The Changing Face of the Obama Administration at Home and Abroad (2)

On the domestic policy front, nearly a year and a half in office has been enough to show President Obama that an administration cannot be run by relying on persuasion by speeches and appeals to cross-party bipartisanship alone, no matter how eloquent the speeches or how high his approval ratings. What about foreign policy?

Diplomacy

Breaking with the previous administration

In pushing forward its domestic agenda, the Obama administration has regularly encountered stiff opposition from the Republican Party, with only a handful of Republicans in the Senate supporting the administration’s massive financial stimulus package.

Although the context is different, a similar tendency can be seen in foreign policy. In its early days, the administration’s basic approach was to emphasize the differences and discontinuities between the new government and the “arrogant” and “unilateral” foreign policy of the Bush administration. The Obama administration was eager to show readiness to engage in dialogue and negotiation. Rather than showing the way or simply giving orders, the United States would listen carefully to what other countries had to say. This attitude was at the forefront of the administration’s early efforts to engage with the world.

At a paper presented at this year’s Brussels Forum, this attitude was characterized as reflective of a firm sense of faith in a “rational” world. One might call it a diplomacy of reason (see Constanze Stelzenmüller, “End of a Honeymoon: Obama and Europe, One Year Later,” http://www.gmfus.org/brusselsforum/2010/docs/BF2010-Paper-Stelzenmuller.pdf ).

This more open attitude in foreign policy was a major priority for the Obama administration at the time of its inauguration. Apart from anything else, the strategy was worthwhile from the point of view of a simple calculation of interests. As president, Barack Obama knew that there were gains to be made by emphasizing to the world and his fellow Americans (with the exception of Republican hawks) that another, different America existed. And he hoped that with luck, the goodwill toward Obama’s America could be translated into soft power and might produce concrete benefits.

More concretely, Obama offered the possibility of direct negotiations with Iran and North Korea, reached out to the Islamic world with a speech in Cairo, and threw himself into peace mediations in the Middle East. In Asia, the new president showed an attitude of respect and dialogue toward both Japan and China. Symbolic of this approach were the visit by Hillary Clinton as secretary of state to the inner area of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and President Obama’s respectful bow to the Japanese emperor.

It would be difficult to deny that there was an aspect of naivety to these initiatives. But probably there is more to it than that. The approach is genuinely different from what it might have been if the administration had adopted a tough stance from the outset, and can reasonably be expected to produce different results. Firstly, there is the impact within the United States. The bedrock of Obama’s support is on the left wing of the Democratic Party. These supporters are likely to be more amenable to tough policies once they see that a more flexible approach has been tried and has not produced results.

The approach may have a similar effect internationally. Widespread backlash against the United States would have been likely from a number of countries and powers had the Obama administration used sanctions or the threat of them from the outset. People would have objected that the new government’s policies were no different from those under Bush. But if the tough approach comes at the end of a steady process, there is a good chance that at least some of these countries will accept the stronger measures.

But the approach is not without its own difficulties and dangers. If things do not go according to plan, when will the administration be able to change tack? The longer the delay, the more likely it becomes that the administration’s initial approach will be dismissed as having failed. What about Obama’s diplomacy?

A shift in approach

Obama’s foreign policy is undergoing significant change at present. The administration has been taking a noticeably tougher stance—relatively quickly in the case of North Korea, and since the second half of 2009 toward Iran and China too.

This change is at least partly due to differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and between the Department of State and the White House. The Department of State has supported tough conventional policies, while the White House has been in favor of trying a more innovative and flexible approach. During the battle to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Obama claimed that he would be prepared to meet the leader of any country without conditions, while Clinton pointed out the naivety of this approach and the risks inherent in it. Today, Obama is drawing closer to Clinton’s position.

From the start, Obama had no intention of depending on a softly-softly approach alone, as shown by his hints to Israel of a deadline for progress in Iran by the end of 2009. But what are the reasons beyond the recent shift in tone of Obama’s foreign diplomacy?

The chief reason is that his initial approach produced almost no results. This can be seen even in dealings with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, America’s most trusted and reliable allies. In spring 2009, President Obama made a round of visits to various European countries, calling for a massive economic stimulus package and increased contributions in Afghanistan. The results were disappointing (see Fumiaki Kubo, “Three Months of Obama Diplomacy and US Relations with Japan and Europe,” http://www.tkfd.or.jp/topics/detail.php?id=136 , available in Japanese only).

In her paper at the 2010 Brussels Forum, Stelzenmüller pointed out that even among allies of the United States (including Turkey and Japan), there is a lack of respect for Obama and the country he represents.

Some countries, of course, did not respond positively to the flexible approach at all. North Korea responded by launching missiles and carrying out nuclear tests. In Iran, opposition supporters were openly suppressed during the violence that followed the presidential elections, and there was no sign of progress in terms of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Although domestic considerations may have been the biggest reason, it is undeniably true that developments in these countries did not go the way the United States would have wanted.

China has proved a particularly difficult partner to deal with. The administration’s approach was to play down the points of contention between the two countries, preferring to prioritize the need for cooperation and negotiation. Obama has looked for cooperation from China on a wide variety of issues. The most important of these issues was help on economic stimulus policies, but they also included currency, trade, North Korea, Iran, and the environment. The results of this modest approach, however, were negligible. China pushed through the large-scale economic stimulus policy it needed itself, but Obama’s dialogue with citizens during his visit to China was edited before it was broadcast. In summer 2009, Obama decided not to meet the Dalai Lama. Despite this, China was distinctly chilly in its attitude to the United States in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration began to adjust its approach to China. Trade frictions had already come to the surface during 2009, and at the end of the year the United States decided to sell weapons to Taiwan. In the New Year, after this decision had been made, the Google problem hit. Google announced that it was no longer prepared to cooperate with Chinese government censorship, and made clear that it would withdraw from the Chinese market if this policy was not accepted. There were also reports that the government had been monitoring the e-mail correspondence of human rights activists and was involved in attempted intellectual property infringements affecting at least 34 US companies (see “Google China Cyberattack Part of Vast Espionage Campaign, Experts Say,”) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/13/AR2010011300359.html ).

These issues involved human rights, intellectual property infringements, and even—in the case of cyber security—national security. In other words, aspects of these issues impinged directly on the national interest in a number of ways. In a telephone interview from Washington in February, Chris Nelson of Samuels International Associates, Inc. suggested that the friction could even result in a loss of support for China among pro-China factions in the US business world. Even allowing for exaggeration, there can be little doubt that the tensions must have reminded a number of companies of the risks they were taking by doing business in China.

There were good reasons for the Obama administration to take the problems seriously. Under Hillary Clinton, the Department of State was moving to use the Internet as a promotional and public diplomacy tool. This would make it possible to communicate directly with ordinary people around the world. Invited to speak at the Tokyo Foundation in December 2009, President Simon Rosenberg of NDN talked about the protest movement in Iran and how it had been able to communicate what was happening there to the outside world via the Internet. Rosenberg argued persuasively that the Internet would be of primary importance to American human rights diplomacy efforts in the years to come.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has appointed Alec Ross as senior advisor for innovation. Ross’s particular priority is to optimize the use of the Internet in foreign relations.

This was the context behind a January 21, 2010 speech by Clinton on the subject of Internet freedom, in which she criticized China and other countries for Internet censorship, using terms such as “Iron Curtain” and “Berlin Wall.” Under the Obama administration, the Department of State is treating the Google issue as a serious and important matter.

Ross and NDN’s Rosenberg have been collaborators for some time. NDN recently invited Ross to give a talk (Japan’s ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki also spoke at the same venue on April 7). Venues such as this provide insight into the Democratic Party’s core networks ( http://ndn.org/blog/2010/03/freedom-21st-century-alec-ross-speak-internet-freedom ).

There was further tension with China in 2010 over appreciation of the renminbi, with the Chinese currency again pegged to the dollar since the financial crisis. Even more importantly the Obama administration, worried by dwindling levels of support, switched its domestic priorities from health insurance reform to job creation. In the United States, there were calls from both the executive branch and Congress for a revaluation of the renminbi.

Relations with China began to improve around the time of the nuclear security summit in April. The Obama administration agreed to postpone a decision on whether to cite China for currency manipulation, while the Chinese president agreed to attend the summit. China also moved closer to America on the subject of sanctions against Iran.

However, the United States has still not definitely decided not to cite China for currency manipulation, and Chinese cooperation on sanctions against Iran is lacking in substance. There is every chance the current thaw will be nothing more than a temporary improvement in relations.

Of course, the administration’s stance toward China has not necessarily toughened because of a lack of results with previous methods. It is likely that the sale of weapons to Taiwan was part of a strategy decided in advance. However, Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2010 after refusing to meet him in 2009 can only have come about as the result of a deliberate change of policy.

The biggest dilemma facing President Obama is Iran. To date, Iran has not responded positively either to America’s flexible overtures or to its more hawkish pronouncements. At present the United States is looking at imposing sanctions through the Department of the Treasury, and is planning to impose further sanctions through the UN Security Council. For this to happen, the United States would need the cooperation of China and Russia—and at the moment it is far from certain whether the kind of effective sanctions the Obama administration hopes for will ever become a reality.

Obama has already approved two separate increases in troop numbers in Afghanistan, and has demonstrated a determination to continue the fight. Even when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama continued to emphasize the importance of being prepared to fight. This is another issue that may have an important bearing on his chances of reelection.

久保文明

Fumiaki Kubo

  • SENIOR FELLOW

Areas of Expertise

US political and diplomatic history, modern American parties, policy making, US foreign policy

Research Unit

External Relations