U.S. foreign policy is anything but demilitarized. But where the Bush team saw every problem as a nail, the Obama team wields more than just a hammer.
The United States has learned the hard way that it can’t tackle every problem with a hammer. Does it have other tools at its disposal? (Photo: Janeen Hutchins / Flickr)
For the long eight years of the George W. Bush administration, progressives decried the over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy. The Pentagon’s budget doubled, and U.S. military exports surged. Instead of deploying international law against Osama bin Laden, the United States deployed troops in Afghanistan. It went on to invade Iraq and threaten Iran. The Bush administration gave the CIA wider authority to kidnap, torture, and kill people. The State Department, particularly in the first term, dwindled to relative obscurity.
Certainly the Pentagon existed before September 11, and certainly the United States used its military on numerous occasions in the preceding two decades—in Panama, in Somalia, in Serbia. But the Bush administration pumped America full of steroids in an effort to turn what was already the world’s strongman into an eye-popping global Schwarzenegger.
Although the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are nearly at an end, the American body politic still contains traces of this steroid overdose. The CIA is still running a drone war in Pakistan. U.S. Special Forces are deployed in more than 130 countries around the world. A “pivot” is underway in Asia to counter China; an expansion of military power in Africa has been underway to fight terrorism and secure access to scarce resources.
Meanwhile, two key Bush-era legacies remain in place. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) is still in force should the president decide to send troops to Syria or the South China Sea. And what the CIA’s former counterterrorism lawyer John Rizzo called “the most comprehensive, most ambitious, most aggressive, and most risky Finding or MON I was ever involved in”—an authorization to capture and detain Al Qaeda terrorists—is also still on the books.
And yet, the Obama administration has gone some way toward ridding America of its image as the Schwarzenegger of countries. It has pledged to stop doping, compete on a level playing field, and be less of a global policeman and more of a kindergarten cop. “America must move off a permanent war footing,” the president said in his 2014 State of the Union address. The administration famously did not launch an attack on Syria last fall. It has pursued an agreement with Iran rather than an intensified confrontation. The “Pacific Pivot,” which is more smoke than firepower, has not resulted in any skirmishes with China. And the military option appears to be off the table in the current conflict with Russia over the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which leaves Bush-era dinosaurs like Dick Cheney shouting into the wind.
In many ways, Obama has turned the clock on U.S. foreign policy back to September 10, 2001 or perhaps even to the last months of the Bill Clinton presidency. There is no less of a commitment to the maintenance of U.S. unipolar power. But the Obama team prefers to do so with less in-your-face intensity and more commitment to the “a la carte internationalism” of the Clinton years. The Bush team had one tool in its toolbox, and every problem looked like a nail. The Obama team wields more than just a hammer.
It’s still worth pushing for the further demilitarization of U.S. policy. Pentagon spending is still way out of whack, and activists are gearing up for another Global Day of Action on Military Spending on April 14. A bipartisan congressional effort has been launched way to repeal the AUMF, something that Obama himself endorsed at one point. Anti-drone campaigning has raised awareness about the terrible consequences for civilians of this type of warfare.
As the high tide of militarization recedes, another question has re-emerged. How should the U.S. government be using the other tools in its toolbox to exert influence overseas in non-military ways? For those who don’t side with the hawks, the debate has boiled down to those who support engagement with the world and those who believe that the U.S. government should reduce its global interactions to a bare minimum. This debate has little to do with the state of the world. It has everything to do with the world of the state.
Those who favor engagement subscribe to some form of liberal internationalism. They believe that the U.S. state should do overseas what it is supposed to do domestically: redistribute wealth, protect the vulnerable, champion public services like education, and maintain public goods like the environment. In much the same way that the federal government negotiates with the states on these issues, it interacts with other countries and international institutions to further these goals at a global level.
There are two chief criticisms of this liberal internationalism. The first is that very little of what the U.S. state is doing internationally has any relationship to the lofty goals of liberals. Let’s put to one side military intervention and preparations for war and just look at the economic and diplomatic side of the equation. Humanitarian aid has become increasingly militarized. Development assistance is related more to beefing up our alliances than ending global poverty. Bilateral assistance comes with strings attached, like the purchase of U.S. goods and services. Trade deals focus more on opening up markets to U.S. companies than to raising labor and environmental standards. Participation in international accords too often adheres to a double standard: under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for instance, Washington sanctions North Korea for its covert nuclear weapons program but gives Israel a pass. U.S. diplomacy often focuses on the narrow rewards that accrue to the United States—by having “our guy” in power, for instance—rather than the greater global good.
The other criticism is more systemic. Libertarians are uncomfortable with anything more than a minimalist state. The state, they feel, should not be in the business of interfering with business. Libertarians are withering in their critique of the “huge bureaucracy” that regulates the market—for instance, to raise the minimum wage or reduce carbon emissions—and extracts a portion of everyone’s wages in a modest effort to redistribute the wealth. Libertarians have also been skeptical of the state’s functions overseas. Anti-war libertarians played an important role in the shift of public opinion against the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Libertarianism in general is on the upswing in the United States. At 10-15 percent of the electorate, the get-the-state-off-our-back slice of the voting public is a key constituency.
Against these two critiques of liberal internationalism—the state is not doing any good vs. the state by definition can’t do any good—it’s difficult to put forward an argument for a progressive U.S. foreign policy that is feasible and not simply Panglossian. But of course that is the mission of Foreign Policy In Focus: to chart a just, democratic, and cooperative U.S. foreign policy that has a hope of winning the support of the U.S. public, the majority of Congress, and the ear of the executive branch.
The current crisis in Ukraine reveals the difficulty of this challenge. Progressives and libertarians should, of course, be happy that the Obama administration is currently not considering the hammer option. Of course, NATO expansion has played a role in precipitating Russia’s response. But I’m more interested in the accusations that the United States “engineered a coup” in Kiev, that it “directly supports neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, and that it is pulling the strings behind everything now taking place in that troubled part of the world.
First of all, the notion that the United State was responsible for the regime change in Kiev is absurd. That was the work of the people of Ukraine, from the frailest Euromaidan protestor to the most powerful oligarch. The United States was obviously interested in a certain outcome: the victory of the Western-leaning faction. It directed a modicum of assistance to “democracy promotion” efforts. It also worked behind the scenes to promote its preferred political figure—as the leaked Victoria Nuland phone call revealed.
But Washington prefers stability and predictability above all, which is why it supported the February 21 compromise that would have kept Viktor Yanukovych as president until new elections could take place. It was precisely those elements that some believe the United States has supported—the neo-fascists of the Right Sector—that helped scupper that deal. To be sure, there are politicians like John McCain who have supported these thugs as part of a long tradition of the Republican Party’s embrace of the radical right in Ukraine. But the neo-fascists are not the kind of politicians that the Obama administration is cultivating in Ukraine. The extreme right has a visceral dislike of NATO, the EU, and the IMF. It has very limited popularity in the country (though its popularity rises with Russia’s every aggressive move). And the Ukrainian uber-nationalists serve only to ratchet up a rivalry with Russia that the Obama administration does not want to see spin out of control.
So, I’ve argued against this extreme critique of U.S. policy in Ukraine, one that the Russian foreign ministry regularly trumpets and a small but vocal sliver of the left has embarrassingly embraced. The question remains: should the United States have been involved in Ukraine at any level?
Let’s start at the bottom. There are certainly problems with U.S. “democracy promotion.” We end up compromising the groups we fund. We often support some not terribly democratic groups. And there is a certain hypocrisy about supporting LGBT rights in Russia, for instance, when those same rights are at risk in Utah and Arizona. But I do believe in supporting institutions and mechanisms of participatory democracy. And I welcome efforts by outsiders to improve American democracy as well (please send in the election observers and the human rights monitors).
I also support efforts to address global economic, health, and environmental problems. Yes, U.S. funds often come with strings attached. But we as citizens can have input into the shape of these government programs in a way that we don’t have input into what private philanthropists like Bill Gates do. And when it comes to Ukraine, we should be putting our money where our mouth is and supply more than just the current package of loan guarantees. It goes without saying that any aid should be strictly monitored and help people from the bottom up rather than from the top down.
I draw the line, however, when it comes to picking winners and losers in the political sphere. Such a political intervention subverts the democratic institutions that we are supposedly supporting from below. The State Department might prefer the liberal economist Arseniy Yatsenyuk to lead Ukraine. But that choice should be up to the Ukrainian people.
In the last five years, the United States has become a slightly more responsible superpower. Some people might think this is no better than lipsticking the pig; they won’t be happy until Amy Goodman or Cornel West takes the oath of office. Until that day comes, however, we should recognize intermediate progress. Whatever you might think of the specific betrayals of the Obama administration, Washington no longer looks at the world as if it were one huge nail in need of hammering. The full toolbox is open. The question remains: can we use some of those tools to help people around the world?