The New American Threat to World Order

Gideon Rose wrote an impassioned, yet wrongheaded, defense of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, arguing that his policies keep America, and the world, on a positive track.

 

“The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery.”

 

Rose, then proceeds to absolve Obama’s failures by relegating them to “feuds in the global periphery,” while elevating Obama’s obscure successes to the pinnacle of foreign policy genius–all in the name of maintaining the liberal international order.

 

As problematic as Rose’s evaluation is, his argument continues to fail on its own merit, especially in light of our changed approaches to rogue and dictatorial regimes. The liberal international order that the United States created after World War 2, enticed illiberal states to change their ways in order to enjoy the spoils of cooperation. Participation in the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, G20, and other intergovernmental organizations required member states to pursue liberal institutions that secure peace. Free press, free elections, representative governments and open societies make for peaceful, predictable partnerships–the kinds of partnerships that have led to the relative peace of the post World War 2 era, and the worldwide rise in economic prosperity. Failure to insist upon the adoption of liberal institutions rewards despotism, and can even enrich tyrants.

 

Yet, that’s exactly what Obama’s foreign policy has done.

 

In 2008, Senator John McCain criticized Obama’s desire to legitimize rogue states by opening diplomatic ties with them. Obama called McCain’s charge an appeal to the politics of fear. He went further, saying, “we need to…use all elements of American power – including tough, principled, and direct diplomacy — to pressure countries like Iran and Syria.” This rejoinder sounds consistent with what Rose, and others concerned with preserving the liberal international order, would welcome. However, even if Rose considers the Iran Nuclear Deal, the normalization of relations with communist Cuba, and the lifting of the weapons embargo with communist Vietnam, peripheral items, these Obama policies do not support the liberal international order. They do, in fact, quite the opposite.

 

Rose argues, for example, that Obama exercised sound judgement by responding tepidly to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2013, in part, because Ukraine (not a NATO member) didn’t deserve our protection.

 

“This policy seems eminently sensible,” Rose writes. “NATO members have an ironclad security guarantee of American protection, which Washington will unquestionably enforce if necessary…Ukraine will probably join the liberal order eventually, when circumstances permit. But it is not the United States’ job to fight to bring it in before then.”

 

Contrast this with our new stance with Vietnam. Vietnam persists as a communist nation, replete with political prisoners and basic injustices. Hours before Obama landed in Hanoi, the Vietnamese people held an election in which more than 98% of Vietnamese citizens voted to legitimate the illegitimate and oppressive regime. Still, Obama strengthened this regime–promising to sell it F-16s, drones, surveillance equipment and electronic warfare capabilities so that “Vietnam [can] fully link its kill chain between ‘see-ers’ and ‘shooters.’”

 

If this effort were meant to “pressure” Vietnam into liberalizing, then Obama would be serving the liberal international order. However, as Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere notes, “neither the Americans or [sic] the Vietnamese spent any time pretending the change had anything to do with actual democratic reform. Obama didn’t make a show of calling for it. President Tran Dai Quang didn’t make a show of pretending he was for it. They both knew it would have been a joke.”
What incentivizes nations to pursue liberalism–often reducing the power of the ruling class–when the benefits of the liberal global order fall upon illiberal states as well? Doesn’t Obama’s approach to these hostile states undermine the liberal international order? Or do a stronger Iran, Cuba, and Vietnam exist only in the periphery?

Iran Deal Epitomizes the Wrong Way to Encourage Peace

Capitulating to Oppressors Breeds More Oppression


Peter Beinart writes a piece in The Atlantic that elucidates the folly of constructivist political theory and President Barack Obama’s role in negotiations with Iran. Beinart expresses hope that the nuclear deal with Iran could bring Democracy to the nation and improve human rights conditions. Rather than rely on military threats, sanctions, and isolation to urge Iran in the right direction, he argues that a conciliatory approach bore fruit historically and can do so today. The theory belies logic and the price of failure is high.

Beinart highlights the case of Akbar Ganji, a journalist jailed in Iran for calling on the country to replace its theocracy with a democracy. Ganji has since been released and has fled Iran. From his safe haven, he argues that the Iranian people live in fear resulting from economic sanctions and military threats from the United States and Israel.

“If the United States and its allies ‘are truly interested in the development of democracy in Iran…they should set aside military threats and economic sanctions.”

Beinart agrees.

He chastises hawks’ simplistic view of President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War successes:

“Reagan entered the White House in 1981, built up the American military, sent arms to anti-communist rebels, refused to negotiate arms-control deals, called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire,’ and, presto, the Berlin Wall fell.”

Instead, Beinart argues, Reagan de-escalated the Cold War by meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev without preconditions, cooling bellicose rhetoric, and signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

“The lesson,” Beinart writes, is “that imposing sanctions and threatening war rarely strengthen human rights. It’s usually the reverse.”

With this in mind, the Iranian nuclear talks have devolved from the U.S. and her European allies calling on Iran to dismantle its nuclear program to now–a complete reversal of previous U.S. positions. The Wall Street Journal editorial page lists some of these major departures:

“Obama has already conceded that Iran can keep enriching uranium, that it can maintain 5,060 centrifuges to do the enriching, that its enriched-uranium stockpiles can stay inside Iran, that the once-concealed facilities at Fordow and Arak can stay open (albeit in altered form), and that Iran can continue doing research on advanced centrifuges.”

In addition to these concessions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants an immediate repeal of economic sanctions and no inspections under any conditions of Iran’s military sites. Whatever demands the West makes on Iran must be upheld, or else the sanctions will immediately “snap back,” President Obama claims. How these sanctions will be immediately reimposed remains unclear. According to Beinart, though, caving to the Ayatollah would benefit more people than currently face harm through sanctions and the fear of war.

So why, Beinart asks, “in the face of all this evidence…do American hawks…still overwhelmingly oppose Obama’s diplomatic openings?”

Americans believe in carrots and sticks. Reward for good behavior and punishment for bad. We fear that granting concessions to brutal dictatorships will encourage more brutal dictatorships. In particular, dictators motivated by antisemitism stop at very little to kill Jews. Beinart doesn’t negate this possibility in his piece, even calling on American leaders to “criticize dictatorships.” Apparently, though, when that criticism goes so far as to call a murderous regime “evil,” a red line has been crossed.

So, what should the West do to discourage despotism?

Neorealists/neoliberals argue that coalitions built around pro-social behaviors create a cohort of nations that benefit from cooperation. NATO, WTO, the World Bank and IMF, name some of the multinational entities that work under this assumption. Nations allowed to participate in these organizations prosper. Those that don’t, don’t.

America started the neoliberal model after the end of World War II left so much of the world in shambles. Up until that point, the wealthiest and most powerful nations ruled the globe single-handedly until their power waned enough to allow a rival to topple the world order and claw to the top of the heap. The neorealist model dispatches with that practice. Neoliberalism encourages leaders to allow a free press, hold elections, curb aggression against their neighbors–all in order to join some of the multinational groups that work hand in hand toward mutual benefit.

Beinart and Obama appear bent on a constructivist approach that offers carrots with no sticks. They believe that by lifting sanctions and capitulating to despots, they uphold human rights for the unfortunate subjects of Iran and similar countries. In reality, they allow bloodthirsty dictators the means to build tools to violate the sovereignty and human rights of people in other countries.

Reality, though, is not a place where constructivism thrives.

A Constructivist Approach to Iran Spells Certain Disaster

A Deadly Double Down


Peter Baker writes, in a New York Times piece, that President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran represents a pivotal “moment of truth” for his “ambitions to remake the world.” Baker refers to the deal as a “gamble,” a “prospect,” a “holy grail.” This language of tantalizing evokes a sense of teasing, baiting, and peril. Combine Iran with the words “nuclear” and “peril,” and the stakes of Obama’s failure equal death on par with that seen last century. Welcome to Constructivist Foreign Policy Theory–the least-trusted foreign policy approach respected only within liberal academia.

Admittedly, the optimism of Constructivist Theory (or Constructivism) provides an alluring argument capable of ensnaring the naive and the desperate. Constructivism holds that a table is only a table because we recognize it as such. Stand on that table and sing a song and the table becomes a stage. Likewise, a rogue nation is only a rogue nation because it is viewed by others as such. Therefore, treat the nation as a responsible one, and it will rise to its new designation.  While the theory does an excellent job creating stage props for a play, its application in foreign policy presents many more limitations.

Its adherents point to terrorist groups turned respectable political parties as proof of Constructivism’s success and potential. Sinn Fein, Hamas, and increasingly the Taliban, evolved from shadowy butchers to doughy politicians. Neo-Realism itself, another foreign policy theory, shares some Constructivist assumptions while avoiding Constructivism’s skeptics and critics. Of course, not only do theorists argue about Constructivism’s role in transforming these groups, but the consequences of getting the answer wrong–of misapplying the pollyanna theory–equal violence. Baker highlights this point by detailing Iran’s troubling recent history:

“[Iran] has been the most sustained destabilizing force in the Middle East–a sponsor of the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, a supporter of Shiite militias that killed American soldiers in Iraq, a patron of Syria’s government in its bloody civil war, and now a backer of rebels who pushed out the president of Yemen.”

Why pursue this strategy with Iran?

Mr. Obama’s coziness with Constructivism comes as no surprise: The president fashions himself a product of the Elite American University. Here, political hypotheses live artificially long lives, protected from their certain death by a lack of implementation. Obama also posits that with Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, peace between Israel and Palestine, the true Holy Grail for American presidents, and one that if attained would justify his Nobel Peace Prize, appears impossible. Reforming Iran represents the last hope to offset his prolific use of drone strikes.

Then, there is the question of Obama’s desperation and naivety. Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist speaks to the former:

“Right now, he has no foreign policy legacy…He’s got a list of foreign policy failures.”

Peggy Noonan echoes this point:

“Syria, red lines, an exploding Mideast, a Russian president who…made a move, upsetting a hard-built order that had maintained for a quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union–what a mess.”

Baker piles on:

“Rather than building a new partnership with Russia, he faces a new cold war. Rather than ending the war in Iraq, he has sent American forces back to fight the Islamic State…Rather than defeating Al Qaeda, he finds himself chasing its offshoots. Rather than forging peace in the Middle East, he said recently that is beyond his reach.”

Indeed, the Administration seeks a “win” to salvage its foreign policy reputation.

On the topic of naivety, Obama loyalists disagree that it applies to him. His own words, though, undermine these defenders:

“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

The cute line, with its tone ripped from his 2008 campaign, fails to recognize that Iran rightly inspires reason to fear. Moreover, a Constructivist approach threatens to strengthen and embolden Iran–pitting an intangible goal, a foreign policy pin on his empty chest, against a tangible alternative, the millions of charred bodies of our allies, if not some of our own.

Obama’s “gamble” with Iran is a fool’s bet.