Tuesday, September 01, 2009


"The Obama administration was signaling that it intends to continue the Bush administration’s Russia policy. That policy was that Russia had no legitimate right to claim priority in the former Soviet Union, and that the United States had the right to develop bilateral relations with any country and expand NATO as it wished. But the Bush administration saw the Russian leadership as unwilling to follow the basic architecture of relations that had developed after 1991, and as unreasonably redefining what the Americans thought of as a stable and desirable relationship. The Russian response was that an entirely new relationship was needed between the two countries, or the Russians would pursue an independent foreign policy matching U.S. hostility with Russian hostility. Highlighting the continuity in U.S.-Russian relations, plans for the prospective ballistic missile defense installation in Poland, a symbol of antagonistic U.S.-Russian relations, remain unchanged....

When we look at U.S.-China policy, we see very similar patterns with the Bush administration. The United States under Obama has the same interest in maintaining economic ties and avoiding political complications as the Bush administration did. Indeed, Hillary Clinton explicitly refused to involve herself in human rights issues during her visit to China. Campaign talk of engaging China on human rights issues is gone. Given the interests of both countries, this makes sense, but it is also noteworthy given the ample opportunity to speak to China on this front (and fulfill campaign promises) that has arisen since Obama took office (such as the Uighur riots).

Of great interest, of course, were the three great openings of the early Obama administration, to Cuba, to Iran, and to the Islamic world in general through his Cairo speech. The Cubans and Iranians rebuffed his opening, whereas the net result of the speech to the Islamic world remains unclear. With Iran we see the most important continuity. Obama continues to demand an end to Tehran’s nuclear program, and has promised further sanctions unless Iran agrees to enter into serious talks by late September.

On Israel, the United States has merely shifted the atmospherics. Both the Bush and Obama administrations demanded that the Israelis halt settlements, as have many other administrations. The Israelis have usually responded by agreeing to something small while ignoring the larger issue. The Obama administration seemed ready to make a major issue of this, but instead continued to maintain security collaboration with the Israelis on Iran and Lebanon (and we assume intelligence collaboration). Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has not allowed the settlements to get in the way of fundamental strategic interests.

This is not a criticism of Obama. Presidents — all presidents — run on a platform that will win. If they are good presidents, they will leave behind these promises to govern as they must. This is what Obama has done. He ran for president as the antithesis of Bush. He has conducted his foreign policy as if he were Bush. This is because Bush’s foreign policy was shaped by necessity, and Obama’s foreign policy is shaped by the same necessity. Presidents who believe they can govern independent of reality are failures.

George Friedman, "Obama's Foreign Policy: The End of the Beginning," 24 August 2009, in www.stratfor.com

"Notwithstanding some hints dropped here and there, so far, there is nothing of substance emerging from the incoming Administration of the junior Senator from Illinois, with the absurd name. However, in from some ultra-intelligent commentators, like my acquaintance, Professor Joshua Landis of Syria Comment, there is a hope, that the incoming Administration, will in some fashion or other reverse the failed policies of the Bush Regime towards the Near East, and, in particular towards: Syria, Persia, the Lebanon and of course Israel. This seems to me, based upon the prior history of incoming, American, especially Democratic Administrations, a very forlorn hope indeed....If Benyamin Netanyahu's Likuid Party were to win the elections, and, drag its feet concerning negotiations with the Palestinians, `a la its performance in its prior periods in power (1996-1999, 2001-2005), expect that the new American Administration, while perhaps in a sotto voce fashion, expressing its 'disappointment' with the newest developments in Israel, will do nothing of substance to revive the 'peace process'".

Charles G. V. Coutinho, "Whistling Dixie? Thoughts on what lies ahead for American Near Eastern Policy," 11 November 2008, in www.diplomatofthefuture.blogspot.com

One of the greatest conundrum's in the study of history, any history is the issue, the question of continuity versus dis-continuity. Id est., how much change does time render on a particular state, country, nation, et cetera. How much remains, and, how much stays the same. Or seems to stay the same. An issue best brought to the surface in Alexis de Tocqueville's wonderful magnum opus: l'Ancien Regime et la Revolution (1858), where he masterfully demonstrates that while on the surface the events of 1789had swept away the entire apparatus of Bourbon State and society, this was in fact, not correct. Similar arguments can be made, have been made concerning say the issue of continuity in say post-1917 Russia, or the American Southern States in the aftermath of the American Civil War. And, what pray tell, you might well ask is the 'answer' to this eternal historical query? The answer gentle reader is that by definition, no state, society or people are a blank slate, which history then will fills out. That ever era, people, state and society has, will have elements of both continuity and discontinuity. And, that while one may wish for the primacy of the one over the other, in point of fact, this is rarely if ever achieved in human existence.

With all that being said, what can one make of the first seven plus months of the new American administration? Well, for the most part, that those (like myself) who expressed a great deal of skepticism about the 'great changes', anticipated come the 21st of January 2009, were and are in the right. And, that in fact anyone who was banking upon such changes would be and are I assume disappointed. In case after case: Afghanistan, policy towards China, policy towards North Korea, policy towards Iraq, continuity rather than change has been in the forefront. I will admit that concerning say policy towards Persia, Israel and Russia, the atmospherics have indeed changed. But, atmospherics are not the same thing as policy and statecraft. The Cairo speech was at one time meant to be a 'game changer' (to use a demotic expression), but, it is rather rare indeed, that a mere speech changes things concretely. And, low and behold we are almost three months from said speech, and, the Near East looks much the same as it did prior to said speech. And, indeed, in a lot of ways the same prior to the 20th of January. Which is not to say that 'changes', may indeed come to the Near East, and, might even come from American policy. It is just that as of today, there is no sign of any such thing occurring. And, it is my surmise that there is little likelihood of anything will in fact occur. At least of a concrete aspect. The same appears to be the case with say Russian policy. Whereas originally, there appeared to many that relations would be 're-set', in a new and positive direction. So far nothing concrete has in fact happened. And, in the aftermath of Mr. Biden's interview in the Wall Street Journal, even the once positive atmospherics appear to be not altogether that bright. Again, it could very well be the case that 'something', will come up which will throw American policy towards Russia in a new and more positive direction. I sincerely hope that it might. I just do not see any signs of such a thing happening anytime soon. Indeed, I tend to agree with Mr. Friedman of Stratfor.com who argues cogently that:

"The underlying problem is that the Cold War generation of U.S. Russian experts has been supplanted by the post-Cold War generation, now grown to maturity and authority. If the Cold warriors were forged in the 1960s, the post-Cold warriors are forever caught in the 1990s. They believed that the 1990s represented a stable platform from which to reform Russia, and that the grumbling of Russians plunged into poverty and international irrelevancy at that time is simply part of the post-Cold War order. They believe that without economic power, Russia cannot hope to be an important player on the international stage. That Russia has never been an economic power even at the height of its influence but has frequently been a military power doesn’t register. Therefore, they are constantly expecting Russia to revert to its 1990s patterns, and believe that if Moscow doesn’t, it will collapse — which explains U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s interview in The Wall Street Journal where he discussed Russia’s decline in terms of its economic and demographic challenges. Obama’s key advisers come from the Clinton administration, and their view of Russia — like that of the Bush administration — was forged in the 1990s".

The upshot of the above is that unless and until there is a wholesale changeover in the bureaucratic and policy elites who make Russian policy in the USA, then the likelihood of a new positive direction in American policy towards Moskva, is practically nil. Atmospherics - yes, that might change. Substance - no, that will not change. Or if it will, not for quite awhile. Just as policy towards the PRC, has not changed and will not changed. And, indeed, au fond, American policy towards Peking (stupidly in my view), has not changed since perhaps 1979, if not indeed 1972. Much the same can be said for many other areas in the world. Because while in many instances, it is ideology and domestic politics which determine a particular country's foreign policy, rasion d'etat, also have a role here. As that somewhat successful, if at times not very intelligent statesman Lord Palmerston once put it:

"We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow."


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