Obama’s foreign policy: am I my brother’s keeper?

Paradoxically, US foreign policy has always been focused on neighbourly expansion of territory without the pursuance of global hegemony.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the well-known question touched upon by President Obama in Vermont on a campaign trail on 30 March this year and will be the underlying feature in almost every question thrown at him on the evening of 22 October at Lynn University, Florida, where he will share a platform with Mitt Romney to debate US foreign policy. 

Within the context of general political economy, domestic and foreign policies are two scions of the same nation. That is, despite not sharing the same citizen-proximity effect usually displayed by issues such as social security and healthcare, foreign policy like all national policies rests on significant domestic socio-economic elements for the structure of its shape. For the United States, foreign policy, as compounded by the dark day of 9/11, has persistently reflected the domestic ambitions, voracious appetite and fears of that nation. 

Universal rights

Questions of US ambition are manifested in its long period of domestic economic dominance and global military supremacy. Foreign policy is largely synonymous with questions pertaining to the use of military might to expand US sphere of influence, platform for trade and consumption and keep at enough distance the launch pad of a foreign attacker. Although, both Pearl Harbour and 9/11 pierced the perceived impregnability aided by delineation of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, the latter event coloured the distinction between security policy and respect for social justice.

Aware of this debacle, President Obama on the second day of his administration, signed three executive orders for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, review of the use of military trials for terror suspects and ban of torture technique (such as water-boarding) for interrogation. This was applauded by all who valued universal laws designed to protect the rights of an individual against detention without trial. 

The President succeeded in outlawing the use of torture but the complexity of partisan interests, the balance and check procedure in-built into the US system and an apparent lack of political will ensured that he could not deliver on the promise to close Guantanamo Bay within a year of his administration. Congress denied him funding for the transporting of the detainees into the US, their trials on US soil and for the $80m needed to build a prison in Illinois to house the detainees. 

The President in 2011 reversed his executive order and, subsequently, signed the National Defence Authorisation Act 2012, which allows for the indefinite detention of any persons, irrespective of nationality, suspected of acts of terrorism against the US. Nevertheless, allowances within the system still provides for the President to make good on his initial promise either through releasing the detainees via the courts or through a national security waiver – which more or less requires his administration to vouch that the relevant detainees would not again be found engaging in terrorism.

The failure of the administration to formulate a clear detention policy is not reflected in its counterterrorism policy, where the President has authorised extensive use of predatory drones in snuffing out terrorists regardless of their existence in a sovereign state.  While this practice of extra judicial killings creates a debatable issue of breach of international law; it similarly accords with parts of that same law and the UN Charter which allows for the right of self-preservation – a notion wide enough not to preclude the duty of preventive intervention particularly in a situation with a demonic previous history exhibited in the acts of 9/11.

Security and Trade

President Obama essentially denounced the war in Iraq because it concerned the use of military force against a sovereign state that posed no existential threat to its neighbours or the US - similar issues to those that dovetailed the debates on legality of military intervention in Libya and now Syria. Although, the President was tilted into the Libyan crisis by the Cameron-Sarkozy alliance, his reluctance to join in is perpetually etched in the term that describes the US ‘‘as leading from the back’’ in ousting Gaddafi. While this particular approach has attracted criticism and can still be detected in the President’s approach to Iran’s nuclear weapon issue, North Korea and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it nevertheless strongly identifies with the foundational US foreign policy approach. 

From the beginning, the constant theme running through his country’s foundational steps was paradoxically focused on neighbourly expansion of territory but not of pursuance of global hegemony. This line of thinking yielded the famous Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality (which prevented the US from entering the French Revolutionary War against Great Britain), produced the Monroe doctrine (that widened the issue of security to include the security of United States’ neighbours) and allowed for Buchanan to reconfirm that a policy of non-intervention in the domestic concerns of others was subject only to the exception of self-preservation. Buchanan’s approach germinated the Olney Corollary (which took the process of expansion for trade and security into Latin America) and allowed a platform for Roosevelt’s Corollary to impose obligations on neighbours not to allow a condition of deterioration that would encourage intervention. 

While the US under Woodrow Wilson sought destruction of dictators and upholding of the rights of peoples of foreign nations the approach was, however, paradoxical in that not only was Wilson suppressing rebellion at home, he was at the same time according to the international community the need to respect the sovereignty of all states irrespective of size – the very basis of the fundamental tenets of both the defunct League of Nations and the United Nations.

The President appears different from his recent predecessors, since the administration of George H. W Bush and the end of the ideology duel enveloped in the Cold War, in not only reconciling and recognising these underlying approaches but also the reputational effects of intervention and its consequences of limiting the effectiveness of diplomacy as a tool for restricting the self-interest instincts of nations in the international sphere and hindering multilateralism. This approach is more vivid in his look ‘East First’ trade policy – which has somewhat seen the US indirectly monitor and strive to match China’s military and economic presence in the region through alliances in south-east Asia and via linkages in economic interests particularly in cooperation within APEC, ASEAN and forming stronger relations with India, South Korea and Australia (where the US now has a military base in Darwin).

The approach of the President rather than revealing any isolationist or appeasement tendencies measure the extent of a direct threat to the US, its immediacy and the level of mutual interests of significant regional partners in the issue.  Where these factors are high, as in Syria, Iran and Libya, the Obama administration’s tendency is to head for multilateralism and respect for UN procedures. 

Conclusion

For the Obama administration, the notion of being the keeper of one’s brother is a shared obligation that requires the "protectee" to, at least, have neighbours with interests that aligns with its own and those of the protector and for the protector to consider those interests vital enough as an addition to the safeguarding of its security and promotion of trade.

Barack Obama. Photograph: Getty Images
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change