September 26, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

The U.S. Needs a New Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016 (Part Two of Four)

In our first installment on the need to lay out a new foreign policy agenda for the 2016 presidential race, we described how the world has become a more dangerous place. We explained that while our current policies cannot be blamed entirely for the rising threats to American security, they have aggravated them and have even created new threats and problems. In this installment we will discuss specifically how U.S. policies have contributed to new and potentially dangerous shifts in America's strategic posture. We'll also explain how the current travails afflicting U.S. policy are the result of a series of misguided assessments of the state of the world, including of the nature and severity of the terrorist threat, the characters of China and Russia, and the relationship between hard and soft power. 

Under the Obama administration, the United States has undertaken a provisional experiment: How would the world look if the United States pulled back from its traditional role as guarantor of global stability and underwriter of the international liberal order? The reasons for this shift in U.S. policy are well known. The administration came into office vowing to undo a strategy of overreach that it believed was the root cause of America's foreign policy problems. But in doing so it has created the opposite problem. By going too far in the opposite direction -- by under reaching, if you will -- it has contributed to shifts in the strategic environment that are quite dangerous for American security. As Senator Marco Rubio observed in an important speech last week on defense policy, "the trend of declining American strength had been largely incidental among previous administrations, but now it is an active priority. Previous presidents had merely taken their foot off the gas pedal of American strength, but President Obama has stomped on the brake."

The first most obvious shift is that the world is becoming highly disordered. What Henry Kissinger, in his new book World Order, calls "zones of non-governance or jihad" span Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and include Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Not included in this inventory of disorder are the wars of central Africa and the drug cartel-driven violence in Central America and Mexico. Failing states and large swaths of ungovernable lands are beyond not only the control of responsible governments but increasingly the influence of U.S. policy and the international community. They are breeding grounds for terrorism, armed conflicts, human rights violations, and atrocities committed against civilians.

It is no accident that world disorder is on the rise at the same time that American power and influence are on the wane.  The inconstancy (sometimes verging on incoherence) of U.S. policies  -- and the widely held perception that America is walking away from its responsibilities -- have contributed to instability in the Middle East. U.S. diplomatic clout in the Middle East has suffered substantial erosion, exemplified by fraying relations with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and Qatar, but also in the repeated failures of U.S.-led diplomatic initiatives on Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The administration is having a difficult time assembling a robust coalition to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), partly because its resolve and staying power are in doubt. The resulting disorder has created a bewildering array of bad options (to cooperate or not with Syria and Iran against the Islamic State?) that arguably could have been avoided by an earlier more engaged policy in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Our allies display a palpable lack of confidence in America. In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group (and a former Clinton administration official), quoted a top diplomat of one of America's most dependable allies as saying, "You're still a superpower, but you no longer know how to act like one." Many friends and allies (Japan, Poland, Israel, India, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to name a few) complain of America's unreliability.

Because American influence is waning and America's allies are not filling the gap, global disorder is on the rise. But it is not just the disorder that is troubling. It is the resulting shifts in America's strategic posture that are occurring in the vacuum of U.S. leadership    

The most dangerous shift has been caused by the resurgence of terrorism. As mentioned in the previous essay, the threat of terrorism is growing. According to official foreign terrorist organization lists posted by the United States, Britain, and Canada, and the Global Terrorism Database, there are at least 74 militant Islamist groups conducting terror around the world. Over 30 of them were added to those lists just since 2008, demonstrating the proliferation of jihadist franchises and increasing risk to U.S. interests -- despite the "end" of the Afghan and Iraq wars and the administration's previous (and premature) declarations of victory over al Qaeda.

The Obama administration at first continued many of the counter-terrorist policies of the George W. Bush administration with respect to detention and intelligence-gathering. Its drone and targeting policies were anything but shy about killing terrorists, and of course now it is launching air strikes against the Islamic State.  But at the same time the administration made no secret of its desire to move away from a "long" war footing strategy against terrorism and to treat it more as a law enforcement problem, as witnessed by attempts to bring accused terrorists into U.S. civilian courts.

Besides the law enforcement strategy, which was half hazard at best (the Guantanamo Bay facility remains open), the strategy had two other components. One was to target as narrowly as possible "core" al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist leaders and infrastructure in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The other was to downplay the strategy of denying terrorists territorial-based safe havens.

It did not work. As we pointed out in the first essay, the number of terrorist incidents in the world is up dramatically, and most are perpetrated by Islamist extremists. Moreover, in part because the administration botched our military drawdown and diplomatic partnership with Iraq, a terrorist group (the Islamic State) even more dangerous than al Qaeda now either occupies or is fighting in a swath of Iraqi and Syrian territory the size of Britain. The fear is that IS and other groups will use safe havens and the chaos in Iraq and Syria to plan attacks on the United States homeland. Indeed yesterday U.S. forces struck an al Qaeda linked group called Khorasan inside Syria because of intelligence it was "nearing the execution phase" of a planned terror attack on the U.S. or Europe.

As the U.S. prepares to leave Afghanistan irresponsibly, the Taliban may make a comeback as well. Whereas prior to Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda had been largely concentrated in one country, Afghanistan, today Islamist terrorist groups are operating in or control territory in numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa. Not only that, even the "core" al Qaeda is trying to make a comeback, as witnessed not only by the activities of Khorasan but by the attempts by its newest franchise al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to hijack a Pakistani Navy frigate on Sept. 6. 

The resurgence of terrorism represents a dramatic strategic shift. The threat had been largely waning from 2008 to 2011, but it has returned with a vengeance. It is dragging us back into fighting wars we thought were either over or at least on the downswing. It also is creating the circumstances for the return of a heightened terrorist threat to the American homeland. 

Another strategic shift has been in America's so-called "great power" relations with Russia and China. The Russian "reset" policy did not result in a hoped-for new strategic partnership of cooperation; it resulted instead in a bitter new rivalry with an emboldened and hostile Russia. Vladimir Putin is using force not only to nullify the international (and Russian) recognition of Ukraine's independence, as codified in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. He's also challenging the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, trying to reintroduce ethnic irredentist claims as an international norm to European affairs. His position that an independent country like Ukraine is not fully sovereign is a lesson not lost on other East European countries like Poland and the Baltic states. They understand full well that Russia has positioned itself as a revisionist power to challenge the West geopolitically and even ideologically (in terms of liberal versus authoritarian values).

An authoritarian China is also pursuing a revanchist policy, in a similar albeit more subtle manner than Russia. In fairness, the White House does not bear all the blame for the relative change in the balance of power between China and the United States in East Asia. China is an economic powerhouse, and its growing military strength and political influence are facts of international life and consistent with historical patterns. The question is to what end it seeks to deploy its new power, and whether it will deviate from the path of peaceful rise? China's recent and ongoing aggressions in the region make it appear that it aims to overturn the open regional order the U.S. has maintained to the benefit of all, including China, over the last 70 years. Some conclude that we simply must get used to it and accommodate Beijing's demands. But others, including us, believe a more resolute policy backing U.S. allies and standing steadfast against China's expansionist territorial claims is needed.  

Either way, a major challenge to American leadership is underway in East Asia, and any U.S. policy that does not respond vigorously is bound to fail American interests. This administration is too deeply invested in tranquil U.S.-China relations, however unproductive they may be, to risk the discomfort of challenging Beijing's geopolitical claims.  

The bottom line is that the strategy of retrenchment has unwittingly left U.S. interests behind and contributed to more global disorder and instability, not less as intended. The more the United States has withdrawn from its traditional role as a guarantor of stability, the more unstable the world has become. We are less able than before to influence world events. We are less able than before to deter war and keep the peace. And we are more exposed to direct threats to the security of the United States. 

To understand the Obama administration's inaugural intentions, it offered an alternative strategy of engagement, promising to focus more on soft than hard power. In that respect what we call disengagement here is mainly in the realms of strategic military affairs and alliance management. The Obama administration would counter that it was highly engaged in other areas of soft power and international governance -- in disarmament talks, reaching out to Iran, and pursuing a whole host of international policies from promoting women's and gay rights to climate change.

The question is what has been the effect? Despite the heavy focus on disarmament talks the world is no safer from nuclear weapons. The Russians regularly deploy strategic bombers in American airspace in ways reminiscent of the Cold War, violate arms control treaties like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) agreement, and make nuclear threats towards America and our allies. The North Koreans continue progress on their nuclear weapons programs. And despite the provisional nuclear deal with the Iranians, the most tangible part of which has been the relaxation of sanctions, they continue to enrich uranium and work on other elements of their nuclear program. 

Nor are multilateral institutions any stronger despite the many attempts to engage them. After gaining United Nations Security Council support for the Libya campaign, the administration has either ignored or been stymied by the U.N. in Syria and Ukraine. Climate change action, which President Obama promised in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly as one of the "four pillars ... fundamental to the future," has gone nowhere internationally. While it is true that the U.N. General Assembly now votes more often with the United States than it has in previous years -- mainly because the Obama administration became more U.N. friendly -- it also is true that doing so is not easing the strains on U.S. relations with the U.N. In fact the Obama administration was forced to cut off funding to UNESCO over the Palestinian issue, and progress in the U.N. Security Council continues to be stymied by veto threats from Russia and China.   

The mistake of the administration is not in trying to work with multilateral organizations; it is in expecting that doing so is a substitute for American leadership. It is often assumed that if the U.N. does more we can do less, and as such can be a substitute for U.S. leadership, influence, and power. It cannot be those things. Multilateralism works best, indeed only works at all, with American leadership. 

In our remaining installments we will discuss how a more engaged policy could reverse some of these negative trends. The next essay will take an inventory of American capabilities and suggest how they could be better developed and deployed to protect and advance American interests, values, and security.

 - Dr. Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

 - Dr. William Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government"