Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 2 – 9 May 2014

Conflicts Forum

Professor Stephen Walt noted somewhat wryly in a recent article that perhaps one of Bill Clinton’s worst predictions consisted in 1992 remark, in which he said, “in a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute.  It is ill-suited to a new era.”

Walt notes however, that declaring an end to power politics and the dawn of an increasingly participatory, globalized, liberal market-driven, institutionalized, and allegedly benevolent world order, has been an article of faith in the U.S. for a long time. In fact it dates back to the years leading up to the second Word War – when a small group of analysts at the Council for Foreign Relations argued that this should constitute the meme that would differentiate and define America’s (expected, even then) rise to hegemonic power – from that of the crude 19th century ‘gun boat’ power-precepts of Old Imperialism. It appealed to the (Protestant) Pilgrim Fathers’ legacy about America as being the ‘New Jerusalem’ for redeeming the world; but more paragmatically, “because U.S. dominance made serious geopolitical rivalries impossible by definition: How could we have “power politics” when there was only one great power?” Walt noted.

This meme placed the United States at the focal point of a supposedly tranquil order and portrayed America’s global role in a consistently positive light: It offered up an optimistic vision of international affairs, in which mutually beneficial cooperation in moving towards the ‘End of History’ was not only required of all states – but which additionally, obligated participants to adhere to one, limited, and culturally polarised view of the ‘good’, leveraged as the ‘Absolute’ (as ‘Truth’).  It was this latter aspect that ultimately was to be the meme’s undoing, as it provided liberal ‘moral interventionists’ with their rationale to target less powerful ‘rogue states’ and their leaders, who (in their eyes) had become ‘enemies of the good’. “Even a rising China would pose no problem”, Walt suggests: “in this brave new globalized world; a powerful but benevolent America would embrace its rise, and gradually “socialize” Beijing into a world order governed by institutions designed and (mostly) made in America”. (CF added emphasis).

With recent events in Ukraine, this deeply imprinted American zeitgeist has unmistakeably crashed into an unmovable ‘object’: the reality that ‘power politics’ never went away, but has been there all along, lurking beneath the surface.  The outcome of the war in Iraq, the Iranian stance on the nuclear issue, the failure in Afghanistan, the challenge from China — all were harbingers of a geo-political shift, as states played their power-political hands against the US. But Ukraine somehow has emerged as the iconic symbol of this collision of memes.

One most obvious consequence is that the two narratives (that of the US and that of Russia on the meaning of Ukraine) simply do not touch at any point: one is the narrative of the progressive claims of history converging on certain values, and the other is the narrative of a sovereignty regained, and that of its direct corollary lying with the insistence of the right of a nation to live by its own lights, and ultimately to defend itself and its ‘way-of-being’ à outrance. Unmistakably, we are in an era where increasingly people wish to live by, and be governed by, institutions that reflect their ways of living.

What does this mean in respect to the Ukraine crisis, and what might we expect from US foreign policy in respect to the Middle East?

The primordial tension here – and the likely key cause to the un-anchoring and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy – is that President Obama seems only too well to understand his cruel predicament: he sees, and understands, the adverse reactions and growing limitation to ‘America as the world’s benevolent hegemon’ zeitgeist.  He sees it, but is trapped by it too – as evidenced by his Brussels speech at the outset of the Ukraine crisis (in which he proclaimed the universal ‘march’ towards the benevolent global order).

But Obama also suggests that he does not really believe it: in other contexts, he has contradicted his Brussels theme by saying explicitly in interviews that he, as America’s leader, in fact possesses no ‘joy-stick’ by which he may control events (in other words that the ‘benevolent order’ is by no means pre-ordained); that probably the best he can do is to flow with the uncertain currents of the Middle East and to hope that they may be turned towards a more favourable destination. And his deputy national security adviser for strategic communications has categorised Obama’s true foreign policy ambition as being that of wanting to wean Washington’s foreign policy wonks from their “stale narratives”.

President Obama knows too – as the polls all suggest – that the American public instinctively understand this, and are with him in opposing interventionist policies. But the Republicans, the Democrat liberal interventionists, the think-tankers, and the interest-lobbies from defence industries to Wall Street — not to mention the neo-cons— simply won’t have it. They are besieging him from all sides to be more assertive and aggressive – especially towards Russia and to President Putin (as the essential ‘enemy of the good’).

President Obama seems to have responded to these huge pressures and attacks on his foreign policy failures (Syria, Israel/Palestine and his ‘misguided’ initiative towards Iran) by conceding some tactical ground to the ‘hawks’, whilst restricting his (unstated) red line to that of avoiding direct military intervention in any of these crises.

This has allowed him to say to critics: ‘Well, what is it then that you want from me — you who demand more assertiveness and aggressiveness, and who seem to have learned nothing from Iraq – since you (his critics) also agree that you are opposed to direct intervention in these crises too: What are you proposing that I am not already doing?’.

In short, he is telling his critics that it is they – paradoxically – who are stuck advocating the 19th century power politics as somehow providing solutions to today’s complicated issues. We are witness to the consequences of this Presidential tactical ‘play’ of giving ground (in order to preserve his strategic end of not starting new wars) in the Middle East today: escalation on all fronts – as Obama lets out the leash on issues of visceral import to hawkish constituencies in the Beltway – to alleviate the immediate pressures on him.

But, as Obama will also be aware, his tactical yielding in order to preserve the strategic goal of no direct military intervention (as demanded by his opponents) nonetheless is giving space to regional actors (Israel, Saudi Arabia etc.,) and certain elements of American interests to lever this limited ‘space’ – through pushing its boundaries further and further out (e.g. new weapons for the Syrian insurgents; greater political recognition in Washington).

This is election year in the US, and the Democrats are at risk in the Senate. Obama is being pressed on his so-called ‘weak’ foreign policy by Republicans, by Mrs Clinton as the prime Democrat contender for 2016, and even by US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It would seem that all Obama’s original foreign policy aims (a Palestinian state, the ‘reset’ with Russia and the Iranian nuclear agreement) now are politically irrecoverable for him, and the more likely out-turn is that the President will be forced to give yet more ground to assuage his attackers as he finds himself locked into the defensive, and as the hawks demand yet more support for Syrian insurgents, and insist on the physical impossibility of ‘break out capacity’ demanded of Iran. In brief, the violent conflict in Syria is likely to be further fuelled, rather than tamped down for the coming months. And the growing US literal insistence on no physical ‘break out’ possibility for Iran is likely to prove incompatible with any Iranian desire to power their industry from nuclear energy.

This Wednesday, Obama warned donors at a Democratic fund-raising dinner that disquiet and a sense of frustration in the country is fuelling cynicism about government that could hurt Democrat turnout in the November congressional elections. According to Politico, “Obama told the high-dollar contributors that he feels a sense of urgency about the election, and needs the Senate to remain Democratic”. There is no doubt that many Americans indeed are feeling a sense of directionless-ness and of a fading American standing in the world. And Obama is warning that this frustration, fed by the media and his opponents (including from within his own Administration), are threatening the mid-term election prospects.

And this is where Ukraine is so key. James Traub in an article entitled The Enemy We Have Been Waiting For, writes: “Then Putin yanked the administration back [from Obama’s ‘engagement’ praxis] to the world of aggression … Putin, it’s true, has dictated the terms of the contest … Nevertheless, I suspect that neither Putin’s gloating nor Sen. John McCain’s mockery will last. Putin is the foil Obama has been waiting for”.

The point here is that – though their narratives may never touch – policy makers in Moscow understand American thinking (possibly much better than vice versa – i.e. better than Russia’s is understood in Washington). President Putin is not playing old-style ‘gun-boat’ one-to-one diplomacy with the US. He is playing contemporary multi-dimensional (i.e. multi-polar global) chess. He is thinking China; he is thinking BRICS; he is thinking the non-aligned world, the Middle East and Eurasia.

Obama’s priorities perhaps have changed in light of his fears about American frustration and its impact on the mid-term outcome for the Democrats. Originally, Putin’s quiet and unacknowledged help was needed in order to make Obama’s Middle East policy work (the Chemical Weapons accord in Syria, the Iran negotiations, etc.), but now perhaps all this is secondary to Obama’s domestic worries about the upcoming elections in the US (all US foreign policy is domestic politics in the old adage). Now Putin might just become the ‘foil Obama has been waiting for’ – as the means to save the Democrats from ignominy in the mid-terms by giving the American electorate a good, old fashioned, black-and-white contest against a historic enemy that will give them back a sense of national pride – at least for the moment.

Perhaps President Putin’s new initiative of Ukrainian talks and the postponement of the referenda is precisely a recognition of the box in which Obama would like to enclose him (The Enemy We Have Been Waiting For, in Traub’s conception) – and from which Putin is seeking an exit?  In any event, it seems likely that the Ukrainian crisis will be prolonged (at least through the mid-term elections as Americans argue out between themselves what it is for which America now stands, in this new era). But the political dividend from Ukraine (if indeed there is any) will be determined perhaps by who can play a better game of chess: Obama or Putin. The Middle East will be watching attentively, but the money will be probably be on Putin.

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