New Paradigms Forum
January 21, 2010
by Christopher Ford
Just over a year ago, I published a Hudson Institute paper discussing how I felt the incoming Obama Administration should approach issues of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. Among other points, I urged his new team to take their campaign promises of "change" and "new approaches" as something more serious than shallow slogans. Specifically, I urged a "bottom-up" policy review in the nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament (NACD) arena that would not be afraid to question the conventional wisdom of an arms control and disarmament community that would surely come running to him with their policy laundry lists, expecting him reflexively to adopt their agenda. I felt that his administration had a chance to develop something genuinely new.
It was his own Secretary-of-State-to-be Hillary Clinton who accused Candidate Obama of pursuing only "change you can Xerox," but I hoped the young Senator would rise above shallow campaigning and show both courage and intellectual independence in the White House.
It's now January 2010, and our president has been in office for just over a year. Did he take the chance for real change he won for himself at the polls? Alas, not. As strange as it feels for me to say so, Hillary was right.
I. The Blank Screen Comes to Washington
In his campaign autobiography, candidate Obama described himself as "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." (The Audacity of Hope, p.11) Young, attractive, articulate, and – above all – black, he was clearly new and different in some sense. With no legislative or public policy record anyone could identify, however, he was really just a fascinating enigma, an airy mist onto which optimists could project their fondest hopes. His slogan of "change we can believe in" was an exhortation to project images upon his studied blankness: in effect, the cipher from Illinois was telling everyone that once in office, he would change into something in which they would wish to believe.
To some detractors, this muddy ambiguity was nothing but deception, either to disguise his utter lack of real accomplishment (as Hillary Clinton kept repeating) or to camouflage a garden-variety liberal* political hack – a man whom National Journal called the most liberal Senator of 2007 – behind a veneer of "new" thinking, "post-partisan" technocracy, and thoughtful open-mindedness. With the advantage of a year's hindsight, I think these critics were only partly right. The vague mist seems indeed to have been a smokescreen, but it wasn't precisely what the skeptics feared. To some extent, it was a smokescreen designed to hide more smoke.
The big secret of the Obama Administration's "change you can believe in" is that there hasn't been a real "there" there at all. On the signature policies of the Administration – the "stimulus" package, energy policy, health care, and trillion-dollar-deficits – the course of U.S. public policy has indeed swung sharply leftward in ways that seem to be driving the new president's poll ratings to unprecedented first-term lows. This is not necessarily because Obama has driven the change, however. To be sure, he has cheered these changes, and has tried to take credit for however much of it feeds his political popularity. No one who has been paying attention, however, thinks he's been doing anything like running the show.
On almost every major issue, it has been the approach of this White House to speak in vague and sweeping terms in favor of some kind of change, and then to endorse whatever cobbled-together, pork-encrusted mess gets drawn up by the Democrats who – for at least a few more months, anyway – control Congress. As summarized by Jeffrey Sachs – who, as a well-known economist and former advisor to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, is not exactly a "tea-party reactionary" – "every major piece of public policy has been turned over to the backrooms of Congress, emerging through the lobby-infested bargaining process among vested and regional interests. There was no overarching plan for the economic stimulus; no clear plan for health care reform; no defined strategy for climate change control; and so forth." This is Obama's new Camelot, the change in which we are expected to believe. This is what happens when a blank screen tries to govern.
At best, Obama has merely presided over this ugly festival of outsourced legislative sausage-making, smiling blandly from a pedestal while periodically informing anyone who will listen that his arrival is the beginning of a bright new era of almost millenarian hope. (After all, he told us, his selection as the Democratic nominee for president was "the moment ... when our planet began to heal.") So far, at least, the president has been strikingly unwilling to do much of anything on his own. In his lofty self-regard and the near-worship with which his supporters approach him, he has been content, it would appear, simply to be himself, the pivot around which the political universe is expected harmoniously to revolve.
The only time President Obama has had to act on his own on a major, potentially administration-defining issue was his decision to continue the war in Afghanistan. Here, however, he made himself risible by publicly agonizing for months – even after putting his own hand-picked commander in charge of the effort – over whether or not to continue what he himself had termed a "war of necessity," victory in which was essential to U.S. security. (In fairness, it must be remembered that in the end, Obama made the right call and deserves unstinting support. He could hardly have made his decision, however, in a way better calculated to embolden the enemy and dishearten our allies. In this case, the president did everything wrong except make the wrong choice.) This is a president clearly more at home on the campaign trail than in the Oval Office.
II. "Sally Field Diplomacy"
When it comes to foreign relations, the new president spent his first year as a passionate practitioner of what my Hudson Institute colleague Jaime Daremblum has called "Sally Field diplomacy" – the overriding imperative of which revolves around fanning and luxuriating in one's own personal popularity. (Remember her infamous acceptance speech at the 1985 Oscars? "You like me, right now, you like me!") To the extent that this approach has anything to do with policy substance, it follows a crude, double syllogism. First: George Bush followed certain policies; he was unpopular; we will follow the opposite policies precisely because they are the opposite policies; and therefore we will be popular. At the same time, it assumes that because Obama is personally popular, everything else will fall into place: the world will order itself happily and spontaneously around American leadership – or, more specifically, his personal leadership – if only his administration is sufficiently conciliatory, engaging, and … well, just darn nice. These simplistic lines of reasoning reinforce each other, because in the foreign relations and diplomatic context, "nice" is assumed to mean doing what George Bush didn't do: specifically, adopting the policies that foreign audiences want us to adopt, and because they want us to adopt them.
It is thus assumed that preemptive policy concessions to foreign audiences will magically pave the way for them cooperating more with us on what we want – whatever that ends up actually meaning once the policy agenda has been reoriented around their conventional wisdom. Our new president seems to have inverted the proper relationship between diplomacy and policy, making policy changes in order to support diplomatic congeniality (a.k.a. the Obama Administration's popularity among foreign audiences) rather than using diplomacy as a tool to advance substantive ends. To the limited extent that his administration sees diplomacy as supporting policy goals at all, moreover, Washington now seems to assume that policy successes will self-organize around Obama's popularity as if by some kind of natural law. ("If they like me, they will follow.") Unfortunately, things aren't usually quite so simple, and governing in the real world turns out to be quite unlike talking about governance on the campaign trail.
III. Failures and Confusions
In the NACD arena, for instance, the new president seems to be in the thrall of what I have elsewhere described as the "credibility thesis" – that is, the idea that the reason that enforcement of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has collapsed in the face of Iranian and North Korean provocations is simply that the United States has not been eliminating its nuclear weapons quickly enough, and that if we make a big show of disarming ourselves, the nonproliferation regime will revive and work as intended. There is essentially no evidence to support this thesis, and no sign that the Obama Administration's effort to follow its recipe is accomplishing anything.
The credibility thesis rests upon a paradoxical combination of self-deprecating liberal guilt over our possession of nuclear weapons and a the new administration's overweening and self-referential vanity, which assumes that if we "lead by example" – with "leadership" being somewhat curiously defined to mean doing what a majority of foreign governments want us to do – other countries will obligingly re-define their own interests and make entirely new strategic policy choices.
The credibility thesis finds receptive ears in today's Washington because it is the approach the conventional wisdom of the arms control community and most of the foreign diplomatic corps has been urging the United States to take for years. Because ordinary Americans usually display little interest in NACD issues, this approach is what the only relevant audience wants to see; hewing to it will therefore serve to keep our new president popular, validating the esteem in which he holds himself and which he apparently desperately needs to see mirrored in the world around him. This is the apotheosis of Sally Field diplomacy.
To be sure, there are suggestions that administration officials understand on some level that it is a dangerous gamble to assume that if we make ourselves sufficiently conciliatory and garner enough applause for preemptive policy concessions, the rest of the world will become a safer and more orderly place and others will behave as we wish them to. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, for instance, fretted to an audience in Brussels last September that if the United States did not get more help from Europe in Afghanistan and tougher sanctions on Iran, "plenty of Americans will say, you know what, let's do it our way." Typically, if insultingly, this was cast as a warning about what the uncouth American masses might conclude if the Europeans did not cooperate more with Obama. The president, we are apparently to infer, is really on the Europeans' side, and he and they need to work together to prevent American voters from derailing their joint program. (Remember those voters? They are the "bitter" people to whom Obama condescended on the campaign trail.) Nevertheless, there's a germ of truth in Gordon's account. Sally Field diplomacy is indeed a house of cards: sooner or later it will collapse, and we will need to look again to United States interests in order to guide United States policy.
One reason why this popularity-seeking house of cards will inevitably collapse, of course, is that it encourages foolish negotiating behavior. If you open arms control negotiations by making concessions that give the other side what they've demanded for years, for instance, what happens then? They pocket your concession, of course, and thereafter have little reason to bother with the inconvenience of giving you whatever you want in return. At the very least, this amounts to a sort of negotiator's malpractice. There is also, however, an even more worrisome possibility: if you take Sally Field diplomacy seriously enough, it is possible that all you want is whatever wins praise from the other side. In that sense, you can achieve your objectives without bargaining at all, just by conceding. Such an approach, however, merely accelerates the collapse of the house of cards; no president can long remain popular, or remain in office, without getting back something of value in return for his concessions.
One can see this with the Obama Administration's mishandling of ballistic missile defense (BMD) issues and the (still) ongoing negotiations with Russia over a successor agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The Obama's approach was perhaps inevitable: a complete no-brainer from the Sally Field perspective. Russia claimed to have deep fear and anger at Bush Administration approaches to European missile defense, and Moscow's tub-thumping on the issue seemed to stand in the way of the new post-START deal with Russia that the Obama team needed in order to validate its messianic self-perceptions as the administration that was finally going to set the world on the road to a harmonious, nuclear-weapons-free future. Making things even easier, the conventional wisdom of the arms control community had been uncomfortable with BMD for years – at best being lukewarm, and often frankly hostile. Missile defense was also a signature issue of the Bush Administration, which had become unpopular in diplomatic circles for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. It was thus almost inevitable that Obama would tack against missile defense.
The very desperation of the Obama Administration's need for an agenda-validating deal with Russia, however, caught it in a quandary. One might have expected Russia to need an arms deal with the United States more than we needed one with Russia, but it quickly became clear that the Obama Administration needed a treaty, for political reasons, more than the Russians did. After Obama preemptively abandoned the Bush Administration's plans for a "third site" missile defense facility in Europe, thus giving Russia what it had demanded, Moscow smelled weakness and desperation – and these character traits are chum in the water for people like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
At the time of writing, the negotiators have missed their deadline for replacing START, and talks remain stalled because Russia is now apparently holding out for concessions involving the entire U.S. BMD program. Meanwhile, Russia has been expressing gleeful contempt for the Obama Administration's much-vaunted eventual goal of nuclear weapons abolition, with Russian officials calling for the development of a new generation of offensive nuclear arms, retaining thousands of so-called "tactical" nuclear weapons and refusing to match U.S. cuts in such devices, announcing a doctrine of preemptive nuclear strikes, and conducting exercises that involve the use of nuclear weapons against countries such as Poland. (For its part, China doesn't rattle its nuclear saber so ostentatiously, but it is steadily building up its nuclear weapons capabilities nonetheless, increasing the size of its arsenal by more than 25 percent since 2006 alone. Officials in Beijing have made clear that they will only even consider talking about disarmament only after reaching U.S. and Russian armament levels.)
So much for leading by example. This is not an inspiring start for the man who proclaimed himself the leader who would catalyze the movement to a nuclear-weapons free world, and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for talking about it. Our new president, it would seem, has managed to win for himself a superficial sort of personal popularity, but at the price of the sort of quiet disdain that real-world leaders reserve for the weak and naïve. Such are the wages of Sally Field diplomacy.
Meanwhile, Obama's preemptive concessions on BMD have badly shaken the confidence of our new NATO allies in Eastern Europe, who had invested considerable political capital in cooperating with U.S. BMD efforts. Sending a message of American irresolution and weakness within the Atlantic Alliance relationship, just when these same countries were becoming increasingly alarmed about the ambitions of a revanchist, Putin-era Russia nostalgic for the days of Soviet imperial supremacy in what Russians call their "near abroad." Nor does anyone seem to be particularly reassured by the Obama Administration's claim that its "replacement" plan for European-based BMD will meet the emerging missile threat from Iran, and with good reason. The administration's purported sea-based program to "replace" President Bush's European "third site" plan adds nothing to U.S. BMD procurement except to promise a degree of continuous Navy cruiser deployment in European waters that no one thinks our shrinking Navy will be able actually to maintain. The "replacement" plan is no replacement, and everyone in Europe knows it: it is a climb-down, and our new NATO friends sense a worrying weakness in the Atlantic Alliance. In an almost macabre twist, in fact, President Obama announced his cave-in to Russian pressure on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
(Incidentally, President Obama did not bother to attend the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall, choosing instead – and at the last minute – merely to give a speech by video link, in which our Solipsist-in-chief characteristically lauded his own election as a pivotal step in "human destiny." Just weeks earlier, the new president had made an unprecedented high-publicity jaunt to Copenhagen on the assumption that his presence there would secure the 2016 Olympics for his hometown of Chicago, but it apparently wasn't worth leaving Washington to commemorate this epochal anniversary. Obama seems to have had little interest in remembering that it took the West's consistent application of strength and resolve to contain and face down those who threatened peace and freedom during the Cold War. The Europeans, we can be sure, did not miss his point.)
Nor do things look much better in Asia, where, as The Economist put it, President Obama is proving "kinder to America's rivals than to its friends." The new administration is eager to talk to the North Koreans, and in a sharp contrast to President Clinton's 1998 trip, Obama seemed happy to allow his own visit to China to be carefully stage-managed by Communist authorities. Not mincing words, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared beforehand that "issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights" would not be allowed to "interfere" with the new administration's outreach to China. Obama also distinguished himself as the first president since 1991 to snub His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama when the Tibetan exile leader visited the United States. None of this obligingly compliant signaling, however, kept China from scuppering Obama's desperate attempt to salvage a meaningful agreement at the climate change conference in Copenhagen.
As for U.S. allies our new president has been far chillier. The Obama Admnistration seems happy to allow a laboriously-negotiated free-trade agreement with South Korea to languish, friendless, in Congress, while the administration seems quite cool on the "strategic partnership" the United States had previously developed with India. Perhaps worst of all, in an appalling insult to the new Japanese government of Yukio Hatoyama – and a comment sure to horrify U.S. alliance partners everywhere – one State Department official also told the Washington Post that the Obama Administration now considered Japan a bigger problem than China.
And people are starting to notice. Leslie Gelb, the head of the Council on Foreign Relations and a high priest of foreign policy conventional wisdom, for instance, has described all this as "amateur hour at the White House." But there is more going on than just amateurism. I think Leon Wieseltier put his finger on part of the problem, lamenting that Obama has made the guiding light of his foreign policy the idea that "'the United States in opposition' is the problem that he was appointed to solve." According to Wieseltier, Obama has "succumbed to one of the great fantasies of our time," building his around the idea that there is "common ground" available with everyone if only we "engage" them warmly enough. Wieseltier and his colleagues at The New Republic seem horrified to see Obama spending so much time "engaging" with all manner of foreign theocrats, thugs, dictators, and genocidaires in countries ranging from Iran to Sudan on the basis merely of a quasi-religious "utopian" faith that – in the words of The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann – "a less arrogant, more cooperative, more empathetic America" can lead the world precisely because it is cooperative and empathetic. For their part, conservatives such as Eliot Abrams have decried the new administration's fixation upon dealing only with governments, and its disinterest in the real circumstances of the populations of human beings on whose behalf such governments purport to speak. (Abrams denounces this as a focus upon "placards" in diplomatic meetings, rather than actually upon real "people.")
All this is perhaps the inevitable result of Sally Field diplomacy born in the Obama Administration's compulsion to use U.S. policy in service of the president's sense of messianic self-esteem. In this administration's search for self-validating popularity during its first year in office, it almost seems that the views of actual or potential adversaries apparently count for more than those of our friends – who seem to be quite taken for granted. This isn't quite as crazy as it seems, or at least there is a consistent logic to the Administration's approach. After all, for the moment, at least, our allies have little alternative but to stick by us, and their ability to criticize or oppose President Obama will be limited by their circumstances. Moreover, U.S. presidents routinely work closely with, give support to, and receive support from our alliance partners. (That's what being a friend and ally is all about.) Even George W. Bush, who features in Obama's political iconography as a cartoonish devil-figure and universal scapegoat, stuck by America's friends. Accordingly, there is nothing too interesting or new – in short, no "change we can believe in" – in something as conventional as alliance solidarity.
If President Obama is to seem the groundbreaking and transformative global leader he and his worshippers imagine him to be, therefore, he needs more than approval from his friends: he needs universal validation. This means seeking the approval of those who wish America no good. Initiatives such as Obama's famous "reset" button with Russia and "outstretched hand" to Iran are thus in a sense the very cornerstones of Obama diplomacy, but not because they necessarily aim to achieve anything in particular. Rather, such postures are essential, for their own sake,to the Obama Administration's self-congratulatory sense of political legitimacy as a geopolitical breath of fresh air that isn't the Bush Administration. This is one reason why the president's conciliatory outreach has continued for so long, and despite such painful rebuffs and provocations: it is terribly difficult for him to withdraw it and pursue "confrontation" without admitting that he is nothing so special after all.
Though this prism, it is thus entirely to be expected that our friends will be taken for granted and our relationships with them given a lower priority; their words of support for the U.S. colossus are not worth too much in demonstrating the marvelous newness of our president's leadership. It is also to be expected that Washington will be extraordinarily solicitous of the interests of those who wish America ill, and that our president will tie the development of his policy agenda to the desires of the lowest-common-denominator conventional wisdom in multilateral fora, for these governments' acknowledgment of Obama's specialness would really mean something. And finally, worst of all, it is to be expected that the president's policy choices will remain as incoherent as they are portentously self-regarding, for they are not obviously driven by considerations of substantive U.S. interest and cost-benefit calculations at all. All these are the wages of Sally Field diplomacy, of solipsism raised to the level of strategic policy.
IV. Conclusion: The Coming Storm
Unfortunately, these dynamics may also be creating a sort of "perfect storm" for nuclear weapons proliferation. We now have a U.S. president who is conciliatory toward proliferators, thuggish dictators, and potential strategic adversaries, who is inclined toward preemptive concessions in diplomatic negotiations, who is forcing new austerities upon the U.S. armed forces at a time in which domestic spending has ballooned to extraordinary proportions, who is visibly uncomfortable with military solutions anywhere (even in his own "war of necessity" in Afghanistan), and who has publicly dedicated himself to eliminating the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent upon which numerous American allies still rely. This same president takes our longstanding alliance relationships for granted, unsettles alliance partners with concessions to autocratic regimes that threaten their strategic interests, and has turned a cold shoulder to hard-won cooperative defense arrangements with these same allies that were aimed at the nuclear threats presented by emerging proliferator regimes. Should one expect these dynamics to do anything other than make nuclear weapons development seem more rewarding for our adversaries and more worryingly tempting for our friends?
IV. Nuclear Posturing versus Nuclear Posture
But I can almost hear my readers' responses. The Obama Administration, I will be told, has taken major and transformative steps in the NACD arena, at least with respect to disarmament. Pursuing an "effectively verifiable" Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT)? Announcing support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)? Pursuing a new legally-binding strategic arms treaty with Russia? Articulating renewed support for Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZs) and negative security assurances (NSAs) promising non-use of nuclear weapons? Getting ostentatiously wobbly on BMD? Proclaiming a fervent desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons? The new administration has indeed done all of these things.
Two things, however, are striking about all of these steps. First, the new president's NACD agenda has been almost shockingly unoriginal. Our soi-disant transformative, millennial president has distinguished himself in office by reflexively adopting as his bold new 21st Century agenda merely a numbingly predictable Clinton-era laundry list of the arms control community's conventional wisdom, circa 1995. This choice is not surprising when viewed through the lens of Sally Field diplomacy, however, for if callow praise-seeking is indeed Obama's primary objective, it would hardly do for him to spurn the arms control clerisy on issues about which American voters seem generally uninterested.
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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