US policy and status in world affairs: change and continuity, from the Bush legacy to Obama’s posture.




United States is now redefining its strategy due to the changes that have been occurring in the international system. The new geopolitical context is characterized by the affirmation on the world stage of the emerging economies, notably China, India, Russia and Brazil. Furthermore, countries like Germany and Turkey are rediscovering their own ambitions. The financial crisis has compounded this scenario. Immediately after the outbreak of the crisis, the American constituency choose Barack Obama as the President who had the responsibility of recovering the nation’s economy and to change the course of American foreign policy.

The former US President George Bush jr. adopted a more aggressive attitude in foreign policy. Taking into account the suggestions coming from his neoconservative-led entourage, he adopted a foreign policy characterized by unilateralism and arrogance. In this respect, many observers talked about an “imperial” posture of American foreign policy, associated with a militarization of the external action. This stand stemmed from the particular ideology espoused by neocons. They proposed to use the military superiority of the US in order to reshape the world according to Americans’ own interests. What has become known as the “Bush Doctrine” was an expression of this ideology. This doctrine allowed the possibility to undertake military interventions aimed at changing troublesome regimes and imposing democratic institutions. That consideration offered the justification for the US interventions in Middle East, whose aim was to mould a Great Middle East aligned to US interests.  

This policy attracted a lot of criticism from other countries, even from the US’ s partners. Moreover, this aggressive approach failed at curbing the downward trend in US relative power. Indeed, American aggressiveness led the country into a difficult situation. First of all, US troops found themselves in Iraqi quagmire. At the same time, the terrorist threat did not decrease, while the situation in Afghanistan worsened. Secondly, the ties between Washington and Moscow soured, due principally to the anti-missile project to be installed in Poland and Czech Republic, the enlargement of NATO in what is commonly referred to as the Russia’s “near abroad” and the Western interference in domestic affairs of some countries through the support of the so-called “coloured revolutions” (such as in Georgia and Ukraine). Furthermore, American unilateralism made it difficult for Bush to manage the relations with European partners. Since Europe was characterized by internal divisions, US was able to act unilaterally by resorting to “coalitions of the willing”. But, at the same time Washington learned that it could no longer rely on a possible strong and stable partner, namely a European Union integrated in the Atlantic system. In addition, the relations between US and China were characterized by a sort of “congagement”. During the Bush administration Beijing was considered as a possible long term strategic threat to US primacy. However, the economic relations with China were considered of a primary importance given the economic interdependence between the two countries. As a result, Bush operated to “contain” China militarily and to “engage” it economically, by encouraging it to respect international rules and to integrate itself in the economic system.


Obama and his Realpolitik.


During his electoral campaign Obama promised to reverse Bush’s foreign policy. In his intention, Obama wanted to substitute a certain Moralpolitik with a more prudent Realpolitik. When he came to power, Obama tried to transform in reality what he promised. The new President adopted a more pragmatic and less ideological attitude. Moreover, Obama realized that military power does not turn necessarily into positive results. Consequently, taking into proper consideration the suggestions coming from some advisers, he decided to re-evaluate the importance of the American soft power. More significantly, according to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, American foreign policy should have turned into a wise combination of hard and soft power, defined as smart power. This kind of mix would have allowed the US to decide the best usage of its energies depending on the context in which it may act. Moreover, Obama decided to give more importance to multilateral diplomacy as a means necessary to tackle international problems. Considering the fact that the world is becoming more fragmented and that it is moving towards the establishment of different regional systems, he started defining a sort of multipartnership, aimed at establishing a strong collaboration with regional allies capable of sharing the costs of international stability. In order to fulfill its objectives, Obama even affirmed that he is open to discussing with problematic players like Tehran and the Islamists.
Obama tried to defuse tensions with Russia. On occasion of an official visit in 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared what became known as the “reset” in the relations between the two erstwhile arch-enemies. The bilateral ties between Washington and Moscow improved also because of the fact that Obama put aside the anti-missile program in Eastern Europe. Then the two countries signed a new START treaty and found new grounds for collaboration, such as anti-terrorism. Second, Obama tried to mend relations with Europe and to settle frictions with China. In the Middle East, Obama decided to withdraw American troops from Iraq and to concentrate military and intelligence resources in the “AfPak”, i.e. Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order to prompt regional stability. A successful sign of this engagement has been the killing of the leader of Al-Qaeda Osama bin Laden.
In addition, Obama tried to find a solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear ambitions. Finally the US, together with other powers, succeeded in striking a landmark deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
Obama administration decided to normalize US ties with Cuba by re-establishing diplomatic relations and reducing economic restrictions (even though the complete removal of economic sanctions will depend on the congressional approval) . Obama has also removed Cuba from the US list of State sponsors of terrorism.


The limits of Obama’s diplomacy.


However, all these changes could be relativized. In fact, even though the relations with Russia have improved, some problems remain on the table, for instance Russia’s energy policy. The new START has not solved some crucial issues, such as the US tactical nuclear weapons still deployed in Europe, and Washington did not succeed in having Moscow’s collaboration in world affairs. Even worse, the relaxation with Russia provoked resentment among Eastern Europe countries, which eventually assessed the move as a betrayal of their security needs. In spite of his big efforts, Obama failed in changing Russia’s attitude towards Washington. The Kremlin decided to support Ukrainian rebels and to undertake military operations in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Still, the Russian government is avoiding any possible collaboration in Syria; on the contrary it is defending strenuously its own interests by providing military aid to Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The historical deal with Iran has provoked reactions in Israel and among the traditional US allies in the Middle East. What has been considered a diplomatic success by Obama has triggered a strong internal opposition, that now can humper the ratification of the treaty.
Although Obama’s intention regarding Europe, the President failed to gain full cooperation from European countries. Indeed, in many cases their strategic interests diverge from those of the US. While Americans try to involve Europe in their initiatives in order to sharing the burden, Europeans continue being reluctant in assuming more costs and risks, and continue relying on the US for their security. In the Middle East, Obama just confirmed the withdrawal from Iraq as scheduled by his predecessor. He maintained a firm attitude towards terrorists, even by using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to fight them.
Finally, the change in relation to the Chinese issue has been very imperceptible. Obama did not revert to the traditional favorable attitude towards China assumed by Democrats, based on the assumption that the Asian country might become a “responsible stakeholder” by the moment it will be integrated in the economic system. Obama has held a suspicious attitude towards China, by pressing it about the economic issues such as the reevaluation of the yuan and unfair trade practices. Washington has not decreased its policy of containment towards China, on the contrary one can interpret the military redeployment towards the Pacific region as an escalation in this containment, even though it has been officially justified by other reasons.




Having said that, it is possible to affirm that the 180-degree turn promised by Obama did not happened and that some expectations have not been realized. Furthermore, in many cases his moves have generated negative consequences. In some cases there has been a continuity with the previous administration, whereas in some others Obama has introduced modifications. However, Obama administration’s achievements are very positive. He has really tried to find solutions through cooperation and to promote multilateralism. One has to consider that sometimes the tide of history can go against political desires. Political intentions are often stymied by internal and external contingencies that reduce freedom of action. Obama inherited a difficult situation and started to affirm a new strategic posture for the US in a fast changing world, whose configuration remains uncertain. Obviously Obama did not reject the traditional values and objectives of US foreign policy and surely he tried to pursue American national interests; notwithstanding, one indisputable point is that Obama has changed instruments and rhetoric of American diplomacy, making the reconstruction of a strategic posture more possible.

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