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US Foreign Policy Trials and Tribulations

Posted June. 07, 2014 07:06,   


Foreign policy is never easy. There is no science of international relations, at least not in the real world away from the tranquility of academic classrooms. In practice, foreign policy is messy and imprecise. It involves the interests and behavior of nations, most of which are very different from one another, and it involves the judgments and decisions, always imperfect, of politicians, officials and diplomats. Above all, foreign policy involves public opinion. Even in non-democratic political systems, public opinion matters. In democratic systems, such as the United States and the Republic of Korea, public opinion matters enormously. Without public support, foreign policy cannot succeed.

This is a particularly difficult time for American foreign policy and for American leadership in the world. Civil war in Syria, Russian aggression against Ukraine, the repercussions from China`s economic and political rise, and North Korea`s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons are only some of the most visible problems confronting the international community. President Obama has been under increasing harsh criticism, domestically and internationally, for a "failure to lead", indecisiveness, weakness, and a multitude of other alleged shortcomings. In some cases, criticism may be justified. However, it is important to keep the current situation in perspective.

Looking back, foreign policy during the Cold War seems relatively easy, at least when compared to the complexities of today.The Soviet Union was clearly a global adversary, and it was relatively easy to identify American interests in a bipolar world. Moreover, the dramatic flow of information in the digital age had not yet so massively complicated both the making and the execution of foreign policy. Crises arise so quickly and responses are expected almost instantaneously.

I was struck to discover recently that in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 nearly a week elapsed between the Kennedy Administration learning that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba and President Kennedy`s dramatic announcement of the Soviet move and the US response on October 22. Kennedy had several days in which to assess intelligence, examine options and shape a response before the having to deal with the Congress and public. Even more surprising was that the New York Times had learned what the Soviets were doing but, in response to a request from the White House, had held publication until the President`s speech.

In today`s world of commercial satellites and multi sourced digital media, it is likely that Google Earth, not the CIA, would have discovered the Soviet missiles in Cuba, and even if the Times were willing to hold publication, the on-line media would not. The result of course is that Kennedy would not have had the luxury of time in which to contemplate policy options.

Moreover, the Cold War period was one of relative stability. It was of course bipolar just two major players, the US and the USSR. There were sharp differences of ideology between us which focused our attention and simplified, at least for the public, our calculation of what we had to gain and what we had to lose. Above all, the consequences of failure, of the collapse of our carefully calculated co-existence, would have been catastrophic and everyone knew it.

But the Cold War is over, and despite the recent rhetorical excesses about Russia and Ukraine, it is not about to reoccur. Russia is not the Soviet Union. The world of 2014 is very different from the world of the Cold War. It is multipolar, not bipolar, and immensely more complex, especially given the powerful forces of nationalism, globalization and economic interdependence.

This is to say that foreign policy, while never easy, has perhaps never been as difficult in some ways as it is today. In this increasingly complex world, it is not always easy to see exactly where our national interests lie. And then it is challenging, very challenging, to convince the American public what we should do. These are the new realities of making and implementing foreign policy with which President Barack Obama has to grapple.

Obama is trying to steer a course between the demands for American leadership, which he and most of the rest of our foreign policy establishment support, and the current realities of the American condition and public opinion.

We are currently paying a high price for our colossally bad judgments and strategic blunders of the post 9/11 period. We made counter-terrorism the end all and be all of American foreign policy. We distorted our relations with other countries by measuring our interests in terms of areal or sometimes only an imagined threat of terrorism. Others "were either with us or against us". We invaded Iraq, spent trillions of dollars and wasted thousands of American lives and many lives of our allies there and in Afghanistan allin the name of fighting terrorism.

It is not surprising then that the United States is searching for a new model for our role in the world. The American public is exhausted by more than a decade of war. Our education system is failing, and our infrastructure is crumbling.

We face a gap between what so-called foreign policy expertsargue we should do and what the American voters are willing to support. That gap was again evident in the cool reception given to President Obama`s recent speech at West Point. The President was seeking to rebuild national consensus for American leadership in the world and and lay out a new model for American foreign policy. Time will tell whether this new approach or some version of it can attract public support. In any case, we`re likely to need more than a speech or even several speeches before we get through our current difficulties. It took us many years to recover from Vietnam. How long is it likely to take us to recover from Iraq, Afghanistan and the associated blunders of the opening decade of this century?

Written by Stephen W. Bosworth, the chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies