Obama Policy: Change or Continuity?
Weekly Pulse
Feb 27-Mar 5, 2009
I was in New York recently to speak at the 2009 ISA Convention, which brought together hundreds of scholars of International Relations and Political Science from across the world, including renowned theorists like John J Mearsheimer and Joseph S Nye, Jr. Besides presenting my own paper, titled “NATO Mission in Afghanistan: Problems and Prospects,” I got the opportunity to attend a few panels where Mearsheimer and Nye shared their thoughts. Coming from a region which is at the centre of Obama Administration’s foreign policy, I was interested in learning about the evolving scholarly discourse on the nature and scope of US engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as changing American power and its global implications.

So I sat down with Mearsheimer and Nye, as they represent and lead two opposite sides in international relations theory. Mearsheimer is co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. He has refined the neo-realist theory of Kenneth Waltz in a 2001 book, titled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, wherein he states that anarchic nature of the international system leaves no choice for the great powers but to compete aggressively—a situation he terms as offensive realism. Last year, Mearsheimer also co-authored with Stephen Walt the book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, the first-ever account of the power of the pro-Israel Jewish lobby in the United States and how it was proving counter-productive to US strategic interests in the Middle East.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has served as US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and Chair of the US National Intelligence Council. He has authored a number of books, including The Powers to Lead (2008) and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). Back in the 70s, he developed, along with Robert Keohane, of the international relations theory of neo-liberalism. More recently, Nye pioneered the theory of soft power. His notion of "smart power" has become popular with the use of this phrase by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at her Senate confirmation hearing in January.

At almost every panel relevant to global and South Asian security issues I attended, there seemed to be scholarly consensus on the gravity of the security challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s western borders. As for tackling this danger, opinions differ—but the arguments for an eventually non-military response to it seem to be getting stronger. However, the Swat deal has not gone down well, and is being criticized for having been negotiated by the government of Pakistan under pressure from Taliban militancy.

John Mearsheimer

I asked Mearsheimer how his “offensive realism” theory should manifest in Obama administration’s policy on Afghanistan. His answer was interestingly: “For President Obama,” Mearsheimer said, “it is a delusion to send additional troops and expect that they will be able to win the war. Sending more troops is a mistake. The United States should get out of that region. It is suicidal to engage more in Afghanistan.”

What is the alternative then? I asked. “Talk to the Taliban and let them rule if they guarantee that Afghanistan won’t become a source of international terrorism again. I think that’s a precondition which can be realized now.”

Then I asked Mearsheimer whether he expects the Obama administration to review US policy towards Palestine, or, more precisely, reduce Israeli influence on it. “Let me tell you that the way people in the United States think about this issue is changing, the way they talk about it is also changing. What has not changed yet is the US policy towards Israel. I do not expect a major change in it. Obama is no revolutionary figure. He is an average American and you cannot expect anything drastic from him.

“However, I must say that we are heading towards greater disaster in that region. I was there in June. Israel is fast turning into an apartheid state. The Palestinians are living in enclaves. Their mobility is restricted with hundreds of checkpoints. Israel firmly controls Gaza. There is no indication yet that Israel will ever revise its conduct on Palestinians. It is interesting that from within the Jewish community in the United States, there are increasing voices in favour of the Palestinian state. The J Street is a group of American Jews who understand the coming danger and want the United States to exert greater pressure on Israel for the creation of a Palestinian state.”

Mearsheimer chaired a panel on the Rise of China, and some of his views are worth-mentioning here. According to him, “At least in our lifetime, China will not demographically pose a threat to the United States to the extent of having the economic wherewithal to build a larger strategic military force. Once it does, then the United States should counter it…That China is currently building a naval force is not because of any strategic reasons, it is only due to nationalism. And I think it would be foolish on the Chinese part to build aircraft careers, a mistake the Soviets made.

“At this stage, we cannot be certain whether China will emerge a threat to the United States or not. Even we are not yet certain about the United States’ future. Whether the United States will survive economic recession, and whether the world or China can survive it. If China faces economic decline, it may have civil war. However, the potential for a US conflict with China is there, and North Korea’s implosion, the refugee influx, and Taiwan conflict may trigger it.”

In another panel held in honour of Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neo-realism theory, Mearsheimer argued “Waltz did not offer a theory of foreign policy. His was only a theory of international politics. Waltz did not explain state behavior, but only explained international outcomes. According to Waltz, a great power can also act recklessly.” “If so,” Mearsheimer argued, “then outcomes, such as defensive act by a war-prone coalition of other powers in a multi-polar setting, are questionable.

“Since reckless behaviour by great powers is possible, then it is desirable to act offensively. Maximize your own power as you cannot trust other great powers will join you in countering reckless states. Therefore, at best, Waltz’s is a normative but not an explanatory theory.” The main contradiction in Waltz’s theory, according to Mearsheimer, is that it does not explain state behavior and yet talks about international outcomes. “An offensive action against a great power or omission—unwilling to cooperate with it—both constitute reckless behaviour, and such behaviour can manifest itself at both military and non-military levels,” said Mearsheimer.

Joseph Nye

I have read Joseph Nye since the late 80s, when in a fascinating article in Dialogue, a magazine published by the US Information Service, he had argued that Rock ‘n Roll, Madonna, and Pink Floyd played a pioneering role in the fall of the Berlin Wall, challenging the mainstream explanations then about economic bankruptcy and arms race being important factors in the reversal of Soviet community empire in Europe.

I had also read his book published before the Soviet demise in 1991 and titled Bound to Lead, in which he further explained the power of liberalism in an age of globalization, an ideal that was to determine the rise of America in the post-Cold War period. At around the same time, Paul Kennedy had authored the international best-seller, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, arguing the relative decline of the United States.

“Paul is a good friend. But I won the argument, and he got all the royalties,” said Nye. His paper at the ISA Convention was a comparison of Presidents George W Bush and Barack H Obama, centering around his newest thesis on “contextual intelligence” as articulated in the most recent book, The Powers to Lead.

According to Nye, President Bush’s failure to lead America can be justified on several grounds. Part of the explanation was his intellectual capability and personal background. It was partly philosophical, as visible in his policy of having no-fixed alliances or coalition of the willing. And partly, it was his imperial attitude. He did not consult with others. “We-lead-you-follow” was the underlying principle of the Bush Administration.

According to Nye, President Bush failed miserably in building international consensus on what the terrorist threat was, what its source was and how to fight it. There was no consensus on its causes or effects. Consequently, the United States itself became part of the problem. There was no consensus on what the War on Terror is. During the Cold War, nobody had a problem in using the “Soviet threat” terminology. However, within three years of the so-called Global War on Terror, even America’s allies found it hard to use this term.

As for President Obama, Nye said the indications are quite promising. “Just look at the nature of the man, his personal background. He is knowledgeable. He is deeply impressive and charismatic. His speeches inspire people across the world…His election was a global event, which has already created remarkable consensus about his leadership potential in the outside world. This tells us something about the opportunity for America. President Obama is not denying the relative decline in US status in the world, because he understands its reason.” In Nye’s words, President Obama possesses the “intellectual maturity of what needs to be done. He comes in with massive goodwill and international legitimacy.

“This is what,” Nye described, “is soft power, which has already made enough difference. The challenge for America is to translate this opportunity into policy changes.” He said the United States was still the world’s pre-eminent power, as its military budget exceeds those of all of the rest of the powers. But he said being militarily most powerful is not enough. Explaining his three-dimensional chessboard model, he articulated the importance of “contextual intelligence,” which a great power leadership needs to win over the rest of the world without necessarily using hard military power.

“Only a complex leadership,” he argued, “knows the art of employing language for multiple audiences. For instance, since Bush lacked complexity of leadership, his War on Terror was perceived in the Muslim world as a War on Islam. He said contextual intelligence “requires a clear understanding of power and culture in international politics,” and “of the limits and ability of US power.”

He said the challenge of terrorism comes from the bottom of his three-dimensional chess-broad. Therefore, “the struggle against terrorism cannot be won with military power alone, as, in the absence of a hearts and minds campaign, there will be more extremism…That Muslims disagree with US policies does not mean they agree with Bin Ladin. The current clash is a civil war within Islam. Smart power is the ability to combine hard and soft power into a reality. That necessitates a new approach in US Foreign Policy, including the use of diplomacy, economic resources and communication.”

Joseph Nye also said that President Obama will have to solve not only practical problems like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he inherited from the Bush Administration, but also “liberate the Americans from the identity discourse on the War on Terror.”

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