I've written in the past about the disconnect between the liberal internationalism of America's foreign-policy elite and the more realpolitik worldview of the American public. With a flurry of diplomatic moves, as well as his stemwinder of a U.N. General Assembly address, it would seem that President Obama is signaling to the rest of the world that he's shifting closer to the American public's way of thinking on grand strategy.
Naturally, this means it's time for the news analysts to start talking about an "Obama Doctrine" again. Enter the New York Times' David Sanger:
His speech Tuesday at the United Nations signaled how what some have called the Obama Doctrine is once again evolving....
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Mr. Obama drove home the conclusion that he came to after his own party deserted him over a military response to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrians: The bigger risk for the world in coming years is not that the United States will try to build empires abroad, he argued, but that there will be a price to be paid in chaos and disorder if Americans elect to stay home....
Mr. Obama had absorbed some bitter lessons. His decision to stay on in Afghanistan had not enhanced the perception of American power in the region, and Libya, once the bombing was over, descended into new chaos. Mr. Gates said last week that he saw, in the Syria gyrations, a president absorbing the lesson of a decade of American mistakes, and coming to the right conclusion after the worst possible process.
“Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action?” [Former Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates asked.
The question left hanging now is when Mr. Obama will be willing to use force after five years of decidedly mixed experiences. His message now is that the failure of allies and regional neighbors to join with the United States has had a steady, corrosive effect on the American public’s willingness to act.
It's funny Sanger should bring up American public opinion, because the Times just ran a survey on that very question. With the obvious caveat that this is just one poll, let's dive in. As Sanger suggests, one would expect that the public should be delighted that their president is gravitating more closely to their position on the use of force. The results? Let's go to Dalia Sussman:
About half of Americans disapprove of the way President Obama is handling foreign policy, a new high as he confronts a diplomatic opening with Iran and efforts to remove chemical arms in Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Forty-nine percent disapproved of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy efforts, up 10 points since early June, and 40 percent approved.
The president’s negative rating on foreign policy has grown among Americans of all political stripes, with disapproval up 8 points among Democrats, 10 points among Republicans and 13 points among independents.
The poll also found that 52 percent disapproved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the situation in Syria. On his handling of relations with Iran, 39 percent approved, while 44 percent disapproved.
AHA!! Doesn't sound like the president's new foreign policy actions and words are all that populist to me!! In your face, Sang-- wait, what's this bit deeper down in the story?
On Syria, 82 percent of Americans supported the agreement between the United States and Russia to have Syria turn over all of its chemical weapons. Nevertheless, most — including those who supported the deal — lacked confidence that the Syrian government would do so.
Yet most Americans do not think that failure to comply is grounds for military action, underscoring the public’s deep resistance to involvement in the situation in Syria. The poll found that just 34 percent (including 46 percent of Democrats) support airstrikes against Syria if it does not turn over its chemical weapons, while 57 percent (including about 6 in 10 Republicans and independents) say the United States should not launch airstrikes against Syria at all.
This is interesting, and suggests two things about American attitudes towards Obama's foreign policy. First, one reason for the decline in American attitudes about Obama's foreign policy is that it's still not populist enough. In the run-up to Syria, the president brandished the threat of military force to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. The Times poll suggests that neither component of that policy sat well with the American people. Americans are happy that Obama agreed to negotiate, but they're decidedly unhappy that he threatened force in the first place.
Second, the poll suggests the ways in which a even a thoroughly populist grand strategy will not necessarily be all that... popular. On the one hand, it's clear that Americans approve of the president's decision not to use force in Syria after threatening to do so. On the other hand, Americans aren't naïve. They know full well that the odds of diplomatic successes in Syria and Iran are not great -- even if that's the option they prefer.
So, to sum up: Americans are deeply skeptical about the use of force, and pretty dubious about the use of diplomacy among adversaries. In other words, Americans remain stone-cold realists.
So what does this all mean for the future of American foreign policy? As I noted last year, Americans used to put up with military actions they disagreed with provided the outcome seemed like a victory. The post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, post-Libya sentiment, however, has shifted the political constraints:
As Libya demonstrated, presidents still have some latitude when choosing to use force. The political risks for presidents to invest political capital into foreign affairs have clearly increased, however. Unless foreign interventions yield immediate, tangible results, Americans will view them as distracting from problems at home. If far-flung military interventions bog down, public support will evaporate. This will make any president regardless of ideology more risk-averse about projecting military power and persisting with it should difficulties arise. For strategic culture, this means a reversion back to the days of the Powell Doctrine and a continued appreciation for economic coercion.
Am I missing anything?
From Mark Lilla, "The Beck of Revelation," New York Review of Books, December 9, 2010 issue:
[A]fter reading these books and countless articles on the man, I’m coming to the conclusion that searching for the “real” Glenn Beck makes no sense. The truth is, demagogues don’t have cores. They are mediums, channeling currents of public passion and opinion that they anticipate, amplify, and guide, but do not create; the less resistance they offer, the more successful they are. This nonresistance is what distinguishes Beck from his confreres in the conservative media establishment, who have created more sharply etched characters for themselves....
As anyone who witnessed his performance on the Washington Mall can attest, what makes him particularly appealing to his audience is not his positions, it is that he appears to feel and fear and admire and instinctively believe what his listeners do, even when their feelings, fears, esteem, and beliefs are changing or self-contradictory. This is the gift of the true demagogue, to successfully identify his own self, rather than his opinions, with the selves of his followers—and to equate both with the “true” nation.
From Eric Wilson, "Kim Kardashian, Inc.," New York Times, November 18, 2010:
She does not talk about fashion and image as most designers and celebrity designers do, with platitudes about quality and authenticity, but rather as a person who seems wholly content to allow consumers to project upon her whatever image they wish.
“I really do believe I am a brand for my fans,” she said.
She does not talk about design in terms of cut or craft, either, but of Twitter and Facebook, of blogs and text messages. When fans ask her what she is wearing or what lip gloss she uses, she answers them and then creates products in the vein of what they like. When she was deciding on a color for her Kim Kardashian perfume bottle, she asked her followers on Twitter whether they preferred a hot pink or a light pink. (It was light pink, by far.) “Twitter is the most amazing focus group out there,” she said.
These are the connections my brain will make after reading blog posts about Snookiism.
As I said last week, the emergence of gridlock between the legislative and executive branches of U.S. government is going to put political pressure on the unelected components of government.
This isn't just a national phenomenon, however -- it's also an international one. What happens if the big players on the global stage can't agree -- either internally or externally -- on new arrangements to solve a mounting policy problem? If the problem clearly needs fixing, then pressure inevitably builds up to use a pre-existing mechanism to address the issue. Some elites in gridlocked countries will welcome this kind of development, because it allows them to bypass domestic impediments to policy change. Because this new possibility is both suboptimal and less than democratic, however, it inevitably builds up global resentments against unaccountable international institutions.
For exhibit A of this phenomenon today, let's wander over to John Broder's New York Times story on the latest developments in fashioning a policy response to climate change:
With energy legislation shelved in the United States and little hope for a global climate change agreement this year, some policy experts are proposing a novel approach to curbing global warming: including greenhouse gases under an existing and highly successful international treaty ratified more than 20 years ago.
The treaty, the Montreal Protocol, was adopted in 1987 for a completely different purpose, to eliminate aerosols and other chemicals that were blowing a hole in the Earth's protective ozone layer.
But as the signers of the protocol convened the 22nd annual meeting in Bangkok on Monday, negotiators are considering a proposed expansion in the ozone treaty to phase out the production and use of the industrial chemicals known as hydro fluorocarbons or HFCs The chemicals have thousands of times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas.
HFCs are used as refrigerants in air-conditioners and cooling systems. They are manufactured mostly in China and India, but appliances containing the substance are in use in every corner of the world. HFCs replaced even more dangerous ozone-depleting chemicals known as HCFCs, themselves a substitute for the chlorofluorocarbons that were the first big target of the Montreal process…
[T]he plan is not expected to be adopted this year. Large developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, object that the timetable is too rapid and that payments for eliminating the refrigerant are not high enough.
One advantage to using the Montreal protocol as a vehicle, supporters say, is that negotiations over the treaty have been utterly unlike the contentious United Nations climate talks that foundered in Copenhagen last year. Negotiators say that without legislative action on curbing greenhouse gases by the United States, little progress will be made when countries gather in Cancún, Mexico, late this month for another round of climate talks.
In a post-election news conference, President Obama noted that it was doubtful that Congress would do anything to address global warming "this year or next year or the year after."…
Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and the nation's chief Montreal Protocol negotiator, said that it might take several years to persuade the ozone treaty countries to back the plan.
In addition to pace and cost issues, some countries say that HFCs have little impact on the ozone layer and thus should be handled under the United Nations climate change talks. Mr. Reifsnyder dismissed that as a legalistic argument and said that the ozone treaty could and should be used to achieve broader environmental objectives.
"What we've found is that the Montreal Protocol has been a very effective instrument for addressing global environmental problems," Mr. Reifsnyder said in an interview. "It was created to deal with the ozone layer, but it also has tremendous ability to solve the climate problem if people are willing to use it that way."
If I was the policymaker in charge of pushing action on climate change forward, I'd be very tempted to agree with Reifsnyder. This might be a way of achieving a deliverable that would simply not be possible under the Copenhagen Accord or the United Nations effort to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
On the other hand… this is also an action that would inject political controversy into what was a ridiculously successful accord. It will push another governance process that's already in critical condition into hospice care. Plus, I'm not sure it will work -- China and India are going to stoutly resist this move.
My larger point, however, is that political paralysis in certain global governance forums is simply going to trigger a search for more suitable global governance structures. That search isn't going to change the underlying disagreements, however, and it just might cause an erosion of faith in the few multilateral structures that do appear to work well.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.