2012 Student Essay Contest Winning Entry

William Wright with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose

American Foreign Policy Through Past and Future Elections:
Adjusting the Sails

By William Wright

Summary: Like a former champion learning how to fight more capable opponents, the United States is becoming more judicious with its punches. Although American action abroad will manifest itself in a different way than in the past decade, however, I'm still willing to bet that foreign dust will find itself into my boots eventually. 

WILLIAM WRIGHT is a student at the United States Military Academy.

In February 2011, I listened to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tell my classmates at West Point and me, "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined." It was then that I realized that the world I signed up to fight in would be drastically different from the one I will enter upon graduation.

U.S. foreign policy has shifted since the Obama administration took office in 2009. It will doubtless continue to change after the 2012 election, regardless of whom Americans elect; the strategies of both candidates resemble each other far more than they would care to admit. But geopolitical demands will outweigh any differences in personal philosophies anyway.

The primary force driving the changes that have occurred is a need to find new ways to exercise U.S. power abroad now that Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the impracticality of conventional action against today's threats. Furthermore, a weakened economy and increasing multipolarity have forced the United States to adapt. 

The most striking change since Obama's election has occurred in U.S. counterterrorism practices. The need for robust counterterrorism action has not diminished -- if anything, it has grown, with increased al Qaeda presence in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa -- but the way counterterrorism is carried out, and the primary way the world feels the sting of the American military machine, have transformed. U.S. wariness to commit large ground forces after the extended occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq has increased focus on the United States' domestic problems. Meanwhile, technological innovation and a blurring of the roles of the military and intelligence agencies have ushered in the era of the drone strike and other covert action. At the same time, conventional forces are being drawn back. In Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the United States has shown a remarkable propensity to violate other countries' sovereignty in pursuit of its own national security interests. One example was the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The Obama administration, faced with the delicate challenge of maintaining U.S. power and credibility abroad while constrained by growing isolationist sentiment at home (due to a decade of war and economic quandaries), has adopted a strategy of counterpunching. In this strategy, the United States asserts its power decisively in the face of challenges abroad. The best example is how the United States has dealt with an increasingly aggressive China. The United States has given military aid to many other East Asian states, built new American military bases in the East Pacific, and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on an extensive diplomatic tour of China's neighboring countries. The efforts have reassured U.S. allies that the country will not simply shy away from conflict in a time of domestic economic difficulties, and that, although the United States is wary of direct commitment of forces, the exercise of U.S. power in balancing rising threats has not receded. 

A major initiative of the State Department has been to re-engage diplomatically with former rivals. Recall the attempt to reset relations with Russia, and efforts to negotiate over economic interests with China. The United States has, however, largely failed in these initiatives. Russian-American relations have not improved; if anything, they have grown worse following Russia's double-dealing during the ongoing uprising in Syria, along with its reluctance to hem in Iran. China has been just as difficult, spurning economic agreements and remaining skeptical about American motives.

More successful than those attempts to rekindle relations with rivals have been attempts to preserve the strength of international institutions through multipolar action -- the antipiracy force in the Gulf of Aden, NATO action in Libya, and nonproliferation efforts. Allowing the French to take the lead on Libya signaled that the Obama administration believes in the viability of NATO in the post-Soviet era, and that it is willing to do what it takes to ensure that it persists.

Given these shifts over the past four years, it would be imprudent to claim that nothing will change after the coming elections, regardless of who wins the presidency. For one, in the next four years it is almost inevitable that Iran will produce working nuclear weapons. Whether it chooses to do so is largely a measure of what role the Iranians see themselves playing in the future -- and how much appetite they have for Israeli bombs and American missiles. 

An armed Iran will certainly provoke a response from Israel and the United States. There are merits to Kenneth Waltz's argument in Foreign Affairs that a nuclear Iran would balance a nuclear Israel and bring about more stability in the Middle East. And the Iranian regime has not proved itself to be irrational and bent on destroying Israel at all costs. However, Israel and a considerable part of the American public disagree with that view, and leaders from both countries have made clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The United States could not avoid looking like it is backing down and thereby lose credibility if it fails to follow through with its threats. 

However, the United States has no stomach for a conventional occupation, and a protracted air campaign against Iran would serve to punish the state without permanently destroying its nuclear program. Furthermore, it would almost certainly serve to polarize against the West even those Iranians opposed to the current administration. The best option would be for Iran to develop the nuclear capabilities but not the weapons, with American and Israeli leadership striking secret deals with the Iranians. Such deals would be entirely dependent on the willingness of Iranian leadership to negotiate; keeping the negotiations secret would make this option more palatable for hard-liners on both sides. 

Second, in the next four years, re-engagement with former rivals will get harder. Tensions between the United States, China, and Russia have already become more apparent. The South China Sea disagreements will not dissipate soon, and may even create an international crisis if China seizes any Indonesian or Vietnamese vessels. Syria is growing more volatile, and unless Russia withdraws its support, relations between Russia and other Western powers will only continue to sour. Finally, if Russia and China take positions on Iran counter to that of the United States, tensions will undoubtedly rise higher than they have in the past decade. U.S. pressure on China's human rights abuses will serve to heat things up further. Re-engagement with former rivals may remain the American strategy, but given looming crises and the great-power rivalries inevitably stoked by these crises, American relations with China and Russia will likely get worse before they get better, and U.S. foreign policy will slowly turn away from re-engagement.

Third, multilateral action will become more important. Two forces will shape the nature of American multilateral action in the next four years. The first is the growing strength of a number of the world's medium powers, in particular, Brazil, India, and Turkey. United States action will need to be conducted with more attention to working with allies than in the past. The second is a growing distaste for global institutions in the face of new global realities. NATO, lacking any singular threat to act as a keystone, could crumble as the interests of member states diverge. Furthermore, the financial crisis and strife within the eurozone have made similar cooperation an unpalatable course for most states.

Multilateral action will thus become the norm in American operational ventures. The intervention in Libya might be a blueprint for one in Syria, and perhaps even in Iran. However, from an economic perspective, states are likely to retreat from agreements that have the potential to ensnare their financial systems in too perilous an arrangement. The United States will need to learn to navigate these diverging trends if it is to retain its global primacy. 

Like a former champion learning how to fight more capable opponents, the United States is becoming more judicious with its punches. However, although American action abroad will manifest itself in a different way than in the past decade, I'm still willing to bet that foreign dust will find itself into my boots eventually. There is nothing revolutionary about what has happened in the last four years or about what will change after the coming election. Rather, the winds are simply shifting, and, as always, those at the helm will have to change tack accordingly to avoid foundering.


This is the winning entry for the third annual Foreign Affairs Student Essay Contest - sponsored by APSIA - The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.


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