By Robert D. Kaplan
On the face of it, President Barack Obama's foreign policy is not at all terrible. He ended U.S. military involvement in Iraq. He is severely reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He kept U.S. involvement in Libya to a reasonable minimum, and has not gotten drawn into the infernally complex civil war in Syria. Meanwhile, his secretary of state, John Kerry, is engaged in the first serious attempt at achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in 13 years, even while Obama has kept his trigger-finger calm on Iran, thus positioning the United States for some sort of rapprochement with Tehran in the event that the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is serious about improving relations. Moreover, given the humanitarian impulses of his new national security adviser and U.N. ambassador, Obama can now more easily talk like an idealist while practicing realism: the combination that usually works in foreign affairs.
Helping Obama is the fact that the Republican Party presently offers no serious alternative. The GOP appears torn between isolationists and neoconservatives. Isolationism is simply not a viable viewpoint in an age of globalization when geopolitics requires a sustained engagement with the world. Neoconservatism, meanwhile — a combination of nationalism and extreme Wilsonianism — has a tendency to see military force as a first resort, rather than as a last resort. And it is as a last resort with which most Americans are comfortable. Republicans were politically strongest when their foreign policy emanated a unified, pragmatic internationalism. That is not the case at the moment.
So with Obama's foreign policy not at all terrible, and with the Republicans not wholly serious, why is there such dissatisfaction with the administration's approach to the world? True, the media is never satisfied and the 24/7 news cycle means any administration is now always on the defensive, no matter what it does. But that does not quite account for the realization among many serious, bipartisan people in Washington that Obama's record is — at least so far — forgettable.
There is simply not the excitement that accompanied the diplomatic forays of Henry Kissinger and Richard Holbrooke. There is not the sense of profound deftness in reaction to momentous geopolitical events that accompanied the performance of the elder Bush's administration; nor is there the dramatic sense of purpose that accompanied so much of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. Indeed, Kissinger, Holbrooke, and the secretaries of state of both Reagan and the elder Bush were often so adroit at talking to the media that they practically wrote their lead paragraphs for them. That is not the case with the Obama team.
The media shapes not only public opinion but also elite opinion. And with past administrations there was, at the very least, the media intuition that something was happening in foreign policy; the current media intuition is that despite episodic news events that must be reported on, nothing is happening.
Nothing is happening because Obama has no grand geopolitical conception. He and his top officials are not great European-style improvisers like Kissinger. They don't have a plan for America, like Holbrooke had, to be a great moral force while promoting its geopolitical interests at the same time. They don't intend to upend a utopian ideology (communism) like Reagan did. And unlike the elder Bush team, they have no design for stabilizing the world once that ideology was, in fact, upended. (After all, jihadism and terrorism are disease germs like malaria, which can be suppressed but probably not wholly eliminated. This is a different order of threat from communism.) In sum, Obama offers only a negative: I am not George W. Bush. He started wars. I will end them, and avoid future ones. I will kill individual terrorists as they crop up. That's all, thank you.
You see the problem. It is not enough to communicate what you won't do; in foreign policy you have to provide a sense of mission, however nuanced or modest that mission may be. A mission or a conception provides direction. A direction, in turn, connects your actions in each geographical area of the world. With Obama nothing seems to be tied together.
Obama has precipitated a crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the latter's offer of temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. But what are the administration's larger goals vis-a-vis Russia? Does it see Russia as a potential balancer against China? In that vein, could Russia also be a partner in easing the war in Syria? What about Russia vis-a-vis Iran; or vis-a-vis Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, where Russia is attempting to advance a zone of influence from the Baltics to the Caucasus? Because there has not appeared to be sufficient coherency in America's Russia policy in the first place, the U.S.-Russia dust-up over Snowden seems instigated by Obama toward no larger plan or purpose.
Secretary of State Kerry has started peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. When Kissinger engaged in Arab-Israeli diplomacy it was with a larger purpose in mind: to create a bridgehead for more U.S. power in the region in order to combat the Soviet Union. And Kissinger kept briefing journalists to that effect. Kerry, on the other hand, appears a loner, taking few into his confidence, even as his mission regarding a larger geopolitical strategy in the Middle East is insufficiently clear. It seems as if he is engaging in the so-called peace process only because it happens to be an opportunity that presents itself at the moment. There may be subtle shifts underway in the region, like the weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and the attendant deterioration of Egypt's relationship with Gaza — that have presented Kerry with an opportunity. But these can prove ephemeral, absent a comprehensible geopolitical strategy that, even if one exists, is a mystery beyond the administration.
Meanwhile, the first-term "pivot" to Asia undertaken by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has faded into the background, even as the strategic and diplomatic breakthrough achieved with India during George W. Bush's administration appears to have languished somewhat. Nobody is telling either the elite or the public how India, the Asia-Pacific region, Russia, the Middle East, and so forth all fit together into a vigorous policy formulation.
Without a policy conception it is harder to project power because a conception focuses your energies in a way that provides additional leverage. Moreover, in a media age especially, power is partly the power of ideas. And so without ideas you have less power. That is why a successful foreign policy is always more than the sum of its parts: with Obama, the disparate parts are all we have.
And so Obama, because he has no overriding vision, is completely dependent on events falling his way. If the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks engineered by Kerry founder, if Iran's new president proves a disappointment or a mere delayer, if there is a particularly significant terrorist attack, Obama will be remembered as a forgettable, ineffectual foreign policy president. Contrarily, look at President Woodrow Wilson: he may have failed in his vision to spread democracy, freedom and self-determination, but because he had an original conception he continues to cast a shadow on American foreign policy. Not so Obama.
The world is a tough place. To wit, complex, populous and strife-torn Islamic societies are not amenable to American grand conceptions. But in every era there must be a specific moral and geopolitical logic that governs America's approach to the world. And that logic must be built out of what Washington will do, and can do, not only built out of what it won't do.
How to employ geopolitics toward a moral strategy? That is the question that every administration has faced since America became a world power at the turn of the 20th century. The Obama administration has not adequately answered it yet.