Complicated, but Innovative Diplomacy

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In Which Direction Will the 2nd Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Move?

Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour

Following reelection of Barak Obama as the president of the United States and introduction of his new national security team, the main question posed by experts on the US foreign policy as well as international issues was in what direction will Obama’s foreign policy move during his second term? It is clear that the United States foreign policy will keep up its continuity because continuity of large-scale orientations in foreign policy is an issue of national and consensual importance which is not special to the United States or President Obama, but is a ubiquitous and global phenomenon. However, the roles played by various personalities and executive officials in any country, including the United States, in the field of foreign policy and slight differences which exist between foreign policy approaches of a country in different periods of time cannot be easily ignored. As a result, special attention should be paid to accumulation of experiences as well as small details of various issues, and important cases which come to the surface in the course of time. Taken together, the collection of these actions and reactions will help analysts answer the question as to what direction will Obama’s international policies take during his second term in office. Three important and remarkable issues can be used to shed more light on conceptual and operational aspects of the United States foreign policy during Obama’s second term in office, which include: 1. Study of Obama’s behavior; 2. Composition of his foreign policy and national security team; and 3. Domestic and international conceptualization under present circumstances.

Study of Obama’s Behavior

During his first term as president, Obama displayed special behavioral characteristics and understanding them will be crucial to having a good grasp of his behavior in the second term. It should be noted that Obama was not actually a prominent member of the intricate web of the US politics which is known as the “establishment,” and had no deep roots in it. He neither came from a prominent political family inside the United States, nor had very long and brilliant records in the area of executive affairs. Therefore, it would be no exaggeration to say that key figures inside the US political system had reached a conclusion in the light of what happened to the US foreign policy during eight years under the former President George Bush that the country needed a new face for its executive power. This is why they decided that Obama was a suitable person for this purpose. Let’s not forget that when running against George W. Bush as the Democrat presidential candidate of 2004, and during the Democrat Party Convention which is the most important political event on the party’s calendar, the seasoned US Senator John Kerry, who enjoys over 30 years of experience at the US Senate, introduced Obama as keynote speaker. In fact, by doing so, he gave Obama an opportunity to be known by more people and this was a turning point for Obama to make more profound contacts with the US political system.

It was an extension of that trend which helped Obama to ascend through the power hierarchy and finally emerge as the country’s president. In his first term, however, he had to prove that he is part of the American system and proving this in the United States hinges on a special kind of behavior in both areas of domestic and foreign policy. In doing this, he was trying to repair and mend the US foreign policy approaches, especially by changing Washington’s tone on various issues. With regard to the context, however, he was not successful in introducing any substantial change. This was meant to show that Obama is part of the existing system and does not seek to change the very fundaments of the political system. In practice, however, such a concentrated focus on proving one’s worth left Obama with little room for maneuvering in foreign policy. Although his policy of repair managed to change the circumstances in relations with Europe and the United States’ allies there, however, when it came to such issues as fighting against terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, Obama appeared even more radical than his predecessor, George Bush. As a result, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for the massacre of ordinary people taking part in marriage and mourning ceremonies increased so steeply that gradually turned into a critical issue. As a result, on January 23, 2013, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, announced that he was planning to prepare a report on the violation of human rights as a result of drone attacks, and forward that report to the next meeting of the UN General Assembly.

In the meantime, in parallel to a change in tone, certain aspects of Obama’s radical behavior will probably continue into his second term in office as the extension of the country’s previous foreign policy. At the same time, Obama has already secured his foothold in the US political establishment and does not need to put too much effort in proving himself to that establishment anymore. Perhaps this would give him more latitude to go on with his foreign policy initiatives. Despite the above facts, it should not be forgotten that although the US foreign policy mainly revolves around the decisions made by the chief executive, the role played by his close aides and national security team should not be overlooked.

Composition of Obama’s Security Teams

Comparison between foreign policy and national security teams chosen by Obama for his first and second terms, will give up telltale clues to Obama’s new direction in international affairs. Although his second-term teams have not been yet confirmed by the US Senate, there is high probability that the Senate will give that go-ahead at last. Therefore, a comparison is by all means possible. During his first term, Obama’s foreign policy and national security teams were mostly comprised of the same people who had already served under President Bill Clinton. Some even made jocular references about the team being the second national security team of Clinton. Of course, the team members enjoyed extensive experience in dealing with international issues. The choice of Hillary Clinton as the US Secretary of State was a result of domestic political issues in the United States as well as Clinton’s personal ambitions to run for president in 2016 election in addition to the Democrat Party’s willingness to hold its grip on the White House. The first-term team, on the whole, proved that it was more or less uniform and devoid of major differences. As a result, they united their efforts to achieve the ultimate goal of realizing Clinton’s purported foreign policy objectives.

During Obama’s second term in office, however, some members of the previous teams will remain at the White House. The choice of two key members of those teams, namely, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, cannot be explained on the basis of the same model which was used for Clinton. By selecting these two, Obama has proven his higher concern about the domestic policies of the United States as opposed to the foreign policy. Since both of the nominees for the posts of secretary of defense and secretary of state have their roots in the US Congress and are powerful figures in the US political structure, their presence in the government will help bridge differences about the United States foreign policy approaches inside the country.

It seems that an effort has been made by Obama administration to convey a message to foreign audiences, especially Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran, by arranging this special team which is, of course, not without a cause. The message that the new team is meant to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ultra-right Zionist elements both in Israel and the United States is that military option will not be Washington’s first choice in relation to Iran and this is quite opposite to what Netanyahu wants. The message that the new selection is meant to give Iran is that the United States is ready for interaction although that interaction may be accompanied with more pressures, threats, and sanctions. However, the main message seems to be directed at the US society. The people who Obama has chosen for his new national security and foreign policy teams are characterized by two prominent features. The first feature is the past familiarity as well as ease of contact and interaction between them and Obama. This means that the new people in key posts are familiar with Obama’s ways and, as a result, he will be probably facing fewer problems compared to his first term when dealing with everyday affairs of the United States foreign policy. Their second feature is their good command of internal politics of the United States. This also means that they will face less practical problems both inside and outside the United States. However, despite all the explanation about the behavior and composition of these groups, it should be noted that the US foreign policy is finally implemented within framework of a complex political context.

Study of the Context

The complex political context within which the US government should act is rooted in the domestic policies of the United States, on the one side, while being defined by the country’s international policies, on the other side. As a general rule, the US domestic policies are influential in determining the country’s approach to international issues as well as the overall direction of its foreign policy. In this way, all foreign policy behaviors of the United States are one way or another rooted in domestic developments of the country the most prominent of which are the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict and powerful links between Israel and the US Congress. Even in the case of Iran, internal political forces in the United States play a very significant role due to the existing links between domestic and international policies of the country and Congress is regularly a major challenge that the US president has to face.

Apart from that, the US foreign policy will be trying during Obama’s second term in office to pursue a concept which is of the utmost importance to all domestic and foreign political elite of the United States; that is, Washington’s leadership of the world. However, it would not be easy to realize the goal of promoting the United States leadership in the world in view of the complicated global conditions. During his second term, Obama will be faced with a different context with regard to Washington’s leadership of the world. During his first term, Obama was more popular and his ideas were more acceptable as a result of the world’s aversion for the behavior of his predecessor, George W. Bush. His acceptability and popularity at global level are different in the second term. In addition, developments in the United States’ foreign policy ideas, especially in the last year of his first term, and concepts emanating from those developments, have changed the gravity center of the US foreign policy to Asia. This has posed special challenges to the US foreign policy. It would suffice to note that Joseph Samuel Nye, both a Democrat politician and among theorists of the US foreign policy, published an article in the New York Times on January 26, in which he took to severe task the change of gravity center of Obama’s foreign policy to Asia. In his article, entitled “Work with China,” he made it clear that changing the gravity center of the US foreign policy to Asia will greatly concern politicians in China and cause strain in Beijing’s relations with Washington. The analyst also argued that China’s foreign policy and national security elites will consider such a change a threat to their own foreign policy because it would seem that the United States is trying to contain China’s political power. It should be noted that even the Europeans are sensitive about the change in US foreign policy’s gravity center from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The Arab countries which are regional allies of the United States in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf have shown the highest concern in this regard. Some analysts have even proposed that to perpetuate the US presence in the Middle East and to maintain the region’s status as the US foreign policy’s gravity center, Israel may even seek to militarize the region. At any rate, the proposed change in the US foreign policy has caused waves in various places from Europe to Asia and he will not be easily able to control those waves in his second term as president.

In addition to this new concept, reference should be also made to age-old challenges as well as challenges which were faced by the US foreign policy during Obama’s first term in office. Iran issue has been one of the most important challenges facing the United States. Despite all sanctions and pressures exerted on it by the United States, Iran, as confessed by the Hillary Clinton who served as the US secretary of state during Obama’s first presidential term, continues to be among the most difficult issues with which the US foreign policy is grappling. The issue of Palestine is also among the oldest issues plaguing the US foreign policy. Although Obama tried to manage relations with Russia through his ‘reset’ policy to which he adhered through his first term, there are signs of lingering structural tension in two countries’ relationship.

The collection of these conditions shows that the political context surrounding Obama in his second term, especially in the field of international politics, will be probably more intricate than his first term. This intricacy will, however, give the US president more latitude to work in certain respects. The capacities of decision-makers and the political elite are usually best revealed under difficult and challenging conditions. Will Obama be able to bring about a turning point in the US foreign policy by making key decisions within the existing intricate and critical framework of international politics?

*Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour is the former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in Geneva. Prior to taking up this post, he was the Director of the Institute for Political and International Studies, the research branch of Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Seyed Sajjadpour received his Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and was a post–doctoral fellow at Harvard. He has taught at the College of International Relations of Tehran University, as well as at Azad University and Iran’s National Defense University.

Key Words: Complicated-Innovative Diplomacy, Obama’s Foreign Policy, Obama’s Behavior, National Security, Context, Sajjadpour

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

More By Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour:

*Obama and a Player Called “Iran”: Forecasting the US Foreign Policy up to 2016:

*Study of Obama Administration’s Behavior in Negotiations with Iran:’s_Behavior_in_Negotiations_with_Iran.htm

*Warmongering: The Inseparable Element of US Presidential Election Campaigns:

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