Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, January 19, 2013

American Grand Strategy in the Obama Era

The topic of American grand strategy has been a major focus of analysts and scholars writing on the Obama administration. During Barack Obama's first term, there was widespread concern that his foreign policy lacked a grand strategy. If you recall, critics claimed that Obama's foreign policies were aimless and incoherent, that they lacked a unifying or overarching theme that threaded together how he sees the world and where he sought to take America. Citing Team Obama's position on the Arab Spring, among other cases, the critics argued that Obama foreign policy was largely post-hoc crisis management.

Of course, Obama supporters disagreed with these criticisms. They pointed to parts of his speeches (e.g. BO's 2009 Cairo speech) and policies (drone strikes, the push to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan) as evidence of larger foreign policy themes. Some Obamaites viewed his foreign policies as quasi-conservative, an effort to reduce blood and treasure on overseas adventures; others saw them rooted in a Clintonian world of international engagement; still others looked at Obama's foreign policies as part of a deliberate move that aimed to shift effort and resources toward nation building at home.

In the end, liberals were unable to come to a consensus on what Obama's foreign policies were all about. And in the eyes of Obama critics, this failure only reinforced their concerns that Obama foreign policy was adrift.

Now, as we turn to Obama's second term, grand strategy is once again all the rage in foreign policy circles. This time, there's fear and concern--yes, among the American right in general and the neocons in particular, but also among those on the left who subscribe to what I'd call muscular liberalism--that Obama embraces what is called "retrenchment." Put simply, retrenchment refers to a set of policies that pull America away from the rest of the world, sending it in to hiding, so to speak, and off the world's stage. To their horror and dismay, these critics aver that retrenchment will cause the U.S. to abandon its overseas commitments, leave its friends and allies in the lurch, forsake its traditional values and interests, and cede the mantle of international leadership to other countries.

As evidence, they point to America's impending hasty, perhaps reckless, exit out of Afghanistan, Obama's inability to negotiate a new SOFA with Iraq, his "leading from behind" on Syria and Libya, and BO's reluctance to stand up to other great powers, like Russia and China.

But let's look at the big picture. Is Obama pulling the U.S. away from the world? In short, no, that's not the case. The problem is that critics view U.S. foreign policy solely through the use of force, that deploying military power and fighting wars are the main signposts of America's leadership and footprint in the world. But that's nonsense. Countries, including the U.S., do more than fight conflicts and wars, and there are other ways to engage with the international community.

For instance, during America's age of hegemony, among other things, the U.S. has consistently engaged in diplomacy, trade, humanitarian and peacekeeper missions; protected its allies; patrolled the seas to ensure trade is conducted safely and that oil gets to consumers; defended its values; taken the lead in creating international institutions and multilateral pacts; and served as the primary power broker and the most influential state in the world

How does this different from present-day American policy? To me, the verdict is clear: the U.S. today still does all of these things. And in some ways, Obama has expanded, not limited, America's reach around the world. Consider this: Obama has scored diplomatic victories in Myanmar and India, and now makes military moves in Pakistan with little regard for the government in Islamabad or the Pakistani army.
But even if the critics are right, that the use of force is the main gauge of American grand strategy, there's scant evidence that the U.S. is now significantly less inclined to flexing its military muscles. Under Obama, yes, there's an emphasis on "burden sharing" and collaboration in international endeavors, which sounds a bit soft, yet militarism still dominates thinking in Washington. Keep in mind the U.S. played a decisive role in the Libyan civil war. It lobs drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia on an almost daily basis. It has significantly upped its security and military presence in Asia. It's also apparent that Obama will keep troops, in some undetermined number, in Afghanistan after the so-called 2014 deadline.

At bottom, my take is that Obama's foreign policies has much more in common with "selective engagement" than retrenchment. For Obama, "select" issues and areas of the world are more important than others. Specifically, it is the great powers and emerging great powers that are the primary movers and shakers in the world. These actors have the kind of military power, economic heft, political influence, and soft power to be both major problem solvers and catastrophic forces of destruction and violence in the world. Relations with these great powers must be carefully managed.

As part of this thinking, he has reoriented American foreign policy with his so-called Pivot, which prioritizes security relations and political stability in Asia. Ostensibly, Team Obama believe that the 21st century carries the prospect that money and power and influence are headed East, particularly to China. To cope with a rising China, Obama has strengthened relationships with American allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Philippines), attempted to cultivate new regional partners (Myanmar, India), devoted more material resources to Asia, and spent a considerable amount of time and effort on bilateral and multilateral regional diplomacy (especially via Asean and its ancillary bodies and summits), and has been pro-active in Asian economic affairs, finalizing trade deals with South Korea and helping to create the Trans Pacific Partnership.  
There are also things that Obama is unlikely to undertake. He likely will not attempt to force American values and interests on foreign countries through the barrel of a gun. And we likely won't see the U.S. embarking on nation building abroad. In these two respects, Team Obama has scaled back America's military and political goals from the George W. Bush era.
Obama's grand strategy, at this point, is somewhat similar to the grand strategy supported by George H. W. Bush, who focused almost exclusively on inter-state relations, especially great power relations. That said, it remains to be seen if Obama is anywhere close as successful as Bush was during his tenure in office. After all, Bush managed to successfully reassure a defeated and broken Russia, played a role in the remarkably smooth unification of Germany, and waged a relatively-low cost war to boot Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Yes, Obama does have the killing of bin Laden as a feather in his cap; that's his one big success. But many issues and many areas of the world can still go wrong for him.  
The larger issue is whether selective engagement is the right course for the U.S. It's up for debate, and it's a valuable debate to have, for lots of reasons. Yet, to have this debate, it's essential we get right the substance of the foreign policies that Obama is pursuing. America is not withdrawing from the international community; to the contrary, it is just as engaged, active, and assertive as ever. It is my hope this post will help to begin the process of resetting the terms of the debate, one that eschews partisan polemics and attacks and is grounded in reality. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Academics and Policymaking

Sean Kay recently wrote an interesting article for the Duck of Minerva, arguing that academics can contribute to the policymaking process, especially through their ability to inform policy. As an academic with some exposure to decisionmaking processes in Indonesia, let me make several points. From my viewpoint, there are four major problems for academics who are hoping to be influential in domestic or foreign policy.

First, to put it bluntly, most academics lack access to the relevant decision-makers. While Kay did state the need for senior policy makers "to provide a climate that incentivizes policy staff time to gain fresh perspectives engaging with scholars," the real question is whether the ones that really matter, the ones who actually make decisions, will listen to them.

While a scholar might be a household name in academia, in the government, s/he is just one voice in the wilderness, especially with so much information to sift, data to analyze, and various competing interpretations swirling -- unless s/he knows someone important. At the same time, someone can be a mediocre and unimportant academic, and yet, thanks to his or her connections, they can call the president at 3 AM to offer thoughts. In essence, connection matters.

Second, as Jeffrey Stacey and Robert L. Gallucci noted, scholars need to drop the jargon of the academy and speak in the terms that policymakers understand. In short, keep it simple, stupid. Stacey is correct, that proper academic training does help immensely in dealing with policy-making, but not in the sense that he suggests, that "when the topic of democratization came up, no one else in the room knew that democracies do not fight wars with one another."

Honestly, that's a really dumb example for two simple reasons: (1) there is a voluminous literature in the IR debating whether that assertion is accurate, and more importantly (2) policymakers really don't care whether democracies fight wars with one another. What they care about is whether the nuggets that scholars bring to the table fit nicely with their goal and agenda, and that's to rise to the top of food chain.

Academic training helps give people a strategic-theoretical framework that they can employ to create a coherent "analysis" out of pile of the God-knows-what is on their desk. This analysis functions as a story, or a narrative, that's then told to relevant policymakers. This may or may not be a good thing, but in the end, analysts typically need to figure out what kind of actions they should recommend and whether those suggestions will bite them in the ass in the future. That's the best contribution graduate school can give people to prepare for a policy job, not informing us whether democracies will fight with each other.

Policy analysts read and digest articles and researches in order to improve the theoretical models inside their head, so when they are asked whether the proposed policy is good or not, they can confidently give input. However, the dirty secret is that analysts might not know what the hell is going on, because important matters frequently arise suddenly, out of the blue, such as during crises like the Arab Spring, where policymakers were all running like chickens with their heads chopped off and needed something to make sense of everything. Remember, policymaking is not Jeopardy. Trivia can help bolstering one's credibility, that he or she actually knows something, but at the same time, they have strong incentives to care about only the things that those higher in the food chain care about.

Third, and I learned it the hard way, is that academics often don't even understand the culture inside bureaucracy. This is what's going on inside bureaucracy. (Picture stolen from here)

Put simply, there are things that make sense from academics' perspective, and yet, thanks to the ingrained bureaucratic culture, it simply cannot be done, because that's how things work. For instance, I wrote a policy paper for my superior, stating that Indonesia needs to do "X." It came back with one reply, "that policy you suggested is dead on arrival because the top brass will never ever want to entertain that policy." So my paper was shot down, not because my policy recommendations weren't sound and sensible, mind you, but because they worked against every grain of the existing bureaucratic culture. It's clearly evident that analysts know what can or cannot be done only after he or she immerses themselves for quite some time within the relevant bureaucratic machinery.

Fourth and finally, if academics are really interested in influencing policy making, then they ought to make themselves either (1) a total expert on one important subject that has relevance to policy-making, e.g. military and politics in Latin America or (2) someone who knows a little bit of everything: economics, politics, psychology, sociology, public opinion, math, etc. No offense to any constructivists or feminists out there, but being an expert in a very obscure subject such as, lets say, "feminist movements in the Tibetan plateau" won't help cultivate a career in policy. It might be a very important subject in academia, but unfortunately, there's almost no relevance to real world policy making.