The Obama Era of American Retrenchment?
A president’s public statements on foreign policy have a number of audiences and can serve a variety of different functions. He may be speaking to the government of a prospective adversary or that country’s people, he may be be speaking to the governments or people of our allies, and, most importantly, he will be speaking to the American people. At their best presidential statements serve to inform and reassure the American people and the people and governments of our allies while warning prospective adversaries or inviting them to greater cooperation with us. At their worst they can reassure prospective adversaries while confusing or alarming the American people and our allies. That’s what the Christian Science Monitor is cautioning President Obama about in a recent editorial:
Tough talk against an enemy is sometimes needed simply to reassure America’s allies that the US will live up to its defense promises. Those commitments include its unique role to provide nuclear deterrence, or promised retaliation, if an ally is attacked.
By his actions and his words, Obama is sending worrisome signals to Japan and South Korea that they might be left alone in a confrontation with North Korea or even perhaps China.
It’s an impression he needs to correct quickly with credible reassurance.
The editorial goes on to list some of President Obama’s recent statements and proposed policies, contrast them unfavorably with those of former President Bill Clinton, and declaim:
All these moves help explain recent steps in Japan and South Korea to prepare for an Obama era of American retrenchment.
Presidents tend to enter office interested primarily in domestic policy; this is consistent with the views of most Americans who tend to be completely disinterested in foreign policy. However, due to the nature of the job foreign policy is thrust upon most presidents willy-nilly. It’s inescapable.
President Obama entered office with an enormous amount on his plate. The domestic economy, energy policy, healthcare policy, ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tremendous tensions in many disparate regions of the globe. While blaming his predecessor’s intransigence for stalemated diplomatic efforts on a host of fronts may be politically expedient and, at least in some degree, justified it takes two to tango and, at least so far, those whom we’ve attempted to bring to the negotiating table have become increasingly demanding rather than less so.
Since the end of World War II, the foreign policy view shared by all American presidents has been that American engagement with the world and American leadership have been profoundly stabilizing and have promoted peace and prosperity for us and the rest of the world and on net I still believe that to be the case. While I would like to see Japan, South Korea, and our European allies in particular undertake greater responsibility for at the very least their own security, I also believe that a distinct “American retrenchment” would have great risks, not the least of which is that it would reduce our ability to influence events. As Shakespeare put it “Nothing will come of nothing”.
It is still early in the Obama Presidency.