The US has made real progress in changing the nature of its relationships with sometime adversaries under President Barack Obama. But it is vital that the next president does not abandon such progress in order to project 'toughness' or simply to distance themselves from the previous administration.
Whatever one may think of his presidency overall, it is clear President Obama has pursued a foreign policy that has seen genuine steps forward on global challenges by working with countries that are often adversaries of the United States.
Despite gathering tensions in the South China Sea, America and China have launched a landmark bilateral climate change deal—and are working together in less publicized areas such as nuclear power security as well. A nuclear deal with Iran and the long-awaited return of normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba also seem to be nearing completion.
On the other hand, the early first-term attempt at a 'reset' of Russian relations proved far from successful. Yet it could be argued that some short-term gains, such as permission to use Russian airspace to remove troops from Afghanistan, were wrought from the attempt.
In the last month there have been calls for the US to work more closely with these sometime adversaries in starkly different contexts: with China on North Korea, with Iran on containing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and with Russia on preventing a further escalation of tension in Europe.
Narrative of 'weakness'
Nevertheless, the administration’s foreign policy has had huge failings and public approval of Obama’s strategy abroad has dropped precipitously since the high reached after the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. A popular narrative has developed that President Obama has failed abroad through a vaguely defined 'weakness', sometimes insinuated as a lack of machismo in comparison to the likes of the 'strong' and forthright Vladimir Putin.
This narrative dictates that whoever takes the Oval Office in January 2017 can set about rebuilding America’s reputation abroad by talking and acting tougher on China, Russia, Iran and others.
This idea is most prominent in the current Republican foreign policy debate (excluding Rand Paul and other non-interventionist libertarians), which appears in many ways an attempt to by each candidate to appear more hawkish than the last.
Jeb Bush has lamented that the US 'no longer inspires[s] fear in our enemies', while Governor Scott Walker believes the US 'need[s] to have an aggressive strategy anywhere around the world'. Senator Marco Rubio even paraphrased the action film Taken when he vowed, with regards to terrorists, 'We will look for you; we will find you; and we will kill you.'
With an increasingly polarized American electorate, extreme positions are often rewarded in the short term. Many of the contenders have already pledged to undo an Iran deal and there will almost certainly be more promises by the major candidates before the Republican primaries are over.
On the Democratic side, the front-runner Hillary Clinton has different reasons for looking to distance herself from President Obama. Her team will be aware that more than half (54 per cent) of Americans see Obama as 'not tough enough' on foreign affairs and national security. This problem is compounded by her tenure as secretary of state and close association with Obama’s foreign policy.
We have already seen the beginning of Clinton’s strategy to distance herself, particularly in her critical comments on Obama’s Syria policy and her silence on the debate on major trade deals with Europe and Asia. In a tight general election, she may need to go further in this direction to fend off charges from the Republicans of 'weakness' on foreign policy.
Moving towards isolationism?
It is easy to dismiss talk of 'tough' attitudes as simple campaign bravado and media spin, and it’s hard to believe that either the American political class or public really wants to return to a decade of war.
However, it is a mistake to conflate war weariness with wanting to avoid conflict altogether. In fact, a recent poll found that Americans are only narrowly opposed to deploying 'boots on the ground' in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq – 50 per cent against to 47 per cent in favour. Among Republicans there was 60 per cent support and, more surprisingly, 57 per cent of 18-29 year olds were supportive of ground operations. So it is far from clear that a profound move towards isolationism has taken root amongst the American public.
What’s worrying is that whoever is the next president—Republican or Democrat—may feel compelled to distance themselves from Obama’s foreign policy record by appearing 'tougher' or more assertive towards America’s potential rivals – even where the issue cannot be resolved with aggressive displays of unilateral power.
While the next president could always change tack once in office, there is a real danger that a contender for the White House will make a promise on foreign policy that quickly unravels some of the hard-fought progress made by the current administration.
Working with adversaries
Although President Obama has many shortcomings in his policy abroad, simply acting and sounding 'tougher' will not reverse them. In this age of diffuse power and exceptionally complex and multi-faceted challenges, working with adversaries is not just useful; it is increasingly the only way forward.
This remains true even if it means, for example, collaborating with Russia on Iran talks while at the same time sanctioning them for actions in Ukraine. Or developing a stronger bilateral dialogue with China, while working with Asian allies to prevent Chinese strategic domination of the region.
The next president will not take the oath of office for over 600 days, but promises made now could be important later. Mitt Romney pledged to label China a 'currency manipulator' if successful in 2012, despite it being widely criticized as a policy likely to backfire. The need for candidates to make headline-grabbing promises, particularly in the crowded Republican field, seems likely to be as strong if not stronger in this election cycle.
While taking a harder line on a sometime adversary might be a good idea in some instances, it would be a mistake for the next president—Republican or Democrat—to throw away the progress Obama has made for the sake of trying to prove their mettle.
This article was originally published in Newsweek.
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