Tuesday, May 10, 2011


"Americans are grappling with an unfamiliar role. They are accustomed to running things – especially when those things involve going to war. Not this time. As the west’s fighter jets patrol the skies over Libya, President Barack Obama has told his generals and diplomats to stand back. We have been shown the new geopolitical landscape....

I am told that US diplomats are finding it a struggle to adjust to the new disposition of responsibilities. They are used to driving off in their chosen direction as others clamber aboard. It’s the natural order: Americans do things; Europeans talk about them. Washington does not wait on Paris and London....

The domestic politics in the US speak for themselves. Mr Obama did not win the presidency on a promise to start a third war of choice in the Middle East. Now he has a second term to secure and he wants to focus on getting the domestic economy right. As much as Col Gaddafi is reviled, there is not much appetite among voters to commit US forces.

The mistake for America’s allies would be to see this more selective, almost diffident, posture as an aberration – a response to a unique set of political circumstances and regional sensitivities. Much more likely, it marks the structural shift in the geopolitical balance".

Philip Stephens, "Obama to Europe: bon courage," The Financial Times. 24 March 2011, in www.ft.com.

"In my view, Vietnam was not the cause of our difficulties but a symptom. We were in a period of painful adjustment to a profound transformation of global politics; we were being forced to come to grips with the tension between our history and our new necessities....I was convinced that the deepest cause of our national unease was the realization-as yet dimly perceived-that we were becoming like other nations in the need to recognize that our power, while vast, had limits. Our resources were no longer infinite in relations to our problems; instead we had to set priorities, both intellectual and material."

Henry Alfred Kissinger, The White House Years, (1979), p. 57.

The thesis that Philip Stephens in the Financial Times presents is not an uncommon one in the European press. Indeed, the crisis in Libya has merely given it further plausibility. The question that I would like to raise though is if it is in fact correct? Are we in a new 'geopolitical landscape'? A landscape which differs from that of say the Spring of 2005 or 2006? With all the available evidence, it is my surmise that in point of fact, we are not in a 'new geopolitical landscape'. That while there has indeed been a change in the tenor and tone of American statecraft in the past few years, that this change is part of a normal adaptation that American foreign policy undergoes every decade and in some cases in even less time. And that coupled with this is the fact that in the current instance, the current American Administration has seen much more continuity than discontinuity with its predecessors.

The argument for those who make the point that there is a 'new geopolitical landscape', is something along that lines that due to: i) the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; ii) the financial crisis and subsequent 'great recession'; that American power is not much more seriously restrained than has been the norm. And by the 'norm', it is argued since the onset of the militarization of the Cold War in 1950. How factually accurate is this thesis? Based upon the historical record, the answer clearly is: not very. As the premier historian of post-1945 foreign policy, John Lewis Gaddis, posited correctly in his seminal book, 'Strategies of Containment' (first published in 1982), American foreign policy in the years after 1950 have seen a continual waxing and waning of American propensity to use force 1. With administrations such as Truman, Kennedy-Johnson, Reagan and Bush the Younger, all showing a much greater propensity to favor the use of force (sometimes unilaterally, sometimes multi-laterally), as well as higher defense spending, and generally offering up the tone (and sometimes the reality) of a more aggressive foreign policy. Contrasted with this are the administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon-Ford, Clinton and to an extent the current administration. All of which, saw a diminution of defense spending, and studied re-duction in overseas commitments, a much greater reliance upon working with allies and or foreign partners. As Gaddis correctly notes, Henry Kissinger in particular emphasised this aspect, as it related to the American power position, circa 1969-1970:

"Kissinger had long argued that the emerging shift from a bipolar to a multipular world was in the best interests of the United States. Bipolarity, he wrote in 1968, encouraged rigidity: 'A bipolarity world loses the perspective for nuance; a gain for one side appears as an absolute loss for the other. Every issue seems to involve a question of survival. The smaller countries are torn between a desire for protection and a wish to escape big power dominance. Each of the superpowers is beset by the desire to maintain its preeminence among its allies, to increase its influence among the uncommitted, and its security vis-`a-vis its opponent'... A multipolar system would provide greater opportunities for working out a shared concept of international order; it also had built into it a degree of 'snatural' or 'organic' balance not present in a bipolar sysem with, accordingly, less need for individual elements in hte balance to bear the primary burden of maintaining it. 'A more pluralistic world,' Kissinger concluded,'is profoundly in our long-term interests'

Viewed in the above light, the policies of the current administration can hardly be said to mark (pace Philip Stephens) a 'structural shift', in American foreign policy when viewed in the longue duree of over the past sixty years. Just as the Eisenhower administration proved reluctant to intervene in Southeast Asia circa 1954, in the absence of British assistance, so the current administration has similarly reduced its commitment to intervening in the Libyan conflict to what it sees (correctly I believe) are the rather limited American interest in the same. In point of fact, we have here nothing as 'structural' as say the 'Nixon Doctrine', which au fond, was a farming out, of American power positions in the Near East. Where Persia, under the Shah Pahlavi, was given carte blanche by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972, to assume the role of 'Gendarme of the Gulf' 3. Something which for a short time anyway, had the result of Persia assuming a power position, independent of the United States. Including as we now know, acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity. Looking at matters from this perspective, nothing that the current administration is doing and has done, bears anything like either the Eisenhower or Nixon administration's exercises in multi-laterialism and burden-sharing. If and only if, exampli gratia, the Afghanistan 'surge', was predicated upon NATO allies also sending in troops, would we see something akin to a structural shift in American foreign policy. In the absence of which, predictions `a la Philip Stephens and people of his ilk, are, like the reported demise of the American writer, Mark Twain, very much exaggerated.

1. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, Revised & expanded edition. (2005).

2. Gaddis, op. cit., p. 279.

3. Kissinger, op. cit. pp. 1261-1265. See also: Henry A. Kissinger, Years of Upheaval,
(1982). pp. 668-676.


Post a Comment

<< Home