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).
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Juncker’s Trinity – Honesty, Unity and Solidarity

Source: The Parliament Magazine
Source: The Parliament Magazine

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, made his first State of the Union before the European Parliament in Strasburg (read his address here). As he recalled in the early part of his address, the State of the Union is an important institutional exercise solidifying the relationship between the Commission and Parliament. In the State of the Union, the President addresses the overview of the past year, and identifies the priorities for the coming year. The title of his address is State of the Union 2015: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity. Juncker wants to take a hard look at the way the EU and Europeans behave, which has been quite disastrous these last years, and the types of solutions that could be implemented in order to solve the many crises facing the Union.

The tone of his address was quite dark and accusative. At several occasions, Juncker was very critical, and pretty much started his address by saying that “our European Union is not in a good state.” In order to change the current path, Juncker urged to re-find a common European ground and solidarity among the 28 nations.

Source: European Commission. 2015
Source: European Commission. 2015

Five key priorities were identified by President Juncker: the refugee crisis; the euro area and the Greek future; the Brexit; the instability of Ukraine; and, climate change. They can be grouped into three categories: internal/institutional, regional and global.

Internal/Institutional Priorities

The first priority for the Europe as a whole is finding solutions for the refugee crisis. Juncker spent a considerable amount of time talking about the crisis and the solutions that can be implemented. Before talking cooperation and coordination, Juncker underlined the shared historical heritage of Europeans and the fact that migrations caused by political persecutions and oppressions have occurred at many occasions on the European continent. Juncker implied that forgetting our European past, or simply selecting moments of history, is not an acceptable approach. Juncker addressed the question of numbers of asylum seekers and correctly put it in perspective saying that they simply represents 0.11% of the overall EU population of 500 millions, when they are representing 25% of the Lebanese population (read

Source: New York Times
Source: New York Times

a previous piece on the topic here).

Juncker underlined that the Commission has been advocating for more integration on immigration policies in order to create a Common European Asylum System. If Juncker reminded the positive actions implemented by the EU like Frontex, foreign aid to Syria and so forth, he said that “Where Europe has clearly under-delivered, is on common solidarity with regard to the refugees who have arrived on our territory.”

In dealing with rising numbers of refugees arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary, the Commission is pushing for the adoption by the EU meeting of ministers of September 14th of the “Commission proposals on the emergency relocation of altogether 160,000 refugees.”

The last sentences of his part on the refugee crisis was quite a powerful statement as it clearly illustrates Juncker’s vision of what Europe is and should be:

I do not want to create any illusions that the refugee crisis will be over any time soon. It will not. But pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe.

Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border. This is the Europe I want to live in.

The crisis is stark and the journey is still long. I am counting on you, in this House, and on all Member States to show European courage going forward, in line with our common values and our history.

Source: Politico. 2015
Source: Politico. 2015

 

The second priority concerns the Euro area, Greece and the European social model. The third priority consists in maintaining the unity of the Union by keeping Britain inside the EU. Juncker has always been clear on the fact that the UK ought to remain a core member of the Union.

Regional Priority – Ukraine

The fourth priority identified by Juncker deals directly with the stability of the European continent, and especially with the lingering military and political crises in Ukraine. Juncker’s view on the Ukrainian crisis is that the EU “will need more Europe and more Union in our foreign policy.” Juncker underlined that the 28 nations must show more unity in confronting Russia and demonstrating to Russia that it will have to pay a high cost in maintaining the regional instabilities in Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, Juncker did not mention Crimea and its annexation by Russia.

Global Priority – Climate Change

In December, Paris will host the COP-21 meeting, which Europeans would like to be the meeting that brought global unity and commitment to addressing climate change. “Europe’s priority,” underlined Juncker “is to adopt an ambitious, robust and binding global climate deal.” The ultimate objective for the Europeans is quite grandiose as they hope to achieve the creation of an “international regime to efficiently combat climate change.” The creation of an international regime would be a fantastic first step, but having a regime without clear powers, independent enforcement mechanisms, and a fund would be meaningless. Then, each signatory of the regime will have to ratify it back home. If Europe can offer credible influence, it is uncertain that the United States, in period of presidential campaign until November 2016, would ratify it.

Juncker’s approach, which is in fact a Commission’s approach, to addressing the problem of climate change is a market-oriented strategy based on two aspects. The first one is the EU Emissions Trading System, which consists in trading quotas of emissions, and the second one is the development of the Energy Union, which is as well focused on innovations and on the interconnection with the markets.

Despite Being Political, the State of the Union Falls Short

Jean-Claude Juncker’s address is interesting as he, early on, underlined his legitimacy as President of the Commission as he was appointed directly after the elections of the European Parliament. Certainly, the President of the Commission is not directly elected by the European citizens, but for the first time ever the different candidates for his posts were semi-campaigning. Ultimately, he claimed that he has had “the opportunity to be a more

 Photo: REUTERS Italian Member of the European Parliament Gianluca Buonanno (L) wears a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Photo: REUTERS Italian Member of the European Parliament Gianluca Buonanno (L) wears a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel

political President” and he told the Parliament that he “wanted to lead a political Commission. A very political Commission.”

The Commission is the executive body of the European Union as its role is to enforce and advance the interests of the Union. In short, the Commission is the guardian of the Treaties. Even though President Juncker appears to be frustrated about the direction of the EU, the lack of solidarity and unity among the Member States, his first State of the Union falls short for several reasons (read here a piece by Tim King of Politico arguing that Juncker lacked in persuasive explanation):

First, the address is too complex and tends to go back to the legal texts at too many occasions in order to validate and justify the power and legitimacy of the Commission. The address could have been much shorter and direct without all these legal justification. It is not certain that Juncker needed to offer some lecturing about the institutional design and functioning of the EU. In addition, this quest by Juncker for legitimacy and perpetual justification of his power is quite interesting and may underline some complex tensions at the European level.

Second, if Juncker’s plan on reforming the asylum model in Europe is well thought out, the solutions for Greece are not present at all. The part on the Greek crisis reinforces the sentiment that the EU is unable to merge the gap between a common currency and national fiscal policies and most importantly find a solution in re-launching the European economic engine.

Last but not least, if the five issues identified are right on the approach to solving them is the traditional one coming from the Commission and can be summed up by “more Europe.” This motto advanced the Commission of “more Europe” in order to solve all internal, regional and global problems is for many the cause of the disconnect between Brussels and the European nations. In his first address, Juncker failed in connecting with European citizens.

To end on a positive note, one of the most meaningful statements made by Juncker, which was lost in the length of text, appears in the conclusion. He said “While I am a strong defender of the Community method in normal times, I am not a purist in crisis times – I do not mind how we cope with a crisis, be it by intergovernmental solutions or community-led processes. As long as we find a solution and get things done in the interest of Europe’s citizens.” Such statement shows the true colors, meaning political philosophy, of Juncker and the desire to find the most appropriate solutions to solving serious crises. This should have been the core argument of his address.

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

Politico Lands in Brussels

PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AFP
PHOTO: JIM WATSON/AFP

Politico, the giant of American/D.C. politics, is now observing, dissecting, and commenting on Brussels’ political life. In less than a decade Politico, founded in 2007, has become a powerhouse in American media, covering political life in D.C. and in the US. April 20th was the grand opening of Politico Europe online and its first printed version will be sold on Thursday, April 23rd in several European capitals.

The European adventure started in September 2014 with German publisher Axel Springer creating a European edition of Politico based in Brussels. In December 2014, Politico bought the European political newspaper, European Voice, and rebranded it Politico Europe Edition. The executive body of Politico Europe is composed of Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson, the owner and publisher of European Voice, as managing director, Matthew Kaminski of the Wall Street Journal, as executive editor, and John F. Harris the Editor-in-Chief. John Harris made Politico what it is thanks to his coverage of the US Presidential campaign of 2008. Many thought that Politico would die after the presidential campaign, but it continued and today accounts for over 7 million readers per month. Politico was even compared as a ‘scoop factory‘ by The New Republic in a lengthy 2009 piece.

In the case of Europe, Politico already includes 40 journalists (with some serious names previously working for Reuters, Wall Street Journal, USA Today such as Kalina Oroschakoff, Craig Winneker, Nicholas Vinocur and Pierre Briançon in Paris), and bureaus in Berlin, London and Paris. Other bureaus in Moscow and Frankfurt (to cover the ECB) are scheduled to open later on this year.

Photo: Larry Fink for The New York Times
Photo: Larry Fink for The New York Times

One of the landmarks of Politico US is the Politico Playbook by Mike Allen. In a 2010 article, the New York Times ran a story titled, The Man the White House Wakes Up To. In this piece, Mark Leibovich argued that Mike Allen’s Playbook sent by email between 5:30 and 8:30am 7 days a week is the must read in D.C. in order to start the day. Five years later it is still the case. Particularly for Europe, Ryan Heath is now running The Brussels Playbook. Mr. Heath joined the European Commission spokespersons service in 2011 under José Manuel Barroso, former President of the Commission, and has since worked for prestigious media outlets.

In one of the first article published on Politico.eu, Harris and Kaminski, in a dialogue format, discuss the place and role for Politico in Europe. “Too much of the traditional reporting on the EU ” claims Kaminski “looks and tastes like oatmeal.” However, Politico, argues Harris, “has an institutional identity of self-confidence bordering on obnoxious” driven by the “fear of failure.” 

For having studied and monitored European politics for almost a decade, it surely seems that Politico has found a clear niche. Aside from the strong, but too specialized platforms available, like Bruxelles2, Politico covers everything remotely connected to politics. Despite Euractiv, the former European Voice and EuObserver, Politico is finally filling a void in monitoring Brussels’ political life. Beware Brussels, American media is now going to “put on a fun party for the people who live and breathe pan-European politics.” Toast with jam will work perfectly with the oatmeal.

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