Obama: plus ça change?

January 21, 2009

Robin Shepherd is a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London. The opinions expressed are his own.

robinshepherd-cropped1Which part of the word “change” did Barack Obama not understand? A year from now it is a question that many outside America will be asking about his foreign policy.

American forces will still be in Afghanistan; the handover in Iraq will continue, with some  troops coming home as they would have under President Bush; U.S. support for Israel will remain unchanged, while the Annapolis process begun under Obama’s predecessor continues to take its course.

The “war on terror”, though repackaged under a different name, will have shown no signs of abating. The world will still be sleep-walking its way towards a nuclear armed Iran, with America unable to rally China and Russia to participate in meaningful sanctions. Tensions with a neo-authoritarian Russia will have shown no signs of abating as commitments to NATO allies and partners, particularly on Russia’s periphery, take precedence over temptations to appease the Kremlin.

How, the world will ask, did the candidate of change become the president of continuity?

Cynical? Perhaps. New American presidents always inherit baggage from their predecessors. It would certainly take more than a year for Obama to unburden himself from a legacy as fraught as the one he was bequeathed.

The bigger question is this: does Barack Obama bring to the White House a vision for change in foreign affairs which will so fundamentally re-jig the puzzle?

There are good reasons for doubting it. To be sure, Obama’s oratorical brilliance will change the feel of things. And this is not to damn him with faint praise. Relating to the world requires an ability to find a common language. Tone matters. But beyond that, Obama will be faced with a nexus of challenges and interests, which will ensure that the substance of his foreign policy will show deeply etched lines of continuity with his predecessor. Here’s why.

First, the challenge from Islamist terrorists remains a frightening feature of the modern world. Obama will give short shrift to those among his supporters inclined to dismiss it as “alarmism”. The fact that President Bush managed to avoid another attack on American soil following 9/11 will be recorded by posterity as one of his greatest achievements. Obama will not want historians to write that there was a repeat of that dreadful day under his watch. While closing Guantanamo Bay, doing away with practices such as water-boarding and offering words of friendship to the Muslim world, Obama will keep his foot firmly on the gas.

Second, his deafening silence during Operation Cast Lead as well as several firmly pro-Israeli remarks on the campaign trail, suggests that he will do nothing to change America’s long standing support for the Jewish state. His road map for peace in the Middle East will be the Annapolis process whose contours he will respect. American support for Israel derives from political-cultural affiliations shared by both parties. A presidency may change overnight; a political culture does not.

Third, it seems increasingly clear that there is no magic bullet to solve the Iranian nuclear problem. The military option is unlikely. Sanctions are not working. If Obama tries direct talks, he will soon understand why President Bush eschewed them. Iran’s nuclear programme is an integral part of the country’s hegemonic ambitions in the wider Middle East. No amount of sweet talking will get them to change.

Fourth, relations with Russia will end up being driven by the interplay between strategic alignment of interests – such as shoring up Russia as a bulwark against a rising China and anti-terrorist intelligence sharing – and ties with NATO. It will look remarkably similar to the relationship he inherits.

Fifth, the script for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has to a great extent already been written. Sooner or later America would have pulled out of the former in any case. It would have continued to fight in the latter whoever was president.

Sixth, Obama will soon find that talking about “multilateralism” is a lot easier than living it. If he manages to pull off long overdue reforms to the United Nations he will still need to find a way of accommodating awkward customers like China and Russia. As Bill Clinton found over Kosovo, sometimes you have to go it alone anyway.

Finally, the transatlantic relationship is in far better shape than some of the more pessimistic interpretations of George Bush’s performance would have us believe. NATO expansion has been substantial and successful. Georgian and Ukrainian membership has been put on ice by German and French opposition. The question is not likely to be resolved quickly and never would have been. The biggest change in the transatlantic relationship will be the tone. In one important respect this may, paradoxically, end up causing some European governments to rue the day they got what they wished for.

When Barack Obama asks Germany and other countries to commit more troops to Afghanistan, it will not be easy for them to deliver the negative response that their domestic audience requires of them. It would be a lot more painful to be lectured about abdicating responsibilities by President Obama than by President Bush. It would certainly add a certain piquancy to the situation.

Barack Obama represents a breath of fresh air for a host of different reasons. A root and branch change in the way America confronts the great foreign policy challenges of our time is unlikely to be one them.

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