January 22, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Obama Fails to Value America's Real Friends

At the end of his first year in office, President Obama has an amazing achievement to his credit. Under his leadership, America's relations have worsened with all the friendly democracies around the world. His vaunted popularity has proved to be no substitute for appreciating the value of America's allies.
In the Pacific, the US has no better ally than Japan. But US-Japanese relations are at a low ebb, and the Japanese government elected in August is showing signs of drifting away from the US and towards China.

US relations with South Korea have suffered because the administration has manifested little interest in pressing for ratification of the US-South Korean free trade area. And the administration's climate change agenda has been so unpopular in Australia that it helped cause a leadership change in the opposition Liberal Party.

Under George W. Bush, the US and India came closer together than ever before. Bush saw India as a great democracy, and as a major power. But the Obama administration is less interested in friendship with India than in good relations with China.

As the New York Times noted, a joint US-Chinese statement in November that both nations would "work together to promote peace, stability and development" in South Asia prompted "howls of dismay across the political spectrum" in India.

And then there are the Western democracies. Obama's embrace of "buy American" protectionism has alienated Canada, a good neighbour that he has otherwise ignored. He is so unpopular in Israel that you need a microscope to see his ratings. One poll found that only six per cent of Israelis approved of his administration.

In Europe, Obama is popular with the public. But Europe's leaders like him much less. Obama stiffed Poland and the Czech Republic on missile defence, and has been described by French President Sarkozy as "incredibly naive and grossly egotistical." Coming from the French, of all people, that hurts.

But no country has borne as many insults from Obama as Great Britain.

The US administration has gone out of its way to slight its best ally in ways small and large, from mishandling the protocol of Gordon Brown's visit to threatening to withhold the source code of the jointly-developed F-35 fighter.

Worst of all has been the US treatment of the British contribution to the war in Afghanistan. The administration came into office with the naïve expectation that its inauguration would suddenly persuade most of the reluctant continental members of NATO to stump up more troops for the fight.

Almost immediately, it became obvious that this expectation was foolish. The only countries willing to stand on the front lines with the US were the ones that were already there: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Poland, and, especially, Britain. Yet the administration was unwilling even to grant Gordon Brown the traditional courtesy of a joint press conference at the end of his March visit.

That month, the Obama administration announced its strategy for the war. It then took until December to re-evaluate that strategy, and to announce it again. Throughout the drawn-out process, there was no hint that the US was leading a coalition in Afghanistan, no suggestion that its allies had a stake in its decision. When the President re-announced his strategy in his West Point speech, Britain did not even rate a footnote.

It is pathetic that, one year into Obama's administration, it is not possible to name a single democracy with which the US now has better relations than it did on George W. Bush's last day in office. It is true that Bush was not popular in some countries. But he had effective working relationships with most of America's major allies.

Obama has made three serious errors. First, he has mistaken being popular with the publics of Western Europe for actually having a foreign policy. He believed that, since he and everyone else disliked George W. Bush, all he had to do was to prove that he was not George W. Bush. Hence, his penchant for apologising for the US at every turn.

Second, before his election, Obama displayed little interest in foreign affairs. His priorities now are at home. But his desire to make the world's problems go away has produced a foreign policy that pays courtesies to America's enemies, not its friends. Engaging with allies is praise-worthy. Engaging with dictators only emboldens them.

And finally, whispered in the administration's corridors, is its belief that the US is in decline, and that the only role for American foreign policy now is to make the best of this reality. Hence the administration's outreach to Russia China, and the European Union, all seen as great powers that must have their spheres of influence. This is a disastrous idea, and nothing is more likely to make it true than a US administration that acts as if it is.

In the absence of US leadership, America's enemies will indeed grow stronger, while its friends, like Britain, will be faced with the choice of kowtowing to the neighbourhood bully or going it alone. As that reality plays out, it will shock the many in Britain, and in democracies around the world, who hailed Obama's inauguration a year ago in the hope that it would bring better relations with America.

Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, based at The Heritage Foundation, Washington.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Yorkshire Post