Nicholas Burns, next.ft.com
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America is not fated to fall from grace but much will depend on future leaders, writes Nicholas Burns
Jeffrey Goldberg’s brilliantly composed portrait of Barack Obama’s foreign policy mindset in the The Atlantic is a landmark achievement. It also helps to explain why the US is today a halting and uncertain power in global politics.
Mr Obama will leave office with important international achievements in place, among them the Iran Deal, a historic climate change pact and the Asia and Europe trade agreements. He has also conducted himself with grace and dignity in office.
The US president was right to focus his conversations with Mr Goldberg on perhaps the most difficult question in American foreign policy: when should presidents order the military to intervene in wars beyond its borders and when should they not?
In doing so, however, he seems determined to contest principles that recent presidents have found vitally important in the exercise of American power. Here is where the emerging “Obama Doctrine” often comes up short.
Through all the successes and failures of America’s global strategy since the end of the Cold War, we have understood what works. We know, for example, that American diplomacy is most often effective when it is backed by a strong military and the willingness to threaten force when necessary.
This is why Mr Obama’s defence of his decision to pull back from striking Syrian military targets in 2013, after having drawn a “red line” against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, is so troubling. He adamantly rejects the notion that his restraint diminished US credibility in the region.
However much Mr Obama may believe the old rules do not apply, it is an ancient truth that a great power has to back up its threats if it wishes to be respected by its friends and feared by its adversaries.
If Mr Obama did not intend to honour his red-line threat, he should never have made it. The result was inevitable — American credibility is undeniably diminished in the Middle East while that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been enhanced.
We also know that America’s vast network of alliances and security partnerships in Europe and Asia is a key element of its global strength. That is why the president’s criticism of two of America’s closest allies, Britain and France, as “free riders” in their prosecution of Nato’s Libya campaign in 2011 was so counter-productive.
Americans sometimes forget that the US military accounts for roughly 75 per cent of all Nato defence spending. It may not be fair but Nato has always been a US-led alliance. The real mistake in Libya was Mr Obama’s decision to allow the US to take a secondary role in an important Nato mission for the first time in its history.
US presidents have also learnt that it almost never works to embarrass a friend publicly. Mr Obama’s remarks about the Saudi royal family were inappropriate. He should have directed his darts not at America’s friends but at its true adversaries — Iran, Hizbollah, the Syrian government and Russia.
There is an unwritten rule of public diplomacy: argue with your allies behind closed doors rather than in the press, lest you weaken them and strengthen their opponents.
The US is not fated to fall from grace in the decades ahead but much will depend on the determination of its leaders. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, America can be as big as it wants. Mr Obama’s emphasis on what the US should not do rather than on what it should, suggests the limitations he has placed on policy.
He is right about one thing, however: this is a time to return to diplomacy. He still has time to present a larger, more expansive view of what America can and should achieve in the world. It would be reassuring, though, if the president acknowledged that combining diplomacy with military strength is not a relic from an antiquated “Washington playbook”. On the contrary, it is the surest way for a great power to find success and peace in a complicated and dangerous world.
The writer is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, currently on leave at Stanford, and a former undersecretary of state