US policy towards Cuba

As announced by Obama, the US-Cuba relations are going to change. However, the embargo will remain active as Congress will have to decide about its future. “The embargo” said Obama “that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation.  As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

The changes in US-Cuba relationship are several:

  • reestablishment of diplomatic relations in the very near future, with the re-opening of a US embassy in Cuba
  • a review in the identification of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The types of terrorism in the mind of US policy makers have changed since the 1990s. Once terrorists had strong affiliation with communist regimes – remember Carlos, Red Army Factions -, while today they are linked with international networks of radical islamist groups and some middle eastern regimes.
  • opening the doors for increasing travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba (such dimension certainly remove most of the teeth of the US embargo towards Cuba).

The 114th US Congress is scheduled to start its legislative functions on January 6th. The Republican Party has already expressed its opinion on the new US policy, now it will be interesting to see how the legislature will handle the issue by either maintaining the embargo and ultimately the status-quo, or answering Obama’s call.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).