Hot Air and Spurned Allies: A Tally of Obama's Foreign Failures

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Hot Air and Spurned Allies: A Tally of Obama's Foreign Failures

May 7th, 2015 6 min read

Commentary By

Helle C. Dale @Helledale

Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy

James M. Roberts

Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth

Brett D. Schaefer

Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs

The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) was released last week to predictable fanfare. Secretary of State John Kerry declared it to be "the blueprint for the next generation of American diplomacy." In truth, the report falls far short of that goal.  
The QDDR starts with proper caution. Secretary Kerry writes:
A very smart Foreign Service officer told me when I first got here, ‘If everything's important, nothing's important.' So this QDDR does not seek to be everything to everybody. Why? Because most of all, we intend to make it relevant. It focuses on a few big challenges and a few big opportunities, both strategic and operational. 
But Kerry then proceeds to reference nearly everything under the sun as important. A particularly odd segment of the Executive Summary references constraints placed on federal funding and says 
"our diplomats and development professionals must focus on strengthening partnerships with civil society, citizen movements, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and others who share our interests and values... While traditional diplomacy will be needed to produce a historic global framework on climate change, our diplomats and development professionals must also engage mayors, governors, chief executive officers, faith leaders, scientists, and engineers to find climate solutions. We will work with civil society groups to promote democracy and good governance and address gender-based violence; partner with local communities vulnerable to violent extremism; and collaborate with all sectors and levels of government to find innovative solutions to our most pressing challenges. We will expand our leadership at the United Nations and in other international organizations, which are increasingly central to our responses to transnational challenges."

Leveraging meager resources 

"Great googli moogli," observed Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts and senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, "that's a lot of partnerships for a lot of variegated issues.... In essence, Foggy Bottom is acknowledging that in a world of constrained funding, the best it can do is leverage its meager resources by acting as a focal point for sub-state and non-state actors." 
Indeed. But it also seems to be a tacit admission that the Administration's efforts to boost support among other governments for U.S. priorities have been less than successful, so State is shifting tactics. This is a concern that must be resolved, not avoided. 
Understandably, a good deal of the QDDR focuses on improving the management and effectiveness of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. But laden with aspirational buzz words about fostering a culture of engagement and innovation, expanding opportunities, implementing strategies, building on lessons learned, optimizing impact, etc., the report reads like a management consultant's crib notes. Translating this jargon into actions that produce desired results is the hard part. 
The QDDR does go on to provide a bit of focus by identifying four strategic priorities: First, preventing and mitigating conflict and violent extremism; second, promoting resilient, open, democratic societies; third, advancing inclusive economic growth; and fourth, mitigating and adapting to climate change. 
With the exception of climate change - there remains considerable dispute about the urgency of the problem, the accuracy of climate models, the real-world impact, and the efficacy of proposed remedies - it is reasonable to include these among State's short-term priorities. 
But the QDDR generally fails to provide innovative ideas for improvement. Instead, it typically points to current efforts and announces its intent to make them better, stronger, or more effective. Specific details on how to do this are woefully absent. For instance, the report notes the importance of U.N. peacekeeping to prevent conflict, and it references America's commitment to make "substantial investments" to peacekeeping operations. But its authors offer nothing on how to arrest the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers or get peacekeepers to reliably protect civilians, or on how to shorten the length of operations, such as those in Haiti, Cyprus, Kashmir, Lebanon, and elsewhere, that have been in place for years with minimal progress toward permanent resolution of the situation. 
In another example, the report states that, to strengthen partner capacity to protect civilians and restore peace, the United States will provide "financial assistance, training, and ... equipment [to] enable our partners to safeguard their people, support peacekeeping, and defend against and pursue violent extremists." Unexplained is how this approach is different than current policy that is, presumably, not optimal. 

Leaving our allies behind

Depressingly, the QDDR is also replete with dozens of recently created or proposed, smartly titled initiatives, partnerships, envoys, offices, forums, and programs. This is a typical government response - acknowledge a problem and "address" it by ordering a study or setting up a commission. But studying problems is not the same as addressing them. Often, calls for commissions and studies simply provide excuses for inaction or serve as bureaucratic impediments to action. A more useful QDDR would tally the number of these initiatives created over the years and assess their impact with a mind to ending those whose impact is poor, are duplicative, or lack ongoing relevance.

Moreover, the report fails to convincingly explain why the four strategic priorities are more important than other critical priorities. For instance, strengthening and expanding America's relationships with its allies apparently is a lesser priority. Perhaps this is because, according to the QDDR, "America's global alliances and partnerships have never been stronger, and increasing our cooperation with like-minded nations remains a pillar of our diplomacy and development." This would likely come as a surprise to the United Kingdom and Israel, whom President Barack Obama has insulted and threatened, and other U.S. allies whose concerns and alarm have been ignored or downplayed. 

Meanwhile, the 2015 QDDR references climate and climate change more than 150 times. By contrast, it references allies and alliances a mere seven times. Worse, only two of those seven mentions appear in the context of national security (as opposed to, say, a reference to the Business Alliance for Competitive Small and Medium Sized Enterprises or the Alliance for Affordable Internet). NATO receives a mere two mentions, and major allies such as Israel and the United Kingdom receive none at all. Compare that to the near three dozen references to the United Nations and other multilateral efforts and partners. This admittedly superficial metric accurately illustrates the relative emphasis given these issues in the QDDR. 
Even when highlighting such a critical priority as counterterrorism, the QDDR tends to view it through the lens of a social worker- focusing for instance on tackling perceived drivers or root causes of terrorism rather than emphasizing overt economic, diplomatic, and military strategies and pressures to confront and defeat terrorist groups and other extremists.  
Political correctness also infests the QDDR. Despite its repeated emphasis on human rights, the report stays almost entirely silent on one of today's biggest human rights problems: the threat to religious freedom. Where it is mentioned, it is as part of a strategy for engaging religious leaders. Nowhere does it specifically address the crisis of violence against Christians in the Middle East. In fact, the words Islam and Christianity are never mentioned.   
In the end, the QDDR's dogged avoidance of traditional U.S. interests reflects the foreign policy of Obama - a policy that has so poorly served America and its interests abroad. 
Sadly, it is difficult to think of a single important foreign policy situation or alliance that is markedly improved from 2008 - at least from the U.S. perspective. Russia, Iran, China, Cuba, and other nations have prospered. Indeed, the report inadvertently highlights this reality in defense of the administration's foreign policy record:
At this moment U.S. diplomats and development professionals are leading the way in confronting challenges to regional orders in the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. We continue implementing our strategic rebalance to Asia and the Pacific, and are deepening our partnerships with countries in the region. We are mobilizing dynamic partnerships to confront new interconnected challenges, from climate change and extreme poverty to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the failure of state institutions. We are building the broad coalitions necessary to defeat ISIL in the Middle East and counter Russian aggression against Ukraine.
In fact, poor U.S. decisions and fecklessness have contributed to instability across northern Africa and the Middle East. And that increased instability has held back development and growth and created challenges for human rights. Current negotiations with Iran have led many nations to contemplate their own nuclear programs. The Islamic State and al Qaeda are alarmingly strong and widespread. Russian actions in Ukraine only underscore the failure of the "reset" policy. The Asia Pivot is little more than rhetoric. 
In the introduction to the 2010 QDDR report, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her hope that it would radically improve the effectiveness of America's diplomatic and development efforts. In reality, that report was largely an unoriginal recitation of standard State Department and USAID "fixes" - more funds, more staff, and a shifting of bureaucratic boxes. Now, more than four years later, one can point to few substantive, tangible changes that have arisen from that document. It is likely that the 2015 QDDR will have a similarly modest impact.

 - Brett Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

 - Helle Dale is the Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy in Heritage’s Davis Institute for International Studies.

 - James Roberts is a Research Fellow in Heritage’s Center for Trade and Economics.

Originally appeared in RealClearWorld