The 2014 State of the Union: A new era of American restraint abroad?

By Claire McNear, on 29 January 2014

By Claire McNear

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama appeared to signal the advent of a less aggressive American grand strategy, saying that the nation “must move off a permanent war footing.”

Arguing that American security “cannot depend on…military alone,” Obama said that he “will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow [them] to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

By all accounts, it’s been a tough year for Obama – he has faced intense scrutiny for everything from the NSA and PRISM revelations to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The annual State of the Union address is a rare opportunity for the commander in chief to dictate conversation, and, to some extent, subsequent policy debate. For Obama, this might have been his last real chance to do so – by next January, national attention will have shifted to the contest for Obama’s successor (indeed, some are out of the gate early, however strangely). The 2015 speech will come nearly three months after the midterm elections, which is often when you start hearing the words “lame duck” murmured in dark Capitol corners.

State of the Union addresses typically focus largely on domestic affairs – and this one did, highlighting education issues and the financial recovery, with some of the night’s biggest applause coming after announcing a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage – though they can serve as a springboard for foreign policy. See, for instance, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, which (in)famously laid out the so-called “Axis of Evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – which Bush credited, along with “their terrorist allies,” with “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” That speech served as a cornerstone of the philosophical justification of the War on Terror, and, a year later, of the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq.

Obama used last night’s speech to reinforce the idea of a new, quieter era of American foreign policy. In discussing Iran, which recently reached a short-term agreement with the international community to cease uranium enrichment in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, Obama applauded the virtues of diplomatic negotiation over force. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said, adding that the success of the Iranian agreement would mean the resolution of “one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” Though much has happened (and not happened) since then, this is the same leader who said in 2007 that as president he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran, and sit down with Iranian leaders (among others) without preconditions.

Still, Obama made a point last night of saying that there are limits to any diplomatic overtures – he will readily use force where American national security is threatened, and this may be the fatal flaw of any quieter strategy. “As commander in chief,” he said, “I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.”

Protection of the American people remains a fuzzy objective; shortly after hinting at a new international reticence, Obama laid out a wide-ranging list of international items that will “help promote [America’s] long-term security,” among them democracy-building in Tunisia and Burma and support of American allies in the Asia-Pacific.

The latter goal has been a tricky one for the United States over the last year, as tensions flared between China, Japan, and South Korea. In 2011, the Obama Administration and State Department signaled a policy shift in the Asia-Pacific region: the United States would redouble its diplomatic efforts there (i.e. away from the Middle East), more or less as a response to Chinese economic and military growth. This strategy was originally referred to as a “pivot” to Asia, though government and military officials now use the softer “rebalance” instead, which some have worried signals a similar softening of commitment to Asian allies. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Sheila A. Smith was quick to note that last night’s State of the Union failed to address either a pivot or a rebalance – instead, she wrote, just plans to “continue to pursue American interests.”

Does Obama’s speech mean we will see a more restrained America? According to a recent Pew survey, an incredible 52% of Americans said they believe “that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (this number usually falls between 20 and 40%). Outright isolationism is rather unlikely, to put it mildly, but Obama seemed to understand that his audience last night was war-weary: he noted that all US troops have left Iraq, with another 60,000 back from Afghanistan.

American restraint is, perhaps, relative. Some 37,500 American troops remain in Afghanistan today along with a smaller cohort of NATO and other international partners; an agreement sent before Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (which officials say he may well reject) would leave 10,000 American troops in the country after the end of this year, when the NATO mission officially concludes. And while the last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, the US Embassy in Baghdad retains a staff of nearly 6,000, and thousands more American contractors remain in the country.

Still, we can take President Obama’s speech as an indication that the United States of 2014 is serious about a commitment to diplomacy over force wherever possible. The recent diplomatic détente with Iran may come to be one of the greater foreign policy victories of the Obama White House. In his speech, Obama directly threatened Congressional Republicans, who have been making noise about disrupting the Iran negotiations by introducing a new sanctions bill. Obama’s eagerness to use diplomacy, coupled with an American public dreaming of an era of isolationism, could signal a new era of American restraint.

Also of note:

– Also mentioned was Guantanamo Bay, the United States’ 12-year-old exercise in illegal detention and public condemnation, with Obama calling for this to be the year that the prison is finally closed. The President promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in January 2009; 155 detainees remain imprisoned as of this month.

– Obama stopped just short of criticizing Russia for its recent anti-gay statements and policies. “[W]e believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” he said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” This received raucous applause, but seemed not to get quite where it meant to – Team USA’s official White House delegation, of which the President and First Lady will not be a part, features two openly gay athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. As the delegation was personally selected by President Obama, their inclusion has been widely viewed as a rebuke of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has urged gay visitors to “leave kids alone,” whilst the mayor of Sochi has declared that there are no homosexuals in the city. So we can see the latter bit of Obama’s comments as meant to be less about the glory of manly sports, and more about reminding his Russian counterpart that Team USA will be bringing along red, white, and blue as part of a wider spectrum.

Self-defense or Expansionism?

By Saskia Kok, on 5 January 2014

By Jack Harris

Relations amongst the nations surrounding the East China Sea have been marked by mutual suspicion and nervousness over the past few weeks. China declared a 200 kilometer wide band of sea around its coast to be an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), within which, China asserts, all foreign aircraft are obliged to identify themselves or face as yet unspecified defensive measures.

The zone and rules applied within it are hardly remarkable; Japan and the US have declared zones, ADIZ extending to barely 150 kilometers away from Chinese shores. However, the Chinese ADIZ encompasses islands claimed by Japan and South Korea, as well as slicing through bustling international shipping lanes that the US has made clear it does not want to see become the dominion of any one country. All three nations have reacted angrily, with both Japan and the US sending military jets through the ADIZ, where they were trailed by Chinese fighters.

The greatest cause for worry is not the zone itself but the broader strategy pursued by China in its territorial disputes over the past few years; China has rejected not just multilateral but even bilateral negotiation, in favour of unassailable declarations of absolute sovereignty backed up by economic coercion and vague military threats. Over the past few years, China has suspended exports to Japan of rare earths (vital for the country’s electronic industry) and harrassed Japanese factories operating in the country, while bellicose commentators employed by the semi-independent army have kept up a stream of vitriol against the country.

This strategy of essentially bullying neighbours into compliance with Chinese demands has predictably self-defeating: neighbours to the east and the south have begun cooperation in defence and foreign policy to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Korea and Japan, whose relations have long been marred by lingering Korean bitterness over Japan’s occupation of the country in the 1930s, now find themselves united by a common interest in checking Chinese expansionism. Indonesia, Vietnam, and even India have begun to speak more overtly of security cooperation with Japan and with one another.

In other words, China seems to be risking becoming surrounded by a ring of hostile states, the scenario its leaders have long feared the most, for the sake of acquiring a few rocks (the population of the Senkakus consists solely of a few hundred seagulls) and placating domestic nationalists eager for a fight with Japan.

To understand this seemingly bizarre strategy, one has to appreciate the extent to which containment is viewed in China not as a possible future consequence of foreign policy mistakes but as a fait accompli. This narrative, one especially popular among the hawkish groups that dominate Chinese strategic circles, holds that all American action in the region, from its longstanding support for Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to its recent rapprochements with Myanmar and Vietnam, is directed towards constraining and undermining China and preventing a challenge to its own global hegemony.

With such assumptions, China’s strategic priorities seem quite different; making concessions for the sake of stable relations with neighbouring states hardly seems a promising strategy if those neighbours are assumed to be working in concert to contain China. China’s ADIZ aggressive pursuit of other territorial claims conversely seem less like pointless antagonism and instead like an indispensable first step towards pushing back against an ever-tightening circle of American pawns.

This is significant because America’s response to the ADIZ and other instances of Chinese aggression – appealing to China’s better judgement and urging restraint – will simply not work if large swathes of China’s foreign policy community assume a priori that the US is both hostile and duplicitous. Unless some shift can be effected in the paranoid mindset of China’s leaders, the risk of conflict in the seas around China will continue to rise, as demonstrated earlier this week when a Chinese frigate almost rammed an American surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

The US and its allies are hardly in a position to transform China’s strategic assumptions, but America might hand some relief to the few beleaguered doves in China’s government by at least making its goals in Asia more explicit. Barack Obama’s administration continues to claim that its “pivot” to Asia is in no way directed at China, in a remarkable insult to the intelligence of the Chinese.

There are more open strategies that could be pursued. The US could lay down a firm principle of opposition to further military expansion by the PRC, while emphasizing that the US is not engaged in any attempt to bring about regime change in China (which it is certainly not, quite simply because it does not have the means to do so), placing defensive conflict prevention at the centre of its China policy.

Such a change in rhetoric will likely have little impact within China, but it could serve as the beginning of a much needed change of approach towards relations with China in the US and Europe: a greater focus on convincing China that it faces no coherent threat from the West, instead of wasting political capital on formalistic “criticism” of China’s human rights record. Only if Chinese fears can be abated can any significant shift towards stability in East Asia’s seas become a possibility.

Ukraine Orange Again: Witnessing a Euro Cold War

By Claire McNear, on 19 December 2013

By Hesham Shafick

“I ask Yanukovych – resign!” said Vitali Klitschko, the boxing world’s heavyweight champion and one of the leading figures of the pro-Euro opposition protests in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted from his position as prime minister 10 years earlier through the Orange Revolution. Since then, the Ukrainian dream to join the European Union and become a part of the so-called Western bloc had been progressing.

Six years later after the revolution, however, the Russian-backed “deep state” managed to bring Yanukovych back, this time as president. Yanukovych propaganda portrayed the Orange Revolution as a Western-sponsored coup.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and Turkish protests, Ukrainian protesters have vowed to remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, where protests first began on 21 November, until Yanukovych steps down, an action the West has largely received as a return of the Orange Revolution.

In the East, it was also perceived as a new Orange Revolution, though with a markedly different definition provided by the current regime. This definition is embodied in former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s statement, “Push away the plotters, who seek power and attempt to repeat the scenario of 2004.” Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the ongoing demonstrations as a “pogrom,” and advised Ukraine to enhance trade agreements with Russia and spurn the West.

The East–West division in Ukraine is starkly reminiscent of Berlin Wall-era Germany. In addition to the proxy East–West dispute over Ukraine, the Ukrainian population itself has long been divided. In the eastern part of the country, much of the population speaks Russian and sees Moscow as a patron. But many in the western part of Ukraine see Russia as an imperialist force, and often invoke the slogan “Ukraine is Russia” as a way of calling out Ukraine’s leaders for maintaining what they believe is too close a relationship with their eastern neighbour. After the Orange Revolution, when the West dominated public office, the East dominated the public sphere. Today, the opposite is true.

It is not only the ideological and cultural differences within the nation that make Kiev the new Berlin: fiscal pressure obligates Ukraine to take a side. In simple words, Ukraine needs to borrow money, whether from the West or the East, in order for its economy to survive. Standard and Poor’s, which already cut Ukraine’s credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further political deterioration could bring another downgrade. Yet both Europe and Russia, Ukraine’s most likely lenders, stipulate not borrowing from the other. Brussels says a trade deal with Europe would bring Ukraine valuable investment, yet a prerequisite of opening the markets to foreign direct investment is required. Putin on the other hand is using the supply of cheap Russian gas – or the threat of cutting it off – as a hammer to bring Ukraine to heel.

Giving up on Brussels and looking instead to China sparked the latest upheaval, which began with a failed vote of no confidence against the government. The protesters in Independence Square are seeking to accomplish what they failed to do in Parliament. Opinion surveys conducted before the protests showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the subsequent police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favour of integration with the EU.

Yanukovych’s trip to China could reveal a possible source of financing that might save the regime’s head. Beijing has already provided Ukraine with $10 billion in loans and promised further economic and trade agreements. China could be a loophole to steer between the two sides battling back home. Being an Eastern substitute to Russia, it both sidesteps the negative connotation of “Ukraine is Russia” and keeps Yanukovych’s Eastern constituency pleased, while tackling the nation’s fiscal anguish.