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Obama and Rising Powers: Foreign Policy in Tough Economic Times

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Does Obama have a coherent foreign policy -- and does it matter?

Tufts professor Daniel Drezner discusses these questions in the current issue of Foreign Affairs and answers in the affirmative. Drezner, who is well known for his witty treatise on Zombie theories of international relations, argues that a combination of re-engagement with allies and aggressive counter punching against adversaries comprises the Obama doctrine -- but that the Obama White House has failed to explain this strategy well at home or abroad. "Until the Obama administration does a better job of explaining its grand strategy to the American people," he concludes, "it will encounter significant domestic resistance to its policies." Whether this conclusion is true, I will address below when I talk about the 2012 elections.

Discerning a coherent US foreign policy is not just the province of policy wonks and professors. For years, I have challenged my undergraduates at Occidental College (where Obama studied), to examine critically America's role in the post-9/11 world. In May, 2008, Oxy diplomacy students produced the report, "Rebranding America", which analyzed the decline in America's standing in the world during the Bush administration and offered a host of recommendations to the next President for restoring our reputation and standing among nations. Copies were provided to Obama's transition team and to Secretary Clinton's staff at the State Department.

In December, 2009, as Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo, my students released another report, ( "Obama's First Year: A Nobel Effort," discussed in the Huffington Post, December 10, 2009), which examined what he had promised to do in foreign policy during the campaign and whether he had made good on these promises in his first year as president.

This spring, students produced the latest report, "Obama and the Rising Powers," (available on the Oxy student-run website, OxyWorldwide.com). These students, mainly juniors and seniors majoring in Diplomacy and World Affairs, analyzed six countries: the so-called BRIC (the term was coined in 2001 by Jim O'Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs, to call attention to the growing economic importance of Brazil, Russia, India and China), plus Turkey, a key player in the Middle East, which I added to the mix making them the BRICT nations. I challenged students to describe the strengths and weaknesses of these rising countries, to examine the enhanced role they are playing in the international arena, and to analyze how the US is responding to them as significant players on the global stage. Two of the countries, Russia and China, are our former adversaries from the Cold War. India was neutral, and Brazil was ruled by military dictatorships or authoritarian governments. Only Turkey as a member of NATO was viewed by the US as an ally. Now, all have taken on new roles as economic competitors and as rising regional powers with their own national outlooks and interests which frequently differ from ours.

The students began by reading books on whether or not the US is in decline, and how our position as the Lone Super Power after the Cold War has changed. The book which seemed to have the most influence was Harvard professor Joseph Nye's, The Future of Power. Students had the opportunity to meet Nye and hear him speak during an afternoon at my home. They agreed with his analysis that the US is not in absolute decline. We still have the largest economy and the strongest military of any nation. In terms of purchasing power per person, the US is far richer than any of the BRICT nations, and even if China or India's overall GDP surpasses that of the US, our country will still offer its citizens a greater standard of living. Of course, we have serious problems of inequality, unemployment, and illegal immigration -- and there is a lack of agreement between the two major parties on the role which the government should play to address these and other domestic problems. America is not number one in many quality of life indicators. Compared to Canada, Australia or most Scandinavian countries, it is hardly an international role model for domestic tranquility and happiness.

My students also understand that the US cannot simply dictate outcomes in global affairs, nor can we afford to rebuild by ourselves every failed state or intervene in every trouble spot. We need partners to insure the stability of the global system -- and the BRICT nations might offer new opportunities for such strategic partnerships.

In addition to Nye's book and other readings, I provided the students with briefings from experts who came to speak on campus. Journalist James Fallows reported on this three year stay in China and gave his views on the challenge of a rising China. Former US ambassador to Turkey, Mort Abramowitz, shared his views on Turkish foreign policy. Sergei Plekhanov, former adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and now a professor at York University, gave a presentation on contemporary Russian foreign policy. Jeff Cason, a professor at Middlebury College and a leading expert on Brazil, explained the factors in that country's recent rise. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Director of UCLA's Center for India and South Asia, analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the Indian economy.

Organized in to country teams, the students examined the economy, the military, the government and civil society, and the foreign policy of each BRICT country, looked at strengths and weaknesses in each area, and then analyzed the opportunities and dangers for the US. At the end of each country section, students offered recommendations for President Obama in his future dealings with these rising powers.

One common theme in the country reports was energy policy. Students found that in every case there seemed to be an untapped potential for greater cooperation between the US and the BRICT for development and promotion of cleaner, renewable energy sources. In short, more creative and active environmental diplomacy is warranted. Students were ahead of former Vice President Gore and his recent article in Rolling Stone ("Climate of Denial", Rolling Stone, July 7-21, 2011), which calls for a clearer articulation by President Obama of what is at stake at home and abroad in the debate over climate change. In fact, going back to the first Oxy student report "Rebranding America", my students have been advocating a strategy of Green Diplomacy.

Another conclusion reached by the class was that while President Obama's emphasis on engagement as opposed to the unilateralism of George W. Bush has been effective in improving America's image abroad, it is not a strategy. My students would disagree with Professor Drezner about the existence of a clear Obama doctrine. They see it more as a set of pragmatic responses to world events. As journalist Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker, May 2, 2011, Obama is a "consequentialist" who improvises his foreign policy as much as he strategizes it. Obama and his foreign policy team try to balance realist and idealist approaches to foreign affairs by focusing on the consequences of their actions (not a bad thing, of course) -- but they don't seem to have a vision of what kind of outcomes they are seeking. My students argue for a more energetic and forward looking set of strategic objectives, and for a more aggressive and nuanced set of policies of strategic partnership with the BRICT countries.

A copy of the students' report was sent to the White House care of a member of the National Security Council staff, Samantha Power, who was the commencement speaker this May at Occidental. Samantha gave a well received speech, mixing idealism and realism in her remarks, and adding a dash of humor to her five rules for living a meaningful life. One student asked me why President Obama had not appointed more thinkers and doers like her to his foreign policy team. A new foreign policy team and new foreign policy ideas will have to wait until after the 2012 election. The Obama White House is in re-election mode, and almost every action he takes at home and abroad will be calculated as to its effect on the 2012 campaign.

Foreign policy will not play much if any role in the presidential race. The American voting public is not very concerned with what is happening in most areas of the world. They are rightly concerned about the state of the American economy and the state of US society as they experience it in their daily lives. Of course, there is sometimes a connection between the what happens at home and what is happening abroad (especially with the amount of US tax payer dollars which is spent on foreign adventures or the size of US debt held by China), but most political leaders try to obfuscate the connections. Perhaps that is changing. The debate within the Republican party on the cost of the US effort in Afghanistan is new and interesting. The fact that President Obama used the phrase "nation building at home" in his recent speech on the draw down of troops which I had promoted in the Huffington Post last fall is mildly encouraging.)

It remains to be seen if President Obama and his White House political team can craft a coherent narrative and a strong political message on economic policy, let alone on foreign policy. He certainly needs to do better job at explaining economic policy if he is to be re-elected.

The White House seems to think it is sufficient that Obama be cast as 'the responsible adult' -- and that he will be lucky, as he has been in the past, with the quality of his opponent. That's a risky strategy when the economy remains the single most important issue in the upcoming campaign. Whomever they select as standard bearer, the Republicans will try to recreate the success of Margaret Thatcher when she artfully blamed the economic troubles of England on the Labour Party and ousted them from power. For this reason alone, Obama needs a tougher and clearer economic message. There is ample material for him to use. One hopes that he and his team have at least read the recent articles from his local paper The Washington Post. A special report on Breakaway Wealth by reporter Peter Whoriskey, provides irrefutable evidence on the growing inequality in the US and highlights a basic cause: the skyrocketing pay of American executives. On June 24, Post reporter Neil Irwin, wrote "Five Economic Lessons From Sweden, the Rock Star of Recovery," which makes clear that even in a country currently run by a centrist party, the role of government in stabilizing, regulating and guiding the economy is essential for economic growth and fair outcomes.

I won't belabor the point which I have made frequently in the Huffington Post since Obama was elected. It's not just the economy, stupid -- but how you talk about it that matters in politics.

I don't expect the Obama White House or his re-election team to get religion on the economy. A more likely scenario is that political reality might force a change in the re-election team. Many of my East Coast journalist friends believe that if the polls look bad or even iffy for Obama a year from now, he won't hesitate to trade Biden for Hillary. The Big Switch would be made sending Joe to State and making Mrs. Clinton the VP candidate. Such a move would energize his campaign, especially among women, and among Latinos and working class whites. The populist Big Dog, Bill Clinton would stump tirelessly for the ticket, and the combination could deliver a larger victory for Obama and the Democrats than he might win otherwise, giving him new political running room to govern in his second term. I am not a Clinton loyalist who is floating this at the behest of Bill or Hillary or any of their political pals. I am skeptical that Obama would make the move even if it were to be in his best interest, but my journalist sources have convinced me that it is within the realm of possibility. The Clintons understand economic messaging, whatever their other flaws. An Obama/Clinton ticket is probably the only path to progressive change in the second term.

The June gloom is lifting in Los Angeles. The sun is shining in my hometown; we are cooking outside and eating in the garden with family and friends. I've put down my economic and foreign policy books and picked up detective fiction. I give high marks to Sara Gran's Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead, a quirky novel about about the world's greatest PI. A one-time teen detective in Brooklyn and follower of the enigmatic French detective Jacques Silette, Clair takes her game to post-Katrina New Orleans. Read the book, the first in a new series, and watch re-runs of HBO's Treme for musical accompaniment. We've also seen the most popular film of the year from Norway, Troll Hunter, and I've finished the superb detective series written by Jo Nesbo set in Oslo.

My advice for a happy summer: ignore the debt ceiling debate and recharge your batteries for fall. Wait for economic reality to bring Hillary on to the Democratic ticket, and have a good 4th of July.