Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Obama isn’t the only one with a passive-aggressive foreign policy

Ian Bremmer
Jun 19, 2014 14:36 UTC

 China's President Xi speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Obama, on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit, in The Hague

America and China are the world’s two major powers, with the largest economies and militaries. The stakes are high for them to practice what they preach on foreign policy: their words and actions influence the global economy, as well as the behavior of allies and enemies.

The problem: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama want to have their foreign policy cake and eat it, too. For both leaders, international engagement isn’t top of mind: they want to downplay their global leadership roles in order to focus on more pressing concerns at home.

But at the same time, they have certain priorities that they’re willing to pursue unilaterally and aggressively abroad. This inconsistency gets them both in hot water. It leaves other countries guessing, it undermines global collaboration, and it allows crises like Ukraine and Iraq to burn hotter, for longer, more often.

The closest thing that Obama has to a foreign policy doctrine is the consistent lack thereof. In his recent speech at West Point, he argued against engaging in conflicts that are not core interests. He emphasized buy-in from a coalition of other partners and the use of the military option only as a last resort. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.

A soldier carries an anti-U.S. drone booklet as people chant slogans against U.S. drone strikes outside the Yemeni House of Representatives in SanaaBut when it comes to unconventional engagement, Obama hasn’t hesitated to wield the hammer; in fact, he’s been more assertive than his predecessor by a long shot. It’s estimated that thousands of people have died at the hands of drone strikes on his watch; these strikes have consistently breached the territorial sovereignty of other countries.

End the foreign policy shutdown

Ian Bremmer
Oct 11, 2013 16:55 UTC

Ever since the government shutdown began, various federal departments have been forced to furlough nonessential personnel. The specter of the United States’ first default in history has become a bargaining chip for American politicians. That has rankled the international community, and it only compounds the backlash we’ve seen recently in response to Obama’s flip-flopping on a Syria strike and the NSA surveillance revelations. It’s clear that international consternation is not enough of an incentive for the United States to change its behavior. As I wrote recently in this column, foreign policy simply isn’t a priority for the Obama administration.

Buffeted by the shutdown crisis and leery of the coming debt ceiling fight, Barack Obama canceled his trip to Asia last week, where he would have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. Obama sent John Kerry in his stead to shake hands, dress in funny outfits, and engage in all the other usual hallmarks of a foreign convention of leaders. Obama was right to think that had he attended himself, the optics wouldn’t have worked in his favor. He would have looked distant and overly-casual to the crises at home if he were in Bali glad-handing with foreign leaders. But the point is not whether Obama made the right decision to cancel — he did — but whether he made the best decision possible. He could have done more, which we’ll get to in a bit. But instead of thinking creatively, the administration checked down to the obvious decision and simply sent Kerry.

What’s at stake at the APEC conference? The validity of America’s “pivot to Asia,” a hallmark of the administration’s first term, and a strategy that was beginning to succeed in the region. As the New York Times wrote earlier this week, without the U.S. at the APEC conference, it’s China’s stage. And that’s a problem when the United States is in the middle of trying to negotiate and complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is the most important trade agreement on the world agenda right now; should all the countries in discussions join, its members would constitute almost 40 percent of world GDP — a coalition of more than a dozen of the most important Pacific powers. The deal would liberalize trade, foster more market access for U.S. firms in the region, and serve a deeper geopolitical purpose: it would give the U.S. a larger stake in regional stability. In other words, the agreement would put American skin in the game and confirm the Asia pivot, as likeminded countries try to hedge against the rise of a Chinese-led system that is not in accordance with their norms and standards.

In pursuit of American humility

Ian Bremmer
Oct 4, 2013 16:43 UTC

This week, as Washington navel-gazed its way into a shutdown, its actions didn’t go unnoticed abroad. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, took the opportunity to gloat about the U.S.’s refusal to pay its federal workers, many of whom are on furlough because of the shutdown. “We are now witnessing the crisis in the U.S. We have never been a government that could not pay its personnel,” Erdogan said.

This is how America’s dysfunction at home is undermining its credibility abroad. The latest development: Obama’s desire to maintain laser focus on the Republicans for political gain has prompted him to cancel a pivotal trip to Asia to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. But it’s not just the shutdown: it is a series of issues over the past decade, chief among them the financial crisis. For decades the U.S. had been espousing the virtues of free market capitalism, urging other countries to adopt the model. America’s exceptional economic success, the thinking went, allowed it to give advice about how other countries should build their own economies.

And then the bottom fell out. The crisis, spurred by lax regulations that were manipulated by the big banks, started in the United States, before its impact spread globally. An unemployment and debt crisis soon followed. So did a rush to rethink the way countries handle their economies. With the free-market system no longer sacrosanct, countries with other approaches were happy to second-guess the system. China’s state capitalist model became a viable alternative as it navigated the financial crisis much better than most. I’ll never forget my meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei in 2009, when he asked me outright, “Now that the free market has failed, what do you think is the proper role for the state in the economy?” The financial crisis was an opportunity to reopen the debate surrounding perceived global values — and to kick the U.S. system while it was down.

The vote on Syria hardly matters

Ian Bremmer
Sep 10, 2013 21:30 UTC

The details of American involvement in Syria seem to change every minute. First the Obama administration was going to launch a “limited, narrow” attack, with international backing, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a punitive response to chemical weapons use. Then the administration was going to do it more or less alone. A week and a half ago, Obama punted on the issue, asking for congressional backing (but all the while stressing he could strike without Congress’ permission). And now, thanks to gaffe diplomacy, it’s possible that America won’t strike Syria at all, as the administration is willing to delay a vote in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution — like Russia’s proposal that Syria hands over its chemical weapons to the international community. That Russia’s plan is likely aimed more at scuttling strikes than at actually rounding up Assad’s chemical arsenal seems beside the point.

For more than a week, the prospect of a strike has dominated headlines, with a vote billed as the all-important variable. Here’s what all that hype is missing: While Obama’s decision to punt to Congress had far-reaching implications, at this point whether the U.S. actually strikes hardly matters. Whether the vote goes through, goes down, or never happens, it doesn’t have a huge impact on Obama, Syria, or America’s underlying priority in the region — Iran.

If the decision to strike Syria mattered overwhelmingly to President Obama, he wouldn’t have gone to Congress in the first place. Obama knows that, in this decade, elections are not won and lost on foreign policy. Only 5 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election said their top issue was foreign policy. By punting to Congress, Obama made clear that he values the political cover it provides more than the actual issue at hand — to strike or not to strike. If the strike gets voted down, the defeat would only have limited domestic impact for Obama, as most of the damage is already done. And if the vote is delayed indefinitely — as a result of exploring Russia’s proposal, for example — then the fallout for Obama is even less severe.

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

Ian Bremmer
Jul 25, 2013 14:57 UTC

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

Washington’s scandals won’t stunt America’s recovery

Ian Bremmer
May 16, 2013 15:55 UTC

Scandal has visited the Obama administration, and thanks to the media narrative it’s larger than the sum of its parts. With a talking-point imbroglio after Benghazi, the IRS’s discriminatory practices and the Justice Department’s procurement of Associated Press phone records, the Obama administration and its allies are right to be worried.

But those of us invested in U.S. growth have little reason to fret. The past few years have proved that dysfunction in Washington has almost no effect on America’s attractiveness to investors. As the rates of U.S. Treasury bonds prove, America continues to be the place for investors to park their money. That’s because petty politics don’t control the fate of the country.

In major emerging markets, politicians have to behave to appeal to investors. In capitals like Moscow, Delhi and Pretoria, this is largely an act of optics, but it’s an important one for countries trying to earn the trust of investors who see opportunity, but not necessarily stability. For further proof of developing countries’ precarious position, look to Bangladesh, where a country’s economy has been threatened by its politicians’ negligence before, during and after the country’s latest garment industry catastrophe.

On Syria, it’s time for Obama to decide

Ian Bremmer
May 9, 2013 18:46 UTC

Through two years of Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has cautiously dragged its feet as the United States is further enmeshed in the conflict. That’s a sensible platform at home, with opinion polls showing that Americans don’t think the country has a responsibility to intervene. It has strategic merit, too, given that intervention against Bashar al-Assad is an implicit endorsement of a largely unknown opposition force with radical, sectarian factions. 

But the status quo in Syria is breaking down, and Obama’s worst option is to kick the can as the United States inexorably gets dragged deeper into the conflict. It may be politically painful, but it’s time to make a choice: Go all in with a no fly zone — or avoid anything more than diplomatic intervention and humanitarian/non-lethal aid. Here’s why.

Until recently, Obama’s strategy of hesitance and risk aversion was commendable and well executed. As the situation worsened, the United States took minimal, reactionary steps. First, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to put together a formal — and reasonably liberal — Syrian political opposition, but it quickly fragmented because it had no workable ties to the actual rebels doing the actual fighting. Then the United States turned to non-lethal aid for the rebels (including defensive military equipment) as well as supporting Qatar and other countries through intelligence and logistics. Furthermore, in August 2012, Obama drew a “red line” at “chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” by the regime. At the time, it seemed unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

Rocking the vote may not rock the boat

Ian Bremmer
Nov 6, 2012 19:59 UTC

This week — chads willing — Americans will finally put an end to four years’ worth of electoral Sturm und Drang. Only then can the country begin to ask the question that matters much more than who will win: Will anything change? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is, for the most part, no.

Likewise, this week — politburo willing — the Chinese will finally put an end to a year of bureaucratic angst. The powers that be hope that once a new president is installed, the Communist Party can put months of scandal behind it (Bo Xilai’s trial and Wen Jiabao’s family fortune, to name just a couple) and start to answer the question they’re most eager to put to bed: Will anything change in a new regime? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is — you guessed it — for the most part, no.

In a volatile world, American and Chinese foreign policies appear, at least for the next few years, set in stone.

Romney’s only path forward: Back the way he came

Ian Bremmer
Oct 3, 2012 15:27 UTC

Six months ago, the U.S. election was about the economy, and little else. Nearly everyone agreed that for Mitt Romney to win, he’d have to exploit Barack Obama’s glaring weakness: an economy that was as stubborn as the Congress that refused to rescue it. Unemployment was high, Europe’s future was uncertain and the markets were volatile. Not coincidentally, polls showed the two men neck and neck.

But now Mitt Romney has kicked off the week of the first presidential debate – which is focused on domestic policy – with a foreign policy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Noting the recent protests over the Innocence of Muslims video and the Iranian nuclear program, Romney writes: “These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere ‘bumps in the road.’ They are major issues that put our security at risk.” Obama’s now just as vulnerable on foreign policy as on the economy, and Romney seems to realize it. So what’s the problem? Voters are still basing their decision overwhelmingly on the economy. Romney has flipped the electoral script, but it’s not a winning strategy. He would be wise to get back on message before it’s too late (which it already may be).

Over the past few months, the global and domestic economies have averted the double-dip disaster that seemed so imminent. The Europeans have made significant strides toward a stronger union, the Supreme Court upheld the Democrats’ healthcare law, Ben Bernanke moved forward with a new round of quantitative easing, the housing sector appears to be growing again, and consumer confidence is at its highest in the last four months. That unemployment remains high and GDP remains weak means that 81 percent of voters still think that the economy is “not so good” or “poor,” according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. And yet that and other polls show that there’s an even split on which candidate voters think is best equipped to handle the economy.

Getting away with it while the world’s cop is off duty

Ian Bremmer
Oct 1, 2012 13:30 UTC

As the world convened at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk blood and treasure promoting democracy abroad was on full display: Barack Obama gave a stirring speech defending American values and asking other democracies to adopt them. But Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t deliver his speech until after an appearance on a daytime chat show, in obvious support of his re-election campaign.

Many foreign policy experts have criticized Obama for wasting time with Barbara and Whoopi on The View when he could’ve been engaging with foreign leaders on the East Side of Manhattan. But the experts’ takeaway from Obama’s priorities last week is no different than it has been from the administration’s response to months of civil war in Syria, the teeter-tottering of Libya, the reluctance to pose a credible military threat for Iran and the refusal to engage in the Middle East peace process.

The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two. In the long term, this reset of foreign policy and military initiatives may yield the country a peace dividend. In the short term, there are three international issues where the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and where, in the past, a U.S. president might have intervened. Let’s look at them:

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