Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Between isolationism and exceptionalism

The United States under Obama is treading a thin path between world leadership and its burdens and disengagement and its risks, writes Al-Sayed Amin Shalabi

Al-Ahram Weekly

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Barack Obama focussed on criticising the strategic policies and concepts of his electoral rival. George W Bush held that the US, in its position at the helm of global leadership, had a right to act independently and unilaterally regardless of whether its actions ran counter to the views of its closest allies and UN bodies which, he held, put too many restrictions on the US’s right to defend its national security and what it believed was best for global security. Obama pointed to the disastrous consequences of the Bush administration’s foreign policy approach that mired the US in wars abroad at enormous human and material cost, and destroyed Washington’s credibility around the world.

When he came to power, Obama tried to put into effect his own concepts and vision for how the US should interrelate with the world. Foremost among the initiatives were those he undertook to improve the US’s relationship with the Islamic world and to prove that the US was not an enemy of — or antagonistic to — Islam. He flew to Ankara and Cairo to address Arab and Muslim audiences from podiums in the Islamic world. He sought to smooth over differences and alleviate sources of tension between the US and the Arab and Islamic world by launching a new Palestinian-Israeli peace drive based on the two-state solution and a halt to Israeli settlement construction. He extended an invitation to Iran to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear programme crisis. He also announced that the US would be withdrawing its troops from Iraq and that it was planning to withdraw from Afghanistan as well.

With respect to the world at large, Obama tried to rebalance the US’s relationship with the international community. Instead of Bush’s hegemonic, go-it-alone approach, he favoured the idea of “partnership”. He argued that no matter how great the US’s might and international standing were, Washington could not take and implement global decisions on its own. In its handling of global crises, the US needed to cooperate and work together with others. Indeed, it needed to ensure that others shared the burdens of partnership.

The Obama administration acted on this philosophy in its handling of the Libyan civil war. In the international intervention there, the US vowed to merely “lead from behind”, as Obama put it, while its Western allies would perform the basic tasks. With the Syrian crisis, Obama hesitated a long time on the question of intervention and even on supplying the opposition with arms. Then, when he did decide to act, he turned first to his European allies, notably France and Britain (although the latter’s government strongly supported military intervention, parliament dealt it a slap in the face with a nay vote).

Because of this new partnership approach to international relations, Obama faced criticism from two directions. From one side, the Republicans held that he was weak and wavering and that this undermined the US’s international image and its influence in regions that were vital to US national security, such as the Middle East. Some members of Obama’s own party echoed these charges. From the other direction came the criticism that Washington was not giving sufficient attention to domestic issues such as the national debt, the tax structure, education, health and the environment. The US would not be able to exercise an influential global role and pursue an effective foreign policy until these issues were addressed properly. This body of opinion effectively appealed for a policy of isolationism, or at least for a strong prioritisation of domestic concerns over foreign issues.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on 23 September Obama addressed both camps. To the first, which had accused him of weakness and of weakening the US’s international standing, he underscored the US’s “exceptional” role in the world. Were the US to abandon that role, it would create a political vacuum that no other power in the world would be able to fill. He pledged to use all the US’s power, including its military might, to protect US interests, which included preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. On the other hand, he observed that the US had acquired, with difficulty, the virtue of humility.

To the second camp, he cautioned that isolationism would be a grave mistake and stressed that his administration would remain engaged in the issues of the Middle East.

Obama’s UN General Assembly speech marks a new episode in the controversy over Washington’s international role and standing. The controversy features three distinct viewpoints, the first holding that the US still possesses the strengths that qualify it to lead the world and that no other global power is capable of taking its place. The second maintains that the greatest threat to US’s might and standing comes not from abroad but from within the US. The US, therefore, needs to focus on the challenges involved in rebuilding its sources of domestic strength. Midway between these two points of view comes that which argues that the US must acknowledge that other international powers are rising in might and influence and that it must come to terms with a world that is not dominated by a single power or centre.

 

The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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