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Obama’s foreign policy? Preliminary evidence will come from Africa

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Having been in office for little over a month – a month which has been almost exclusively dedicated to dealing with the economy – one has to be careful with making any kind of assessment with respect to Barack Obama’s administration’s foreign policy direction.

On the other hand, an administration’s initial steps often set the tone for an entire term, and the first couple of months – the famed “first 100 days” in office – are well under way. Moreover, on the 24th of February Obama held his first “Address to Congress” (State of the Union), a speech that certainly warrants a preliminary analysis of things to come.

How many words of this formal declaration of intent, out of a total of roughly 6,000 words, were dedicated to foreign policy and international relations? A little over 400, or 6%. This includes references to transparent accounting with respect to the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan. That is remarkably little for a president who reluctantly claims to be at war. Even if one allows for the political realities of the day (“it’s the economy, stupid”, to quote the former Democratic occupant of the White House), it is a worrying sign.  

It was not all bad news, however. Whenever arch-neoconservative Bill Kristol laments that “this was not the speech of a man who even contemplates the possibility of using force within the next year to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”, Obama must be doing something right. Although testosterone-induced vocabulary (“American Century”, “power”, “extremism”) was bountiful, there was also reference to “a new era of engagement”. Indeed, there are certainly some positive early signs, such as the closing of Guantanamo Bay, a relatively productive tone towards Tehran and Moscow, and an apparent dedication to avoiding the Cheneyian excesses with respect to torture and circumvention of the rule of law.

On the other hand, one can also point at a number of more disappointing developments emanating from the White House which dampen any enthusiasm or hope for a radical departure from past US policies. Most heavy-weights in Obama’s team (starting with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) are on the hawkish side of the international political spectrum. There was a disturbing absence of an American voice with respect to both Israel’s invasion of Gaza as well as during the rudderless Israeli elections. Guantanamo Bay and other such symbolic steps were campaign promises that are mostly related to national politics. Internationally, Obama has, thus far, not shown to aim for a truly radical change from the past. In fact, if Afghanistan and Pakistan are anything to go by, Obama seems set on continuing many of the fundamental errors of the past decade: a mistaken faith in the reach and effectiveness of military power, a dangerously counterproductive divide-and-conquer approach in societies far too complex to be successfully manipulated from Langley or the Pentagon, and a belief that (international) rule of law is a relative and pliable concept.   

Symbolism and tone are important, especially in the sensitive world of diplomacy and undiplomatic diplomats. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that George W. Bush also came to office in 2001 with a clear message of American moderation and modesty at the international stage. That is not to say that Obama resembles Bush, but they do have one thing in common: their dependence on the norms of Washington’s populist establishment which has little understanding of international policy beyond its unquestioned domestic utility as a milk cow for populism, fear mongering and foreign, elusive scapegoats.

In order to create a new, effective foreign policy, Obama needs to mark a significant departure from the former administration’s philosophy and actions. So far, Obama seems to be updating rather than breaking with the past. Although it is still early days, now is certainly the formative period that will define his presidency. If he truly wants to begin a new era in US international politics, Obama needs to start acting like it.

What early signs should we look for? He has already made it clear that Afghanistan and Pakistan will be priorities, and backed that up by sending 17,000 additional troops. He has also emphasized a great willingness to give diplomacy a state. Clinton hinted at “smart power” rather than the eternal soft/hard power debate. However, the true question is whether the new administration will be willing to face the complexities and root-problems of the globalized 21st Century.

Conceptually, this will be shown by their interpretation of the “War on Terror” as opposed to US efforts with respect to Peacebuilding (i.e. those policies that strengthen local societies worldwide in order for them to deal with conflicts without resorting to violence).

Geographically, there is no better place to look for positive or negative signs than sub-Saharan Africa. Policies in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are too dependent on past strategies to be changed quickly. Therefore, if Obama is serious about changing course, the first signs of that are likely to appear in countries like Somalia or the Sahel region. Will the US continue to “search and destroy enemies” in such places, or will they focus on human security and support the strengthening of societies with fragile economic or political systems?

Besides being an easier place to break with the past (as opposed to the more traditional theatres of operation), the cost of action in Africa is low. Relatively small economic investments, political capital and diplomatic assistance can make huge differences. This means that signs of either a positive or a negative course of overall US foreign policy can be witnessed there before anywhere else. It’s the canary in the coalmine, so to speak.  

An important measure will be the White House’s approach to democracy-building and the often hypocritical behaviour that arises from it. Especially with the rise of China as a new trading-partner, many countries in Africa are tired of Western discourse on democracy and human rights. Everyone seems to agree that a new kind of modesty is in order. Will Obama be able to find a better balance? When Hillary Clinton outlined a policy of “Three D’s”- defence, diplomacy, and development”, democracy did not make it to the list. That may be a sign of things to come. The real question, however, is whether the fundamental aims change.

Will Obama focus on long-term growth and development or on short-term enemies (real or imaginary)? On partnership or on realpolitik?

On Peacebuilding or on artificial wars against concepts such as terror or extremism? We should keep our eye on Africa in order to find out.

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