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The Foreign Policy That’s Possible

Ian Bremmer, Ph.D

(U.S. News) – It is far from clear whether foreign policy will become a leading issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. But if it does, Ian Bremmer, founding president of The Eurasia Group, has set the table for a renewed discussion of America’s role in the world with his recent book, “Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.”

Bremmer catalyzes a necessary conversation about how America should behave abroad and shines a light on foreign policy issues that have been under-examined, such as the impact of American espionage practices on some of its allies. However, like many, he is overly critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, and he underestimates the role of America’s sclerotic legislative processes in hamstringing all policy priorities – including foreign policy.

Bremmer is concerned that the next president of the United States will inherit a government without a foreign policy strategy because of Obama’s unwillingness to articulate one. This is not an unprecedented or even an unusual state of affairs. America has been without a coherent foreign policy strategy before; the end of the Cold War brought on a similar debate how America should redefine its role in the world at its “unipolar moment.” Some foreign policy hands want to recast China as America’s new Cold War enemy in the name of restoring policy clarity. That, however, would commit America to just the sort of foreign overextension Bremmer warns against.

Moreover, the Obama administration took office after a phase in America’s recent history when foreign policy was clear, and its results – principally in Iraq and Afghanistan – were both chaotic and uncertain. The Obama administration’s reticence to engage internationally is in part a response to the overreach of the previous years and a popular desire to rein America in. Skilled as he is at counterfactuals, Bremmer might have posed this one: Had he been elected when President Bill Clinton was, at the end of the Cold War, Obama’s worldview may have differed.

Bremmer, like many others, criticizes Obama’s dithering on Syria. By setting a red line and not defending it, Bremmer seconds a chorus of criticism that Obama damaged American credibility. By Bremmer’s own calculus, however, Obama arrived at the right decision on Syria, just in a politically damaging way. From the start, Obama had no base of political support for re-inserting American ground forces in the region. Even if he did, America’s experience in Iraq would raise serious questions about such a strategy. Had Obama been clearer in communicating that America would lead efforts for a diplomatic solution in Syria, while contributing humanitarian aid and working with refugees, he would likely have passed Bremmer’s test of the proper conduct of U.S. policy in the region.

While presenting options for America’s role in the world, Bremmer articulates his preference for a more “independent America” with more American resources focused at home. He targets foreign aid of dubious value for redistribution. “Since 2002,” Bremmer wrote, “the United States has provided Afghanistan with $100 billion in financial aid. … Imagine what $100 billion might have built at home.”

But we don’t have to imagine; comparisons abound. $100 billion roughly equals the amount the U.S. government spends in providing tax relief of mortgage interest every year, for instance. The lion’s share of budget cutting to be done is on the non-defense side. He is looking for savings in the wrong place.

Bremmer’s arguments for re-purposing federal spending are understandable, but they leave unexamined the biggest problem: How to unclog a legislative process that makes such spending changes next to impossible. Policymakers seeking to roll back these types of tax expenditures encounter crippling lobbying resistance. Money spent on a new aircraft carrier may be re-purposed to build new schools, but Bremmer expresses the aspiration without presenting a strategy to achieve it. In a book about foreign policy strategy, he hits on a current domestic policy fact: Congress is frozen in a rancorous division over what government should and should not do. America’s foreign policy is frozen with it. Revitalized democratic debate is a necessary starting point for all domestic policy initiatives, as well as America’s foreign policy.

Bremmer is right to single out one foreign policy issue for more attention than it has received: the fallout from America’s overreach in espionage, both domestically and abroad. It has been a few years since news broke that America’s espionage efforts had spread to its European allies. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone was alleged to have been tapped. The episode continues to impact U.S.-German relations, an alliance that should be reliably robust. Some diplomatic problems are inevitable; this one was unnecessary.

Foreign affairs books tend to call for policies that are created and executed with a clarity that is impossible in political terms. For one thing, the American system builds incoherence into the process; different branches of government are invited into in the process. For another, the ship of state turns slowly. Even if a pivot in policy is clearly articulated, working it through the apparatus of government takes time. Bremmer quotes national security advisor Susan Rice defending a delay in releasing Obama’s national security strategy, saying that whenever it was released, “it would have been overtaken by events two weeks later.” Bremmer does not buy Rice’s argument, but it is important to note she is speaking from within government and he from outside it. If politics is the art of the possible, foreign policy is no different.

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