It has been the week of foreign policy for U.S. President Barack Obama. He discussed America’s role in global politics and conflict in his West Point graduation address on NPR and in various announcements over the course of the week. This included, but was not limited to, his announcement on troops remaining in Afghanistan and his request to Congress to pass his Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund. In his talks, Obama put America in a position to lead, saying that the U.S. “must always lead on the world stage,” while also discussing the desire to find alternate, diplomatic means for solving conflict as opposed to military solutions. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said.
He gave updates and explanations for key concerns overseas, explaining the administrations positions going forward on China, Russia/Ukraine, and Syria. Let’s take a look at where the nation stands — including what his opponents in Congress have to say — on three of the U.S.’s major international concerns.
1. Russia and Ukraine
Republicans have been calling the president weak in responses to Russian aggression towards Ukraine, saying that Putin fails to take the U.S. seriously because Obama has led the international community to expect a policy of uninvolvement. Obama’s interview with NPR has the chief executive claiming the exact opposite. “When you look at events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine,” said Obama. “I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine. Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine.”
However, this is hardly the first time this conversation has been had or heard, as even Obama’s Press Secretary Jay Carney noted. A little over a week ago, Carney stated that though the U.S. had seen reports of Putin ordering troops at the border to move out, “At this point, we see no indication of any movement, which has been the case, as you note, several times before.” It’s possible that Obama is more certain of movement this time around, since, as Carney noted, “I think it’s fair to say that we would know and would be able to confirm for you if the Russian military had, in fact, moved back.” Not only is it possible, it would have to be likely that Obama has some greater indication that troop removal is actually happening this time around. “And that’s an application of American leadership that’s sustainable, consistent, and is most likely to produce the kind of results we want,” said Obama.
In terms of overall goals for international relations, his focus on the success of sanctions and diplomacy — whether accurate or not — hints at one of the “key priorities” he spoke on at West Point. According to a Senior Administration Official who gave a background conference call on the commencement address, both Ukraine and Iran show how “we have worked through collective action with the international community to achieve our objectives.”
In other words, the U.S. is going to be an international leader through delegation rather than direct involvement, and he gives Ukraine as a example of success in this method — perhaps a little too early. In different language, Democrats in favor of his strategy would instead say he is empowering other nations to manage their own conflicts. The disparity in point of view is one that Obama acknowledge in his speech. “A different view from interventionists from the left and right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”
His response was to agree that “isolationism is not an option,” and to emphasize that America’s military could very well be pulled into conflict should allies and American interests demand it, but also reminding listeners that “some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” He explained further that, “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in ever instance.”
“China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors,” stated Obama in his West Point address. However, that’s not the only threat that China poses and its neighbors aren’t the only ones who are worried. Trade and security are both areas of concern China brings out in the U.S. In the case of cyber attacks last week, both were brought up. The U.S. accused members of the Chinese military of committing economic attacks on U.S. businesses, while China in turn accused the U.S. of its own form of cyber warfare. This reintroduced a number of arguments about militarization of the internet or “cyberspace” as a front for conflict.
“While I certainly agree our nation must stridently review our procedures regarding surveillance in light of the NSA controversy, to put ourselves in a situation where censorship-laden governments like China or Russia could take a firm hold on the Internet itself is truly a scary, though,” said Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to Politico. While leaks from Edward Snowden have the Obama Administration looking at scale backs in online surveillance and powers, events in China have the GOP riled up over what nations may be able to overcome U.S. abilities. This isn’t limited to China, as Russia also has politicians expressing anxiety. “We’re at a critical time where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is proving he is capable of outmaneuvering the administration,” said former Representative Mary Bono (R-Calif.) to Politico.
Lately, it seems you can’t have one without the other. Case in point: China also recently signed a gas deal with Russia, who is likely looking for alternate trade options given the constant threat of sanctions from the West. European trade partners are currently major items in the Russian energy industry, and Russia is better strategically placed with such a large deal with an alternate nation, even if trade goes uninterrupted with Europe. As Obama himself said to NPR, “The bottom line here is China is going to be a dominant power in Asia, not the only one, but by virtue of its size and its wealth, it is going to be a great power in Asia.”
He also noted the political and economic issues surrounding trade with China. “We’re concerned about it because we don’t want to see constant conflicts developing in a vital region of the world that also we depend on in terms of our economy being successful,” said Obama. That trade relationship with China is part of what is so controversial. There are some, like Mitt Romney, who say China takes American jobs overseas, that their currency is undervalued, and that Obama’s 35 percent tariff on low priced imports was bad policy that inhibited growth. At the same time, many Republicans are for attracting Chinese business to the U.S., but most have some sort of beef with the nation or with Obama’s policy towards trade there.
Obama’s overall message, according to a Senior Administration Official with the Obama Administration, was simply that in order to improve the U.S. in areas of trade, maritime security, and so on, China would need to “act consistent with those rules of the road” outlined in “a code of conduct with the ASEAN countries.” The official noted that, “If China acts outside of the norms, as they’ve done, for instance, on cyber issues, we’re going to call them out.”
While Obama made it clear that American troops would not be placed “into the middle of this increasingly sectarian war,” he indicated that pressure against extremists and Bashar al-Assad should be expected. This support would take the form of support for opposition forces — with help from Congress — continued diplomatic efforts, and aid to bordering countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq as they deal with refugees and terrorist groups. The president makes clear that this is both a humanitarian and anti-terrorism issue.
Republicans are critical of Obama’s plan moving forward, though politicians are split on exactly why they are critical. Some believe this aid should have come years ago. “Well, I wouldn’t say that conditions are better,” said Obama to NPR. “I think in many ways, the conditions are worse. But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before, which is understandable.”
Other Republicans, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), take issue with supporting rebel groups who he feels constitute a threat to the U.S. as well. “It appears what the president is pressing for is essentially protecting his public relations because he drew a red line, and essentially, the bluff was called,” said Cruz, according to Republican Party of Iowa. “I’ll give you one of the simplest principles of foreign policy that we ought to be following: Don’t give weapons to people who hate you. Don’t give weapons to people who want to kill you.”
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