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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Little Big Power – France’ Strategic Objectives

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In a recent intervention before the press, Jean-Yves le Drian, French Minister of Defense, laid out the revised strategic and defense goals for France for 2015. This plan was supposed to be exposed early January, but the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo changed the policy and ultimately the strategic agenda of France. In his introduction the Minister claimed that “never, in its recent history, France has known such a deep connection between the direct threats on its homeland and the ones multiplying outside of its borders.” Despite its economic difficulties, France has demonstrated this last decade its commitment to assuring the security of its territory and interests of the Nation, as well as projecting its military power in its perceived sphere of influence.

Threats and Challenges to France and Strategic Reactions

In his intervention, Jean-Yves le Drian underscored the threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram. In the case of ISIL, it menace can be felt in Syria, Iraq and Libya and in Western homelands. Territories under control of terrorist networks form an ‘arc’ circling Europe. Their presence can be felt on the European continent considering their degree of attractivity for many European citizens as illustrated by the terrorist attacks conducted in France and Denmark.

In addition to the real menace of radical islamic terrorist networks, the war in Ukraine on463833570 the European continent completes the circle around Europe. War on the European continent has fostered serious fears in most European capitals. “War in Europe,” argued le Drian, “it is what everyone of us must fear when borders are being changed and when international law is being trampled.”

In order to address the challenges and threats confronting France and its interests, France has defined its national security and defense framework in the famous Livre Blanc. In the last decade, France saw the production of two Livres Blancs, one in 2008 under President Sarkozy and recently in 2013 under President Hollande. Historically, France has produced four Livres Blancs. The first one in 1972 looked at the strategic independence of France offered by the possession of its nuclear capabilities. The second one in 1994 sought to address the radical shifting regional and global order ensuing the collapse of the Soviet Union. The third one, in 2008, incorporates the lessons learned after 2001, the new world order, and the new threats facing the Nation.

The last one, produced in 2013, incorporates the new realities facing France such as the economic crisis and the financial constraints, the Arab Spring and the rising instabilities in European neighborhoods, the rise of new powers especially in Asia and cyberthreats. In this 160-page strategic document produced soon after the election of François Hollande, French defense experts laid out three strategic lines of conduct: protection, deterrence, and intervention.

French Foreign Hyper-Activity

Historically, France has always been an independent global actor. Its global rank ensuing World War two was boosted by General de Gaulle developing a maximalist and exceptionalist dimensions to France’s foreign and defense policies. France has been for several decades a second-rank superpower with its large standing army, nuclear weapons, and active military-industrial complex. France has been a reliable US partner even though it remained independent from NATO until 2009 when it rejoined NATO’s integrated military command structure.

In order to compete with NATO, France was favorable to the creation of an independent European military force. The most serious and effective decision took place in 1998 in Saint-Malo during a bilateral agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This agreement established the European Security and Defense Policy, becoming the Common Security and Defense Policy with the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. France has been an active participant of CSDP missions, civilian and military combined, when it favored its national interests and usually when CSDP missions were deployed in its sphere of influence, Africa and the Middle East.

Since the turn of the century, France has stood against the US because of the 2003 war in Iraq and was vocal against the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration. The relations with the US changed with the arrival to power of President Obama in 2008, even though some warming up occurred in the last years of President Bush. In parallel of Obama’s arrival, the world and especially the European neighborhoods have developed new dynamics. Once elected in 2008, President Obama wanted to disengage the US from its Bushian wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and pivot to Asia. The US pivot was engaged leaving a certain power vacuum in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. During the pivot, the Arab world faced a radical and quick transition caused by the Arab Spring, which no Western leaders saw coming and knew how to handle.

To some extent, France under the presidency of M. Sarkozy took the lead and initiated a period of hyper-activity starting with the 2011 mission against Libya sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) implementing a no-fly zone over Libya. This UNSCR was pushed to the limits by Western actors, France, Britain and the US, leading to the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Since the war in Libya, France is currently fighting battles on three exterior fronts and one interior front:

  • foreign theaters: in Central African Republic (CAR) with Operation Sangaris; in the Sahel region counting Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad under Operation Barkhane; in Mali with Operation Serval; and in Iraq with Operation Chammal fighting ISIL.
  • domestic theater: France has launched Operation Sentinelle in January 2015 until a scheduled review in June counting 10,000 soldiers to protect France’s homeland – public and religious sites – against possible attacks.
Operation Barkhane - Source: France24
Operation Barkhane – Source: France24

 Reactualization of the 2015 Objectives

In his speech, Jean-Yves le Drian announced five broad orientations for 2015. These orientations are made in accordance with the Military Programming Law (la loi de programmation militaire) from 2014-2019. Due to the terrorist attacks of January 2015, the Ministry of Defense is seeking to addressing some adjustments in the Military Programming Law (MPL), which holds two dispositions: first, material provisions such finance, equipments and budgets; second, normative provisions.

The new orientations for 2015 are as follow:

  1. review of the military effectives;
  2. reforming some of the priorities established in 2013 by developing special forces, a new cyber strategy, increasing the domain of intelligence (human and material capabilities);
  3. military-industrial complex, addressing some capabilities shortfalls of the French army (in drones, helicopters, arial transportation), while increasing the sale of French military equipments, namely the Rafale;
  4. financial resources for the MPL by guaranteeing the funding to the Ministry of Defense;
  5. a new relationship between the Army and the Nation.

A Call for More Europe

During the two-day informal Defense ministers meeting in Riga in February 2015, Jean-Yves le Drian underlined the importance for EU Member States to increase their commitments and support towards European security and defense. A month later, he continued his call for more European participation to the protection of Europe. In his march intervention, he said “we are 28 Member States in the EU, but how many are we to French-Security_reutersreally participate in the resolution of crises in our neighborhood?” He claimed that the distribution of labor is not evenly distributed, even though the threats directly threaten the EU and its 28 Member States as a whole. The attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Tunis and the Russian expansionist war in Eastern Europe are a clear illustration.

The Defense Minister underlined the fact that European financial contributions to NATO (fixed at 2% of the GDP) are not met by most European members and in the case of the EU, the financial burden on common operations (under the CSDP, read here an article on the financing of CSDP missions) is not evenly distributed. “When France fight in the Sahel, Levant,” he said “she intervenes for the benefits of the security of all Europeans.”

Between the Le Drian’s comments, Juncker’s proposal for a EU army, and Solana’s call for a European Defense Union (EDU), the question of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is an important one of the many current European agendas. The global and regional realities with the ‘arc of fire’ all around the EU has caused great concerns to all EU-28. If Southern Members are more inclined to see the instabilities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as a direct threat to their homelands, Eastern Members are feeling the heat from the war led by Russia on the Eastern front, and all Member States are seeing the rise of radical islamic terrorist activities domestically. The EU and the EU-28 are confronting serious external and internal threats requiring more cooperation and ultimately deeper integration. These threats are so diverse in their origins and nature that they cannot be solved independently. They require a united front.

The June Defense Summit will be an important moment in European security and defense cooperation. The French will be vocal and will want to increase European cooperation and burden-sharing in addressing the extremely volatile neighborhoods. Other EU Member States ought to join France in seriously addressing these threats.

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