Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Without us firing a shot"

In his speech at West Point yesterday, one of the points President Obama made was about the need for the United States to demonstrate leadership by strengthening institutions that provide for international order. As he did in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he referred to President Kennedy's call for a peace based upon "a gradual evolution in human institutions." As I've been saying all along, those human institutions are based on the power of partnership rather than the dominance of unilateralism.

To point to the effectiveness of such an approach, the President gave two examples. The first is the global response to Russian incursion into the Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions; Europe and the G7 joined us to impose sanctions; NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies; the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy; OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. And this mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.

This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next President. We don’t know how the situation will play out and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future without us firing a shot.
The second was the work that is currently underway to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Similarly, despite frequent warnings from the United States and Israel and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years. But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government. And now we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully.

The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement -- one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. And throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.
Neither situation is completely resolved. But its interesting to note this recent news on the Iranian negotiations.
Iran has neutralized most of its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium that could be turned quickly into the core of a nuclear weapon, the U.N. nuclear agency said Friday, leaving the country with only about a fifth of what it would need for such a purpose.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a quarterly report that Iran now has less than 90 pounds of the material.

The report also said Tehran was meeting all other obligations under an agreement reached four months ago in Geneva that serves as a prelude to a comprehensive deal now being negotiated.
Both of these situations are demonstrations of how the Obama Doctrine has been successfully implemented:
  1. Articulation of international norms
  2. Development of a global partnership to reinforce those norms via economic pressure
  3. The use of diplomacy to identify a "way out" of that pressure via an appeal to the self-interests of the offending country
Prior to this presidency, our country's foreign policy was mostly limited in these kinds of situations to a response that either ignored the challenge (isolationism) or responded with military intervention. The one big exception to that would be President Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis - when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Demonstrating the power of partnership as an effective tool for U.S. leadership in the world will truly be one of President Obama's most enduring legacies.


  1. "Articulation of international norms
    Development of a global partnership to reinforce those norms via economic pressure
    The use of diplomacy to identify a "way out" of that pressure via an appeal to the self-interests of the offending country"

    I don't disagree that that is a tidy summary of his modus operandi. But sentences like "Prior to this presidency, our country's foreign policy was mostly limited in these kinds of situations to a response that either ignored the challenge (isolationism) or responded with military intervention." are wildly overstated to the point of being propaganda.

    I don't remember us firing a shot in Poland. Or Hungary. Or Czechoslovakia. Or Lithuania...

    And yet they all became members of the European Union. And NATO. And so on. And that seems to have gone largely pretty well. We don't tend to get into a lot of shooting wars with Russia/Soviet Union, and yet Russian interests have just about always come out for the poorer, presumably not by magic or predestination.

    The UN, the OSCE, the IAEA, the IMF, the G7/G20: none of these things in the President's list were invented in the last five years. I suppose you could try and argue that they were all fraudulent organizations that had never been deployed according to their true principles before 2009, but the more likely explanation is that your propaganda about charting a path between isolationism and wanton militarism has been simplified and obscured to the point of silliness.

    Is it only a matter of time until you give Obama credit for the sun rising in the morning? Is he the Ur-President, responsible for all things that have ever been or will ever be? It's one thing to point out how different he is from his immediate neoconservative predecessors. It's another to erase post-WWII history (how do you explain the existence of the United Nations? Or the collapse in intrastate warfare over the last 70 years? Or the surge in global health outcomes and economic growth?)

    1. I fail to see how the U.S. had much of a role in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Lithuania. Its true that we were players in building the institutions you name. And those have been effective in Europe and in preventing another World War (as did the invention of nuclear weapons - they are why we had a COLD war. The prospect of nuclear annihilation was not something either side ever really wanted to consider).

      But beyond all that those institutions were pretty ineffective in navigating the challenges that arose as colonialism in South America, Asia and Africa was defeated and countries all over the world became proxies in the Cold War. Between overt intervention (Korea and Vietnam) and covert action, our military and intelligence institutions were engaged in civil wars all over the globe defending unspeakable tyrants in the name of "fighting communism."

      You're right that in the end, the Soviet Union came out the poorer as a result of the Cold War. Unlike the neocons I don't give all the credit for that to Reagan. Their economy wasn't strong enough to withstand the military interventionism that the Cold War required (Afghanistan?) and they had a visionary leader (Gorbachev) who was smart enough to walk them out of it.

      In the end, no, I'm not going to anoint Obama the Ur-President. But he is slowly walking us out of the frame left to us by the neocons to replace the Cold War - the "Global War on Terror" - and providing an alternative vision for engagement in the world. After watching our response to both the cold war and the global war on terror, I'm pretty grateful for that.