In the Shadow of Failure: Obama’s Quest for Constructive Engagement

As Barack Obama completes his first year in office, he faces challenges that will test his considerable political skills to the very limit. While many voted for Obama because was able to project an image of calm competence that was notably lacking in both John McCain and George W. Bush, the Wall Street crisis and popular disaffection with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had created a demand for change that benefited Obama. His election was due to his promise that he would chart a new direction for America. His tenure thus far has offered some insights into his political style, the difficulties that confront America, and the gaps between his campaign rhetoric and actual accomplishments.

Obama’s oratory remains an important source of political appeal and his deliberative style as a policymaker has provided a welcome respite from the frenetic self-aggrandizement that defined the Bush-Cheney administration. However, this shift in style has provoked the ire of Dick Cheney and other Republicans whose attacks on Obama have reminded observers of the poor governance that created the current crisis. These attacks have also exerted pressure on Obama to abandon his early efforts to rebuild a culture of bipartisan governance. The Republican party has supported Obama’s plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan over the short-term, but its increasingly vitriolic campaign against health care reform confirmed the Republican preference for the ideological polarization pioneered by the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964. A culture of bipartisan governance has yet to re-emerge and its absence will be a serious constraint for Obama’s initiative to reshape American politics.

The pragmatism that has informed Obama’s effort to forge bipartisanship at home has also been evident at a rhetorical level in foreign policy. He has sought in his first year to emphasize that the United States is serious about its commitment to multilateral approaches to dealing with global problems. He has actively cultivated an image of a government that attempts  to be an effective partner with other major players, including China, Russia, Brazil, India, and the European Union. In real terms, the Obama administration is defining the terms of an American role in an international system where China, India, Indonesia, and Japan will play more important roles as economic, diplomatic, and military powers thus redefining the American role in the Asia-Pacific region. In this changing context, the American relationship with the European Union and Russia will change as all of the parties reflect upon the need for more effective strategies for engaging with an emerging Pacific-centred international system.

The recent climate summit at Copenhagen has provided an illustration of the changes underway. China saw Copenhagen as an opportunity to engage in diplomatic muscle-flexing which emphasized that American leadership on global issues will not be accorded undue deference. The symbolism of the final text of the limited Copenhagen accord being negotiated among America, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa spoke was a recognition that the international system is already multi-polar. Copenhagen delivered the message that the global climate change agenda is being set within a framework where the United States will have to collaborate in the development of a global regime. Its failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol had betrayed its disregard for the challenges posed by global environmental change. Barack Obama confronts the challenge of obtaining Senate ratification of an international regime dealing with global environmental issues as credible evidence of an American commitment to the management of the “global commons.” Given its dependence upon fossil fuels and its current economic problems, the Obama administration will have to demonstrate political will in dealing with climate change and its corollary, the reorganization of the world economy. Recalcitrance on these issues has limited and will limit American influence across the world.     

Similarly, the Obama administration has to demonstrate intellectual flexibility in dealing with a decades-old problem – the American alienation from the Islamic world due to the failure, after the 1978 Camp David Accords, to establish a framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Events in the region 1979 derailed American diplomacy when Sunni radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Shah of Iran was overthrown and replaced by the radical Islamic Republic. These radical movements in the capitals of Sunni and Shia Islam triggered fundamental changes across the region, and they appropriated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to challenge American influence in the Muslim world. The American reliance upon coercive diplomacy and military responses to these challenges, and the clumsy occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, have revealed America’s strategic failures since 1979.

Obama sought to reframe the American relationship with the Islamic world in his Cairo speech and later thoughtfully sketched a “just war” rationale for military action in his Nobel Prize Address. He was speaking to a global audience and astutely used the occasion to define American policy away from the Bush administration’s advocacy of pre-emptive war as national security strategy. However, it is unclear whether a “just war” doctrine will suffice to persuade the Islamic world that American policy and strategy will either deliver a just and equitable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or defuse the appeal of radical Islamic movements. The absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord remains a tripwire for American policy in the Middle East and Obama needs a credible strategy for peace to turn the page in American relations with the Islamic world.

Obama’s pragmatism, his commitment to multilateral engagement, and his ability to think well beyond the immediate political context have been on display over the past year. His seriousness of purpose and commitment to change is pushing America’s political leadership – across both parties – to rethink America’s role in the world. The ideological rigidity of the Bush administration oversaw the failure of the American economic model and its commitment to war compromised the country’s diplomatic credibility. Obama’s pragmatism, and his appeals to bipartisan governance in domestic affairs and multilateral diplomacy in international affairs, are instruments of constructive engagement seemingly adopted to recover lost ground at the most significant point of transition in the international system since the end of the Cold War. Obama has pushed an ambitious agenda – it is unclear whether the society is prepared for the challenges ahead.