x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Navigating the long ebb of American global hegemony

That the START treaty was hailed as a major 'foreign policy priority' was a tacit admission of just how poorly Mr Obama had fared on foreign policy challenges more pressing than regulating the balance of nuclear force with Russia. 

A smiling President Barack Obama appeared as happy and relaxed as he'd been in a year or more on his last day at work in 2010.

Before heading off for a 10-day vacation in Hawaii on December 22, Mr Obama signed into law a repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military, at the same moment that the Senate was ratifying his new arms reduction treaty with Russia. The treaty, which the White House spun as Mr Obama's "top foreign policy priority", had been opposed by some key Republicans, prompting supporters to hail its passage as a negation of prophesies of the president's political enfeeblement.

But the new START, as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is known, was hardly controversial among serious foreign policy makers in both parties. Sure, some Republicans tried to block passage for reasons more related to partisan spite than national security concerns. But 13 senior GOP senators backed the treaty, as did the US military. That the treaty was hailed as a major "foreign policy priority" was a tacit admission of just how poorly Mr Obama had fared on foreign policy challenges more pressing than regulating the balance of nuclear force with Russia.

Take Middle East peace, for instance. By naming Senator George Mitchell as his Middle-East envoy on his first full day in office, Mr Obama signalled the priority he was placing on bringing about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Almost two years later, Mr Mitchell is back where he started, conducting parallel negotiations with the two sides after the collapse of direct talks over Israel's continued construction of settlements. The Israelis have successfully resisted the US president's efforts to prod them along the path to a credible two-state solution, and he faces a growing domestic political cost with a more conservative Congress.

Mr Obama was greeted as the best hope of concluding the Oslo peace process, and his failure is no temporary hiccup. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke for many last week when he observed that there will be no progress towards a two-state solution as long as the US has exclusive custody of the peace process. The Palestinian and Arab initiative to take the matter of Israel's ongoing illegal settlement construction to the UN Security Council (a draft resolution is now being circulated) is the surest sign that others are now willing to take matters into their own hands. Where Washington typically vetoes any move to hold Israel accountable at the Security Council, it can't easily do so on behaviour that the Obama administration itself publicly deems illegitimate. The UN move may signal a trend of following Mr Lula's advice.

Israeli-Palestinian talks are not the only stumbling block. The untimely death, earlier this month, of Mr Obama's other early envoy appointee, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, was a poignant reminder of how poorly things fare in Afghanistan, too. It's plain to see that the US is spinning its wheels in the Hindu Kush: any military success by an expeditionary army against a guerrilla enemy is, by definition, temporary; the Afghan government remains incorrigibly corrupt; Pakistan continues to ignore US cajoling to act against Afghan insurgents on its side of the border; and the civilian population of the war zone opposes its escalation and wants immediate negotiations with the Taliban and the withdrawal of western troops.

Trapped by his military into an extended commitment, Mr Obama might grit his teeth and hope for better days in Afghanistan. The only plausible exit strategy involves negotiating with the Taliban, as well as with key regional stakeholders including Pakistan, Iran and India.

On Iran's nuclear programme, the US president came into office promising to change the game by engaging with Tehran, but that effort has been hamstrung by a combination of Iran's fractious internal politics and the hawkish voices inside Mr Obama's own administration seeking to limit any dialogue with Iran to ultimatums about its enrichment of uranium. Mr Obama has put in place sanctions more far-reaching than previous measures, but those don't seem to be changing Tehran's calculations. Talks continue, but will only succeed if both sides are willing to shift their positions. And Republicans are moving aggressively to block any compromises, making clear to Mr Obama that achieving any agreement with Tehran will come at the expense of being labeled "soft on Iran" when he seeks reelection.

The list of foreign policy challenges continue. In North Korea, the US has been reduced to imploring China to do something to rein in the provocations of its unpredictable ally. In Iraq, the complete withdrawal of US forces is required by a deal dating to 2008. The Bush administration may have hoped that the Iraqis would renegotiate to extend the US's stay, but the marginalisation of the US favourite Iyad Allawi in the new government is a reminder of just how sharply US leverage has declined.

Mr Obama is in fact managing the symptoms of the long-term ebbing of US global hegemony, responding to crises rather than setting the agenda, and mostly hoping that things don't get worse.

A host of other nations, including Turkey, Brazil, China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, will continue to exert unwelcome influence on key US foreign policy issues. That's simply an adjustment to geopolitical reality: the US remains the single most powerful country in the world, but the limits of that power have been revealed by its declining economic power relative to others, and the failure of its military strength to ensure preferred political outcomes in the Middle East, Central Asia or the Korean peninsula.

This time next year, Mr Obama will be doing well if he's managed to avoid a major new war anywhere on his watch. But if he's hoping to record more achievements in foreign policy in light of an exceedingly difficult domestic political environment, he could be said - to borrow a cliche from American self-help culture - to be looking for love in all the wrong places.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron