In June, 2009, President Obama gave a speech at Egypt’s Cairo University titled “A New Beginning.” He reaffirmed Americas’ insoluble bond with Israel but called for partnership between Islamic countries and the U.S. And he promised “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” In March of the same year Hillary Clinton met with Russia’s foreign minister and brought along a ‘reset button’ to emphasize relations between the two countries were about to get a lot better.
Five years later, the hopes for a new beginning look slim. Tensions in the former USSR and the Middle East are (at least) as high as they were at the end of the Bush Administration. Pew Research polling suggests that the percentage of Russians who have a favorable view of the United States fell from 46 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2014. The percentage of Egyptians who had favorable views of America did rise from 22 percent to 27 percent between 2008 and 2009 when Obama gave his speech, but are now at a historic low of 10 percent. U.S. popularity in Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan has also fallen since the last days of the Bush presidency. By and large, the countries that have long disliked America still do.
This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Every President, Obama included, comes into office promising new beginnings and policy resets. More often than not, however, those hopes remain unrealized by the time they leave office. Far more than in domestic policy, continuity is the norm when it comes to national-security issues. Yet while a certain amount of caution is inevitable and even desirable, it’s debatable whether simply conducting business as usual really serves America’s long-term interests.
To be fair, the President’s ability to chart a new course have been limited first and foremost by events on the ground. Russia’s occupation of Crimea and continued intervention in eastern Ukraine constitutes an egregious violation of international law; it was hardly likely that the ‘reset’ with Russia–already on life support by that point– could survive under the circumstances. The rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, demanded a U.S. response. And it’s not the most straightforward moment to be brokering a deal between Palestinians and Israelis.
But options for a new start were also limited by both U.S. popular opinion and Beltway groupthink. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveys Americans on their attitudes towards foreign policy on questions like the use of force, military dominance, diplomacy and economic assistance. The survey team reports “the most striking finding of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey is the essential stability of American attitudes toward international engagement, which have not changed all that much since the Council conducted its first public opinion survey 40 years ago.” The Council asks Americans to rate their feelings towards countries on a scale of zero (cold) to 100 (warm). Canada tops out at 79, while North Korea manages a 23. The Palestinian Authority is at 33 (compared to Israel at 59). Russia is at just 36.
Russia’s favorability was higher in 2008, at 47, but favorability of the Palestinian Authority has changed by only one point on a 100 point scale since 2008. On many of the issues where Obama was hoping to drive a new agenda, popular attitudes just don’t change that fast.
Within the political elite, there has been little pressure from either party to change from foreign policy as usual over the past few years — including the instinctive reaction to lead with military options. Although spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq declined under President Obama, U.S. military expenditure as a percentage of GDP in 2013 was still higher than it was in 2004 and more than 30% higher than in 1999. A Congress keen to cut the budget has also been keen to save the Pentagon. Opposition to drone attacks, or the recent Syria operation, or pressure to help end violence in Gaza was muted. There’s been limited interest among either Democrats or Republicans to take apart much of the intelligence apparatus put in place over the last decade, despite the outcry from allies over spying on friends.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that elite foreign policy views are ossified. In surveys of foreign-policy specialists asked to pick most influential thinker in their field, the top three answers are Joseph Nye (77 years old, chaired the National Intelligence Council two decades ago), Samuel Huntington (passed away age 81 in 2008, served on the National Security Council 36 years ago) and Henry Kissinger (91, served as Secretary of State four decades ago). When your major thought leaders were all born before the Cold War even began and one of them has been dead for six years, attitudes are going to change slowly.
Business as usual means failure as usual to deal with issues like Palestine and Israel. But it also means trying to fit the problems of the 21st century to a worldview of the 1950s: a constant desire to find a new existential threat to replace Communism (see: Global War on Terror) and view China as the new Soviet Union. Both responses lead to over-reaction that risk making those problems worse.
Again, the relative importance of global threats from climate change to pandemic disease has grown over the past 30 years, but the Cold War mindset helps explain why the foreign policy establishment has been so flat-footed in its response to rising temperatures and the Ebola outbreak–these problems don’t fit the model. Meanwhile, the risk of major global armed conflict has been reduced, but we’ve let the civilian parts of our foreign policy apparatus atrophy so badly that the panicked response to Ebola, when it finally came, could only be to send in the troops.
And U.S. influence, while still considerable, is waning as developing countries grow. But a dated view of our power means the U.S. is only willing to work with international organizations when they do exactly what we want. Until the foreign policy establishment and the American people accept that the world has changed, even an Imperial President will have limited room to make the right choices abroad.