With criticism of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy record mounting, it is time to assess how much criticism is valid. Certainly, President Obama and his team have made mistakes, including critical ones like the Benghazi fiasco and hollow threats aimed at Syria for its use of chemical weapons; however, the overall “cautious” approach of the Obama Administration is one that, probably, best fits the current dynamics of the International Community. In fact, this writer has often preached a parallel approach when dealing with given situations like the Arab Spring revolutions. Unfortunately, the challenges of the world are growing.
We no longer live in a world where there is a clear threat like the Soviet Union or a clear goal, i.e. the building of an International Community that fosters stability and development across the globe. In fact, we not only live in a world where global partners must constantly rebalance their interests, which we have often neglected to do so over the past few decades, we live in a world that is threatened by global instability, globalized terrorism, international crime, rogue states, and increasingly discontented world powers. Our International Community has transformed from a monopolar diplomatic mission dominated by the interests of one true superpower, i.e. the US, to a democraticizing multipolar order of democratizing nation-states increasingly seeking to assert their interests as part of a broader resovereignization process.
To make matters worse, the US and the rest of the world are coming out of the world’s worst economic contraction since the Great Depression as globalization shifts the balance of economic power and public debt is at historic highs. Meanwhile, the US military, i.e. the keystone of America’s power, was severely depleted by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Although Americans are traditionally left feeling displeased and irritated when we do not have the power to exert our will or help those in need, we must pick our battles wisely at this time as we recoup our strength and we learn the dynamics of our new world order. In other words, the US has lost its ability to demand what it wants and expect the world to deliver, so we must be smarter in order to achieve our long-term and broader interests.
The reason we are dealing with Russia and not Syria, for example, is that Russia represents a far greater threat to our broader interests, i.e. the maintenance of the International Community. The peace and stability cultivated by the International Community allows America to prosper economically while it also prevents conflicts like World War I and World War II, thus Americans do not have to risk being pulled into a major conflict or watch the world tear itself apart. Because the International Community is built on sharing the benefits of peace and stability, the powerful must do their best to protect weaker countries; otherwise, the weak countries will undermine, instead of strengthen, the International Community. In places like Libya, intervention was fairly easy; therefore, a failure to act on behalf of the West would have undermined the cohesion and legitimacy of the International Community.
Because intervention in Syria would be far more challenging, the natural tendency of nations to avoid the conflicts of others continues to overwhelm the will to intervene, thus the failure to act is more understandable and does less damage to the legitimacy of the International Community. Similarly, rogue states like North Korea and Iran have undermined the legitimacy of the International Community for years, yet these rogue states have only come close to tipping the balance in favor of military intervention. Because Russia is a major world power, the International Community cannot tolerate the blunt transgressions of Russia against Ukraine; therefore, the US had to engage the situation. Consequently, the Obama approach to foreign policy is both slow and weakly effective, yet it is a prudent path in an era of change when none of the options are good and no one truly knows what will work.