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The Changing World of International Relations

August 26, 2009


In a post written shortly before the Obama administration came to office [Transforming U.S. Foreign Policy], I observed that sweeping changes in the way the U.S conducts its foreign policy seemed to be coming. Those sweeping changes included “a cadre of people more in line with my colleague Tom Barnett’s vision of a System Administrator (SysAdmin) force tasked with securing the peace. Such a force is more civilian oriented and less kinetic (it doesn’t blow things up). It still relies on the backing a powerful military (peace through strength remains important), but the focus of that military is less on near-peer military engagements and more on asymmetric threats that our forces have faced for the past decade and a half in the area Tom defines as the Gap.” In that post, I cited David E. Sanger, of the New York Times, who discussed some of the changes he saw coming [“A Handpicked Obama Team for a Shift in Foreign Policy,” by , 30 November 2008]. He wrote:

“The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.”

At the time, I welcomed the changes — not just as an American, but as someone interested development and in rebuilding failed states. More than half a year down the road, it seems like a good time to take stock of changes that have been made. An op-ed piece by David J. Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade during the administration of Bill Clinton, provides an excellent point of departure for such an assessment [“It’s 3 a.m. Do You Know Where Hillary Clinton Is?Washington Post, 23 August 2009]. Rothkopf begins his piece by noting that Secretary Clinton’s celebrity sometimes gets in the way and attracts the kinds of attention and catty remarks most often reserved for Hollywood’s elite. As a result, Rothkopf states, “When it comes to Hillary Rodham Clinton, we’re missing the forest for the pantsuits.” He then asks the big question, “Amid all the distractions, what is Clinton actually doing?” From Rothkopf’s perspective, Secretary Clinton is “overseeing what may be the most profound changes in U.S. foreign policy in two decades — a transformation that may render the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush mere side notes in a long transition to a meaningful post-Cold War worldview.” Rothkopf goes on to detail how he sees the Secretary’s role within the Obama administration.

“The secretary has quietly begun rethinking the very nature of diplomacy and translating that vision into a revitalized State Department, one that approaches U.S. allies and rivals in ways that challenge long-held traditions. And despite the pessimists who invoked the ‘team of rivals’ cliche to predict that President Obama and Clinton would not get along, Hillary has defined a role for herself in the Obamaverse: often bad cop to his good cop, spine stiffener when it comes to tough adversaries and nurturer of new strategies. Recognizing that the 3 a.m. phone calls are going to the White House, she is instead tackling the tough questions that, since the end of the Cold War, have kept America’s leaders awake all night.”

Rothkopf notes that many members of President Obama’s foreign policy team are absorbed with Iraq and Afghanistan. That leaves “Clinton’s State Department [to] take on a bigger role in tackling the problems of the future — in particular, how America will lead the world in the century ahead. This approach is both necessary and canny: It recognizes that U.S. policy must change to fulfill Obama’s vision and that many high-profile issues such as those of the Middle East have often swamped the careers and aspirations of secretaries of state past.” In looking at the future, Rothkopf notes that there are a number of important questions that must be answered:

“Which nations will be our key partners? What do you do when many vital partners — China, for example, and Russia — are rivals as well? How must America’s alliances change as NATO is stretched to the limit? How do we engage with rogue states and old enemies in ways that do not strengthen them and preserve our prerogative to challenge threats? How do we move beyond the diplomacy of men in striped pants speaking only for governments and embrace potent nonstate players and once-disenfranchised peoples?”

Secretary Clinton, Rothkopf observes, has started to present some preliminary answers to those questions.

“She outlined her new thinking in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where she revealed stark differences between the new administration’s worldview and those of its predecessors: The recurring themes include ‘partnership’ and ‘engagement’ and ‘common interests.’ Clearly, Madeleine Albright’s ‘indispensable nation’ has recognized the indispensability of collaborating with others. Who those “others” are is the area in which change has been greatest and most rapid. ‘We will put,’ Clinton said, ‘special emphasis on encouraging major and emerging global powers — China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa — to be full partners in tackling the global agenda.’ This is the death knell for the G-8 as the head table of the global community; the administration has an effort underway to determine whether the successor to the G-8 will be the G-20, or perhaps some other grouping.”

As a businessman, I live in a world where “partnerships” and “engagements” are a way of life. I understand how important those activities are in running a successful business. I cannot help but believe they are just as important in running a successful country in the age of globalization. I have repeatedly stated that the future of the global economy depends on how successfully the developed world deals with emerging market countries; the Obama administration has apparently made a similar assessment.

“Obama and Clinton have both made engaging with emerging powers a priority. Obama visited Russia earlier this year and will host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his first state dinner in November. Clinton has made trips to China and India, and she would have been with Obama in Russia had she not injured her elbow. Both have visited Africa and the Middle East, reaching out to women and the Islamic world. On many critical agenda items — from a rollback of nuclear weapons to the climate or trade talks — such emerging powers will be essential to achieving U.S. goals. As a result, we’ve seen a new American willingness to play down old differences, whether with Russia on a missile shield or, as Clinton showed on her China trip, with Beijing on human rights.”

Rothkopf writes about a conversation he had with Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who now heads policy planning at the State Department. She told him, “We envision getting not just a new group of states around a table, but also building networks, coalitions and partnerships of states and nonstate actors to tackle specific problems.” Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I’m a big believer in networks, coalitions, and partnerships. Isolation and lack of communication breed mistrust and can distort reality in harmful ways. I applaud the administration’s efforts to make room for more voices at important policy tables. Of course, big changes often require the expenditure of resources to put in place the tools and programs that will make the changes both beneficial and permanent. In a time of recession, finding those resources can be difficult. Rothkopf continues:

“Of course, you need more than new ideas to revitalize the State Department; you need resources, too. The secretary has brought in former Bill Clinton-era budget chief Jack Lew to help her claw back money for statecraft that many in Foggy Bottom feel has been sucked off toward the Pentagon.”

One area that deserves more resources and attention is official development aid (more commonly known as foreign aid). The agency charged with overseeing that program is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and it is now under the aegis of the State Department. People in the development world have lamented the fact that the agency doesn’t yet have a permanent director. They fear that the lack of a permanent director reflects the fact that the Obama administration places a low priority on development activities. Even without a permanent director, however, Rothkopf observes that the agency is moving forward.

“[Members of Clinton’s inner circle] and the acting head of the U.S. Agency for International Development are leading an effort to rethink foreign aid with the new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, an initiative modeled on the Pentagon’s strategic assessments and designed to review State’s priorities. … Clinton made women’s issues a centerpiece of her recent 11-day trip to Africa, where she stressed that ‘the social, political and economic marginalization of women across Africa has left a void in this continent that undermines progress and prosperity.’ Clinton has also signaled the importance of private-sector experience by naming former Goldman Sachs International vice chairman Robert Hormats, a respected veteran of four administrations, to handle economic issues at the State Department, as well as Judith McHale, former chief executive of Discovery Communications, to run public diplomacy. In the same vein, she has opened up Cuba to American telecommunications companies and reached out to India’s private sector on energy cooperation — showing that this administration will seek to advance national interests by tapping the self-interests of the business community.”

In other words, the Obama administration (and especially Clinton’s State Department) fully recognize that sustainable development depends more on investment by the private sector than on government assistance. Rothkopf concludes:

“Obama has assumed the role of principal spokesperson on foreign policy, as international audiences welcome his new and improved American brand. Clinton thus far has echoed his points but has also delivered tougher ones. Whether on a missile shield against Iran or North Korean saber-rattling, the continued imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or rape and corruption in Congo, the secretary of state has spoken bluntly on the world stage — even if it triggered snide comments from North Korea. It is still early, and a president’s foreign policy legacy is often defined less by big principles than by how one reacts to the unexpected, whether missiles in Cuba or terrorism in New York. Promising ideas fail because of limited attention or reluctant bureaucracies, and some rhetoric eventually rings hollow, as the self-congratulatory ‘smart power’ already does to me. Nevertheless, there is evidence that, seven months into the job, Obama’s unlikely secretary of state is supporting and augmenting his agenda effectively.”

I agree with Rothkopf that cute, bumper sticker phrases like “smart power” are not nearly as important as actions. I’m hoping that the Obama administration moves forward with a foreign policy that stresses engagement with others, encourages public/private partnerships, and helps establish an environment that permits emerging market countries to make their mark on the global economy. Recovery from the recession — as well as the long-term health of the global economy — requires the emergence of large and stable global middle class. The sooner this occurs the better off we all will be.

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