Implementing Obama’s “Smarter Kind of American Leadership”

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Implementing Obama’s “Smarter Kind of American Leadership”

Implementing Obama’s “Smarter Kind of American Leadership”

Last night, President Obama in his State of the Union address touched on a host of national security issues of critical importance to the United States and international community. While his discussion of national security was broad, a key theme running through his address was the forward-looking need to reinforce America’s global position and security in the 21stcentury by emphasizing diplomatic and economic power. This “smarter kind of American leadership” applies to a number of issues, but the President’s comments on Asia, Iran, Cuba, trade strategy, and climate security in particular demonstrate the value of careful and relentless global engagement to producing results. Now armed with a clear agenda, the Administration and Congress need to work together to implement policies with sustained and coordinated follow-through. Only by getting the details right can the big picture come together.

Successfully implementing the Asia rebalance requires deeper follow-through for effective diplomatic engagement with the core region of the 21st century. The President renewed his commitment to sustain rebalancing American resources and attention to the Asia-Pacific. While strong foundations have been set down, more is ultimately needed. A major report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explained, “The United States has successfully moved forward with the initial phases of implementing the military aspects of the rebalance. But given the broader strategic and policy goals, it is essential that the non-military elements also move forward with equal speed and weight. An ‘unbalanced’ or under-resourced approach to the rebalance threatens to undermine the goals of the policy and, consequently, the prospects for greater prosperity.” Despite increased high-level diplomatic attention towards the region and the creation of new programs, the report notes, “the State Department has not substantially increased diplomatic engagement resources to its Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Department of Commerce staffing levels have not significantly increased, hindering the ability of U.S. businesses to take full advantage of new prospects. U.S. development assistance to the region, which saw a modest increase in the administration’s FY 2015 budget proposal, is still below levels from several years ago, and the U.S. development approach needs updating and upgrading.” [SFRC, 4/17/14]

The United States has the opportunity to make a deal with Iran to promote nuclear security and non-proliferation in a volatile region, but it’s up to Congress to allow diplomacy to work. President Obama last night emphasized the value of nuclear negotiations with Iran and the need to allow diplomacy the full chance to succeed. This diplomatic initiative has the potential to prevent not only an Iranian nuclear weapon, but proliferation throughout the Middle East and would reinforce the international community’s staunch opposition to nuclear weapons development. But it will come down to Congress to allow this process to work, and hawks in the House and Senate have pushed for new sanctions legislation that would derail the talks. Members of Congress agree with the President’s warnings about the sanctions proposals. “New sanctions now would violate the interim agreement, collapse the negotiations and take us out of lockstep with the international community,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in a statement last night. “We have a responsibility to support the diplomatic negotiations and see them through.” And U.S. partners in the P5+1 are urging Congress to refrain from passing this legislation. British Prime Minister David Cameron said last Friday that “as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations… it’s the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity that there’s been, which has been so valuable in presenting a united front to Iran.” If Congress scuttles the negotiations, the international community will blame the United States, undermining not only the U.S. effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but the international coalition to enforce nuclear non-proliferation around the world. [Dianne Feinstein, 1/20/15. David Cameron, 1/16/15]

Sustained international engagement is crucial to tackling the threat that climate change poses to global society and American national security. President Obama underscored the need to address climate change, which the Pentagon considers a national security risk that threatens military operations and worsens global security challenges. This year could prove pivotal for climate security as negotiations in Paris are set to take place in November in an attempt to reach the first global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. American leadership will be critical to reaching a strong agreement, as it was last year with negotiations in Lima, Peru that outlined some broad contours for follow-up at the Paris talks. In particular, American engagement can help sort out some of the messy details under consideration to reach a final, strong agreement in France. Reuters reports, “The talks [in Lima] agreed on a 37-page document of ‘elements’ that will form the basis of a negotiating text for Paris next year. But the range of options is very wide.” American engagement can also help ensure individual countries prepare adequate plans for what reductions they are willing to make. Robert N. Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, explained in December that, “within the next six months the other industrialized countries will announce their own contributions, and – more importantly – so will the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. Coverage of 80% to 90% of global emissions can be anticipated, although major questions remain regarding what can be expected from some key countries, including India, Russia, and Australia.” [Reuters, 12/14/14. Robert N. Stavins, 12/14/14]

New trade deals are necessary to maintain America’s global position, but must balance geopolitics with middle-class economics. President Obama highlighted ongoing negotiations over trade deals to sustain American economic advantage. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) would be powerful agreements if successfully concluded. The TPP encompasses roughly 40% of global trade and the T-TIP encompasses about half of global GDP. Beyond immediate economic benefits, these deals are of strategic significance. In the case of the TPP, Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security explains, “Security is rooted in trade. This is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific region, the locus of global economic power in the twenty-first century…Either the United States needs to find a way to establish high trade standards across the Pacific, or another power will fill the vacuum with its own standards. Strategy in this sense is inseparable from the question of who makes the rules,” for which TPP provides an opportunity. But strategically valuable deals have to be balanced with what President Obama repeatedly referred to during his State of the Union as “middle-class economics.” He acknowledged the need for the deals to “protect American workers,” adding “I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to the hype.” [Patrick Cronin,11/12/14. President Obama, 1/20/15]

Full normalization of relations with Cuba and ending the embargo reinforces American leadership in Latin America, but there are many steps ahead to get there. President Obama renewed his calls for normalizing relations with Cuba and ending the embargo – policies which have isolated the United States and complicated relations with Latin America. But there is a long road ahead before the embargo is fully lifted – which requires congressional actions – despite some extremely positive steps in the right direction. This week, U.S. officials will conduct face-to-face talks with Cuban counterparts on the way forward, including reviewing Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism as called for by President Obama. While the review is not yet complete, there is reason to take Cuba’s potential removal from the state sponsor of terrorism list seriously as a constructive step forward towards greater bilateral ties. Reuters reports, “In its latest annual ‘Country Reports on Terrorism,’ the State Department cited Cuba’s support for the Basque separatist group ETA and Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrillas. But ETA, severely weakened by Spanish and French police, called a ceasefire in 2011 and has pledged to disarm, and the FARC has been in peace talks with the Colombian government for the past two years, with Cuba as host. ‘There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.’” [Reuters, 1/20/15]

Photo Credit: President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio Look on. [Flickr, NASA/Bill Ingalls, 1/20/15]

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