As America Retreats, the World Goes to Hell
The Ukraine crisis has revealed the incoherence of the Obama doctrine. Until the US reasserts itself, liberal democracy is in danger
Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea has overtly challenged the familiar contours of the post-Cold War world. The inadequacies of the Obama doctrine and lack of strategic thought have brought Europe to the most dangerous point since the end of the Cold War. Critics of American power have found in Barack Obama the leader they have clamoured for since President Carter — and the results are calamitous. At the time of writing, shortly after the Russia’s overwhelming victory in the Crimean referendum, Obama is still not acting strategically. Instead his response has focused on short-term economic punishment of the Russians and the joyless task of trying to agree sanctions with both his divided European counterparts and Congress. His limited military response is even less coherent and appears to be leading to escalation with Russia, despite being too small to have any material effect on the situation. Obama met Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, four days before the referendum in Crimea, in which voters had no real choice but to join Russia. Although Ukraine announced that 80,000 Russian troops were massed on the border, Obama’s response has been extremely low key. His natural instinct has been a reversion to “leading from behind”, evidenced by the length of time it has taken for a coordinated response to emerge from the G7, his astonishing disappearance for a weekend break to Florida and his highly publicised appearance in an inappropriate, satirical interview. Obama has avoided sanctions with real financial bite, both to give diplomacy a chance and to avoid unintended blowback to the US economy. The effect is that he has yet to send a powerful message to Russia about the potential consequences of reshaping Europe’s borders. If this is not the moment for an American-led reaffirmation of European security, it is hard to imagine what would be.
Even as the West agrees a low level sanctions regime, President Putin has annexed Crimea with the agreement of its leaders and the Duma. As in the case of Iran, it is not clear what these extremely narrowly focused sanctions are meant to achieve: to ward off escalation of the conflict, result in Russian regime change or secure a return of the Crimea? Of these, only the avoidance of escalation seems likely. The sanctions certainly won’t bring security or stability to Europe, they are politically symbolic rather than targeting Russia’s economically crucial energy sector. Sanctions with bite would hurt the still fragile US and European economies. The weakness of the sanctions further highlights the deep divisions between America and the EU and between the EU member states themselves. They have been unable to agree on the targets of the sanctions and they missed the vast capital outflows of Russian assets that occurred before the referendum. Obama has let America’s relationship with Germany reach a new low, particularly in the key area of security. It also remains far from clear what outcome Obama or the EU would like to see, certainly a return to the previous status quo is not realistic. As a result the sanctions are purely punitive.
The unsuitability of the EU to the type of task at hand is clear, it is not able to agree the communality of strategic purpose that Nato maintained. As EU officials now admit, the drafting of the association agreement with Ukraine, which was the proximate trigger for the current crisis, was largely left to technocrats. It illustrates the complete lack of systematic, strategic thought about the fundamental security issues confronting Europe and Nato and the danger of American outsourcing its Nato security commitment to the EU.
Attempts to cast Russia from the international community permits behaviour hitherto unacceptable. Indeed, Russia’s response the day before the Crimean Referendum was to escalate the conflict with further military actions in East Ukraine and ominously the Nato website was subject to a serious cyber attack. The only real winner is Beijing, as Obama is forced to take his eye off South East Asia and fully engage with China’s other serious competitor, Moscow. This is the instant when the rules of 21st-century diplomacy, look set to be codified. As a result, the failure to publicly pronounce on Nato solidarity is actually more damaging than Putin’s actions themselves.
Both Putin and the rest of the world are yet to be told what the consequences of Russia’s incursions into the Crimea will be; so far the answer is “not very much”. It is hard to see what deterrent there is for further Russian territorial seizure in Ukraine. Obama has missed the opportunity to lay down commitments or affirm America’s security obligations. It remains to be seen if he can fashion a truly strategic response while caught in the maelstrom of tactical responses to the situation. Given that he has shown no predisposition to strategic thinking so far in his presidency, it seems unlikely that he will start now. America’s rivals from Tehran to Beijing will be watching with considerable satisfaction.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia is simply the latest in a series of mismanaged geopolitical disasters where President Obama has failed to articulate any goals for the use of American power. Obama’s lack of coherent strategy did not cause the crisis in Ukraine, but it certainly failed to prevent it. The result is that the strategic priorities for the rest of his term will be more complex, as Russia becomes a geopolitical spoiler.
Even before the crisis in Ukraine, 2014 had seen an inelegant flood of historical analogies with 1914, but as Ukraine witnesses America prevaricate over how to deal with Russia’s regional ambitions, the question is whether we are entering a new Cold War. Historical analogies are inevitably difficult to sustain but nonetheless Obama’s lack of strategic clarity is reminiscent of the dangerously vague “ententes” that paved the way for the First World War.
The nature of the US president’s confused worldview became clear during his last election campaign. Obama seized on the writing of Robert Kagan, one of his opponent Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisers. Kagan’s main thesis, set out in an article for the New Republic, was that ongoing arguments about America’s decline were significantly overstated and that the world had not returned to the pre-Second World War situation of roughly equal great powers. Instead, Kagan, and by extension Obama, perceived a world of “uni-multipolarity”. In other words, the US remained the sole superpower, with several secondary powers jostling beneath.
For Kagan, American power has always been a source of ambivalence for the rest of the world, even while it valued the US’s regulatory function in times of crisis. America’s decline or continued leadership had always been a matter of strategic choice for the president, regardless of outside opinion. Beyond the ivory tower, there is nothing particularly unusual about adopting Kagan’s worldview. The problem is that Obama’s political education occurred during the so-called “holiday from history”, in the early 1990s. The immediate aftermath of the Cold War was a period of tremendous optimism. American power was unambiguously preponderant and triumphant. At the time it didn’t seem to matter that President Clinton had no coherent grand strategy. There appeared to be no limits to Western democracy, which led to an unsophisticated enlargement of Nato. Obama was lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent teleology of Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the “End of History”, the seemingly inevitable march of liberal democracy. When coupled with Kagan’s view of the relative balance of power and continued American preponderance, it is understandable why Obama thought himself free of the burden of making difficult strategic choices.
The Ukraine crisis illustrates that the stability and spread of democracy, which appeared certain 20 years ago, is gradually disintegrating. It is against this backdrop that Obama has failed to make the case for America’s longstanding defence of the liberal world order.
Obama came into office with three foreign policy objectives, which fell short of the coherence of an actual strategy. First, he repeatedly tied domestic economic renewal to national security. Second, he was determined to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, he was sensitive to America’s global standing, which had reached a nadir, due to the unpopularity of those two wars. As Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes put it to the New Yorker, “If you were to boil it all down to a bumper sticker, it’s ‘Wind down these two wars, re-establish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear nonproliferation regime.”
This effectively marked an inward turn: the role of securing global order was no longer America’s burden but was to be shared with other countries, rivals and allies alike. As his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it, it would be a “multipartner” world. Hence, the Obama administration pursued a “Reset” of relations with Russia and there was talk of the US-China strategic and economic dialogue becoming a “G2”. These policies were vague and aspirational. Obama failed to appreciate that increasing American soft power wouldn’t accomplish as much as he hoped without being backed by a tangible willingness to use hard power or a clear set of objectives.
Perhaps the nearest that Obama has come to a grand strategy is the so-called “Pivot to Asia”. The effective bargain between Beijing and Washington on America’s military dominance in the region, cemented by Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao in 1972, has now given way to resurgent Chinese ambition. Despite the realities of stagnating economic growth, China’s newfound power has translated into a desire to protect its commercial shipping routes in the Yellow, East China and South China Seas. Recognising the growing importance of maritime trade routes in the region, the Obama administration initiated a shift in strategic priority. The aim was to bolster US defence commitments to allies in the region and specifically increase US naval presence. The Pentagon announced that it would focus 60 per cent of its fleet and airforce in the region, as well as starting to train marines in Australia. The Pivot now looks to have been counterproductive and a strategic error, given events in the Middle East and Europe.
The Pivot was based on a misreading of the tough rhetoric from Beijing’s leadership, born of insecurity. Contrary to US understanding, it was an attempt to harness nationalist fervour in the face of massive US military superiority as well as domestic economic and social tensions. Beijing has recently announced that it would increase its military spending by 12.2 per cent in 2014 to $131.6 billion, representing an almost unbroken string of double-digit annual increases over the past two decades. Although intelligence sources suggest this is well short of the actual Chinese military spend, ultimately this represents less than a third of the US military budget earmarked for 2015.
However, the nature of Chinese military spending suggests that the Pivot has been counterproductive and has destabilised the region. China’s navy has invested in “area deniability”, with the specific aim of hampering US naval forces in the region. The implicit logic is that the Chinese navy wants to deny the US the ability to operate throughout much of the Pacific. To follow the logic to its political conclusion, China wants to weaken US alliances with South Korea, the Philippines and Japan. Through its naval power, China essentially wishes to dictate the regional balance of power.
The risk in Asia is not of Chinese imperial plans but rather that a series of territorial disputes could spiral out of control. Most worrying is the stand-off with Japan fuelled by old enmity over the uninhabitated Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in China). Beijing declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” covering the airspace over the islands, primarily to test America’s commitment to defend the islands and try to drive the two allies apart. This remains a source of concern.
Far from providing additional security benefits, the Pivot has worsened tensions and failed to reassure regional allies. The sense in Tokyo is that Washington cannot be relied upon to support Japan and events in Ukraine will have only intensified this perception. Japan is actually one of the few places which has responded to American exhortations to increase defence spending. However, this has backfired: Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalist rhetoric has worsened relations not only with China but also South Korea, adding to the region’s combustibility.
America’s Pivot has reverberated elsewhere. A clear message has been sent to Russia and the Middle East that America’s focus has shifted. Equally China appears to have abandoned nascent cooperation with the US at the UN Security Council, backing Moscow’s involvement in Syria and reaching new agreements to purchase Iranian oil.
Obama’s inability to articulate a concrete strategy partly explains the failure to prevent the crisis in Ukraine. The attempt at a Reset of the Russo-American relationship, where America and Russia could work together, has disintegrated. Obama failed to see the world from a perspective which didn’t support the inevitable march of Western democracy, and so the “Reset” was based on the flawed supposition that the geopolitical rules of the game for Putin were the same as Obama’s. Although acting from a position of weakness and with questionable strategic logic, Putin has got the measure of Obama and Nato and knows exactly how far he can push them in order to achieve his goals. Obama has repeated this miscalculation in less than a year. He mishandled the civil war in Syria, laying down “red lines” for intervention and then failing to act on them, ultimately ceding the shape of the settlement to Putin. The result was that not only did the bloodshed continue, but Russia’s alliance with Syria and its regional ambitions were boosted.
Obama’s failure is worse in that events in Ukraine were both predictable and entirely consistent with the recent pattern of Russian coercive diplomacy. He has allowed a situation to develop in which only two real options exist-acquiescence or war. Neither is palatable. Sanctions will have little effect on Putin; the most likely outcome will be the Russian annexation of Crimea and the formation of a government in Ukraine acceptable to Moscow.
Obama’s lack of understanding of Russian security concerns is also evident in America’s worsening relationship with Nato. His policy of “leading from behind”, while criticising his European partners’ commitment to Nato funding, has signalled a weakening of the transatlantic security arrangement. Nato has been allowed to weaken while the possibility of membership has been held out to Ukraine and Georgia. They were allowed to believe that membership of Nato was a necessary stepping stone to joining the EU. It has become clear during the Ukraine crisis that Nato has been demoted in favour of the EU as the diplomatic force behind European collective security. It is unclear whether this is a deliberate shift of policy or simply a de facto recognition of Nato’s declining position. However, the Ukraine crisis has made equally clear that the technocratic EU is the wrong body for dealing with European security. It is unable to overcome the self-interest of member states in order to present a united front and coherent sanctions. The blame for not reversing Nato’s decline or the haphazard process of enlargement lies with America as the senior partner and Obama as Commander-in-Chief. Nato’s ill-thought-out enlargement, combined with the declining political will of its members, has led to an inevitable crisis with Russia, illustrated by its effective annexation of South Ossetia in 2008. Obama’s lack of appreciation of the instability of the nascent democracy in Ukraine led to a strategic miscalculation. Sevastopol’s Black Sea fleet is a key component of Russian power in its “near abroad”, as well as being its Mediterranean fleet. The idea that Putin would accept the loss of that base or Nato breaking the promises made in the 1990s of limited expansion was fanciful. It was an error to allow the possibility of Nato membership to become a de facto step towards joining the EU. It distorted Nato’s strategic shape while antagonising Russia’s military sensitivities. Obama should not have allowed the co-mingling of Nato and EU expansion, particularly leaving it to European allies who were, at best, uninterested in their collective security. The Reset missed the opportunity to engage Russia in the democratic and economic development of Ukraine, even if that had to be based on the promise of clearly delineated Nato borders.
At the time of going to press it is not clear how the crisis will be resolved. Putin was correct in calculating that Nato was weak, its members divided and lacking the will to counter his zero-sum view of territorial expansion. It seems most unlikely that the situation will be resolved in favour of Western interests. America has one guided missile destroyer and an aircraft carrier heading towards the region and has sent a small contingent of fighter jets to Poland — both pointless gestures and far too late. Even as Obama and the European allies argue over how to tackle Putin’s incursion, Obama does not appear prepared to reassert the one strength Nato has, the Article V pledge of mutual defence. The point about such a declaration is that it removes the element of miscalculation from the activities of both sides.
Obama’s relations with Russia, Nato and the EU are symptomatic of the problems caused by the president’s desire to pass regional obligations to local allies and his unwillingness to think about the prudent, limited exercise of American power. Earlier this year, he publicly disavowed the need for strategy. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now — but, rather, the right strategic partners.” The reference was to the father of modern American strategy, George Kennan, whose analysis of the Soviet Union and the US in the 1940s led to the grand strategy of “containment” of Communism. What Kennan’s idea reveals is that grand strategy allows the state to link ends, ways and means in order to plan and direct all the instruments of national power at their disposal. Obama’s hubris is to deny the importance of having any such worldview, while simultaneously trying to avoid the hard choices necessarily brought about by America’s pre-eminent position of global power.
Since his presidential campaign Obama’s use of American power has often appeared contradictory. While pandering to the Left he has also expanded the use of drones and launched a vigorous defence of the National Security Agency. This mismatch between public rhetoric and presidential action, without debate or explanation of strategic rationale, has resulted in Obama reducing conventional military commitments while increasing covert security activity.
Obama’s ambivalence about the role of American power became evident in his address to the nation about Syria in September 2013: “For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.” Close followers of American foreign policy would not be surprised by this snippet of American exceptionalism, reaffirming the belief that America is a qualitatively different kind of state to others, with a unique mission.
Nonetheless, in the same speech, Obama stepped back from America’s role as guarantor of democratic values, and at the same time plunged the country into strategic incoherence. “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act . . . That’s what makes us exceptional.” While any strategy certainly requires the strategist to pick and choose his battles carefully rather than attempting to “right every wrong”, there should be a more active guiding principle than the reductive idea of “modest effort and risk”.
Obama’s Middle Eastern policy was announced in an idealistic flurry in his 2009 Cairo speech. He pursued a desire to work with what he perceived to be moderate Islamist groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP) to bring democracy to the region and reset America’s relations with the Muslim world. At the same time, Obama has sought to manage withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, halt Iranian nuclear proliferation and pursue the Arab-Israeli peace process.
It has become hard to ascertain what Obama views as American interests in the region. In Egypt, Obama supported the Muslim Brotherhood as it deposed America’s long-term ally, Hosni Mubarak. Since the Muslim Brotherhood has in turn been deposed by a military coup, Obama is withholding military aid, turning de facto leader General Abdel Fattah Sisi towards Russian economic and military support and alienating Egyptian secularists. In Libya, Obama hesitated when rebels launched attacks against Muammar Gaddafi, then stepped in to provide support to those rebels, whose response was to murder the American ambassador in Benghazi. In Syria, he gave guns to the al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency and then withdrew from his self-imposed “red line” on the use of chemical weaponry, letting Russia step into the breach. Throughout, Obama has never made clear what American interests were at stake and how his policies supported those interests.
The focus of Obama’s Iran policy has narrowed so substantially that the only apparent goal is nuclear non-proliferation. At the point where the Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme was agreed in November 2013, Iran’s economy was close to collapse. Obama’s agreement transformed the regime’s fortunes by reopening banking channels, refreshing the war chests of Hizbollah and Hamas, in return for extracting very few concessions. Not only has President Rouhani failed to deliver domestic reform but in a comparatively short period of time Iran has recommenced its destabilising activities throughout the region. Iran has wasted no time in courting a new ally, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself deeply involved in sectarian conflict in his own country. Iraq and Iran are co-operating on oil-pricing strategy in a move targeted at Saudi Arabia and Opec stability, and in addition it appears that Iran is also flouting UN embargos by selling weaponry to the Iraqi government. Iran’s freedom has allowed it to mount conventional military operations such as its intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, opening an axis between Iran, Syria and Russia. This will have knock-on effects as America tries to disengage from Afghanistan. The northern distribution network is the only route out of Afghanistan which completely bypasses Pakistan. At the heart of the route is Russian-controlled territory, a fact Putin is sure to exploit during negotiations over Ukraine. America’s relationship with the rest of the Middle East is equally compromised. Late last year Saudi Arabia declined its long-coveted place on the UN Security Council. The message of anger and alienation was aimed squarely at Barack Obama. The cumulative effect of the Pivot to Asia and Obama’s Middle East policy was that the Saudis felt abandoned and vulnerable, a feeling exacerbated by the apparent emergence of American energy independence and the potential creation of a regional Shia superpower in Iran.
Despite all of this regional turmoil, Secretary of State John Kerry has chosen to focus on Arab-Israeli peace talks, the traditional graveyard of second-term US presidential foreign policy. Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians started in July 2013 but have made no progress. Obama is applying pressure, primarily on Israel, to agree to a framework for a new round of negotiations. Although Kerry has stated that “failure is not an option”, Obama has publicly suggested that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing. Obama’s position is difficult to explain, since both America and Israel are in reality more concerned with the future of Iran. Therefore the idea of pressurising Israel to make concessions while facilitating an emboldened Iran seems contradictory.
In the absence of a guiding strategy, Obama has let the future of America’s strategic posture be dictated by sweeping cuts to defence spending. The scale of the cuts cannot be underestimated. The army alone will return to levels not seen since the end of the Second World War. The cuts are similar to those suggested by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before 9/11, when he proposed to shrink and modernise the armed forces. Obama’s justification for the cuts is that “the tide of war is receding”, referring to the cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, his mistake is to assume that the world has returned, more or less, to the shape and apparent stability it had at the start of this century. While the size of the cuts is dictated by fiscal reality, their shape is deliberate and will see America voluntarily relinquish the ability to fight two wars simultaneously, a cornerstone of post-Cold War planning. The rationale is to create a military powerful enough to fight any single adversary but not capable of extended occupation or combat.
With the rise of tension in both Asia and Europe, losing the ability to conduct two simultaneous campaigns is a significant miscalculation. As the US National Intelligence Council made clear, “While no single country looks within striking distance of rivalling US military power by 2020, more countries will be in a position to make the US pay a heavy price for any military action they oppose.”
This is a change in the way America chooses to exercise power. The emphasis is now to be placed on burden-sharing. Events in the Ukraine and relations with Japan illustrate two extremes of problems with burden sharing: allies who either take their military posture too far or not far enough.
Obama has shaped his strategy around the world as he wishes it to be. His idealism needs recalibrating. As Georgia and Ukraine demonstrate, although Russia has lost strategic status to the US and is badly hampered by a corrupt political class and stagnating economy, it can still wage violent military conflict and punitive energy pricing when it views its vital interests as under threat. It is unknown whether Russia has fulfilled its strategic aims but what is certain is Putin is proving himself adept at tactically exploiting crises.
Events have underscored the urgent need for Obama to redefine America’s vision of the world. As the remaining superpower, America needs to reassert its role as the champion of democracy and global stability. So far, Obama has demonstrated his willingness to stay the course by managing the Ukraine crisis from the end of a phone, during a pressing Florida vacation.
US presidents tend to use their second term in office for grand foreign policy initiatives but Obama’s State of the Union address this year reaffirmed that his interests are predominantly domestic and his approach to foreign policy remains incoherent. The stakes are high and not just for America. Without a logically consistent roadmap for the use of American power, a multitude of global flashpoints will continue to force the great powers into dangerous regional confrontations with a high prospect of escalation. Furthermore, the flame of democracy, in whose defence America has invested so much blood and treasure, will be left to flicker and die.