Barak Obama's vision of US foreign policy

Posted in United States | 13-Aug-07 | Author: Franco Apicella

Franco Apicella is member of the WSN International Advisory Board.

US democratic presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama’s speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday August 1st has been the subject of widespread comment from both the media and the politicians. Referring to al Qaeda’s activities in Pakistan, Obama stated: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf will not act, we will". He described Iraq as "the wrong battlefield". What emerged was a hawkish attitude towards Pakistan, which runs counter to promises of disengagement in Iraq. Criticism came not only from the USA: Pakistani politicians spoke out against a possible violation of their national sovereignty and the exploitation of their country for US electoral purposes.

It may simply be an election campaign stunt – many would say a clumsy one; but Obama’s stated intentions are nothing new. The democratic candidate already set out his foreign policy programme in considerable detail in an article published in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “Renewing American Leadership”. Viewed in the light of that programme the hypothesis of a carefully aimed preemptive strike in Pakistan does not appear at all far-fetched.

In his article Obama criticises the Bush administration for responding “to the unconventional attacks of 9/11 with conventional thinking of the past, largely viewing problems as state-based and principally amenable to military solutions”. Such criticism seems to show a cautious attitude or a lack of confidence in military solutions, but maybe only in those adopted by the Bush administration. For his part, Obama overcomes this attitude at other points in his programme where he devotes particular attention to the military.

“We should expand our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 marines”, he writes. This represents a considerable increase in “boots on the ground”, in marked contrast to the hyper-technological net-centred vision enshrined in the Rumsfeld doctrine, which has in any case now been overtaken by reality. It is certainly a positive sign for the Pentagon, a worrying one for the defence industry and a disappoinment for the pacifist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. The availability of a sizeable military remains a fundamental element in Obama’s foreign policy: “To renew American leadership in the world, we must immediately begin working to revitalize our military. A strong military is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace”. An updated version of the old adage “si vis pacem para bellum”.

Lest there be any doubt as to actual employment of this strong military, another statement makes it perfectly clear: “I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened”. What Obama said on August 1st about Pakistan is just one specific example of this policy. In the Foreign Affairs article he had already made a similar statement with regard to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran: “In confronting these threats, I will not take the military option off the table”. In another passage, referring just to Iran, he used a more cautious formula, reversing the terms of the problem but not altering the meaning: “Although we must not rule out using military force, we should not hesitate to talk directly to Iran”.

For Obama, the spread of weapons of mass destruction is “the most urgent threat to the security of America and the world”. He devotes a whole paragraph to this issue, voicing his concern about - inter alia – the large number of nuclear warheads (15-16 thousand) still present on former Soviet Union territory and the amount of uranium and plutonium still in storage, sufficient to manufacture 40,000 weapons. While expressing the hope that a “bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” can be achieved, Obama declares that “all of this can be done while maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent”.

It goes without saying that the USA will not give up its nuclear deterrent. Obama, however, made a faux pas on August 1st when answering a journalist who asked if he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance” he replied, immediately adding “involving civilians”. In nuclear deterrence there is no room for uncertainty, as it undermines credibility, which is the pre-requisite of all deterrence. The other democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, was quick to comment: “Presidents should be very careful at all times in discussing the use or non-use of nuclear weapons. ... I don't believe that any president should make any blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons”.

Apart from these uncertainties and faux pas on nuclear policy, Obama believes in US leadership on the world political scene. The premise of reinforcing the military is justified, as we have seen, by the need to “ renew American leadership in the world”. The idea of American leadership, as well as giving the article its title, recurs throughout the text: “We must lead the world, by deed and by example” in one passage; and again: “The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity”. Not even the UN escapes this vision: Obama stresses the political weakness of the Secreatry General and the inability of the UN Human Rights Council to pass resolutions against the genocide in Darfur and human rights violations in Zimbabwe, adding “Yet none of these problems will be solved unless America rededicates itself to the organization and its mission”.

In the months leading up to the election there will probably be more publicity stunts both by Obama and by the other candidates. The stakes are too high, and the legacy being inherited is a disastrous one, especially in foreign affairs. Paradoxically, this is precisely what makes everything easier for the candidates. Anyone imagining a new administration heading down the road to military disengagement and compliant multilateralism will be disappointed not only if Obama wins, but almost certainly whoever the next occupant of the White House turns out to be.