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September 2010

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America and a Changed World
imageReviewed by Anthony C.E. Quainton, Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, American University

America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership, Robin Niblett (Editor), Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken, NJ, May 2010,
ISBN: 978-1-4051-9844-8, 296 pp., US $79.95 (hardcover) $24.95 (paper)

Do you want to know what the British think about President Obama’s foreign policy? If so, you can find the answers in this insightful collection of essays edited by Robin Niblett, the Director of Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs).  This volume, which covers developments in U.S. foreign policy until early in 2010, seeks to understand what Obama has in mind when he sets out “engagement” as the central unifying principle of his Administration’s foreign policy. It looks at the challenges facing America as the world’s sole superpower and deals with a wide array of contemporary issues all of which require the active engagement of the United States. However, one comes away from this volume with a strong sense that while engagement has been announced and the marriage banns posted, the wedding has yet to take place.

Each chapter in this volume follows essentially the same format. It begins with a section on recent history which describes the legacy of the George W. Bush Administration and what it set out to achieve, then looks at how Obama has modified the substance of that agenda and the tactics that have been adopted to advance it, and concludes with recommendations for future action. The result is an exceptionally useful compendium, which provides a quick reference on current American foreign policy in most of the major regions of the world and the functional agenda, which faces the United States in this second decade of the 21st century.

The starting assumption of this work is set out clearly in Niblett’s introduction.  The active involvement and leadership of the United States will be “indispensable if the world is to tackle successfully some of the major global challenges to international prosperity and security, especially in the areas of nuclear proliferation, climate change and financial stability” However, while U.S. leadership is essential, the authors assert that it must be a shared global leadership, since in the current international environment few countries actually want to be led as they were during the Cold War.   For American leadership to be accepted the authors argue that President Obama must “rein in the exceptionalism” that has characterized much of the U.S. historical approach to international affairs. This paradox of the need for America to lead in a world that refuses, or is reluctant, to be led is at the heart of these essays.

This volume is essentially divided into three sections the first half is entitled “Deepening Regionalism and the US Response.” It focuses on seven regions: Latin America, the Middle East, Sub Saharan Africa, East, South and Central Asia and the South Caucasus.  Europe, Russia and China get separate attention in the second section entitled “Partners and Competitors.” The book concludes with four chapters on “Global Challenges” which include international law, arms control, climate change and the post-crisis economic order.  These chapters are remarkably comprehensive, although it is worth noting that one major geographic interest of the United States, Canada, is given no attention at all. This is rather surprising in a book by British authors, given that Canada is the U. S.’s most important trading partner and strategic ally.  Similarly on the functional side very limited attention is given to energy policy or the challenge of HIV/Aids.

Even more striking to an American reader is the way in which functional issues are addressed. Over much of the past twenty years the United States has rhetorically and practically been engaged in two self-proclaimed wars: the War on Drugs of President George H.W. Bush and the Global War on Terrorism of George W. Bush.  The former gets virtually no mention even in the chapter on Latin America and the latter is discussed rather surprisingly only in the chapter on Central Asia, where the focus is on U. S. basing requirements in relation to the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Given the bureaucratic and diplomatic energy that goes into these two issues and the fact that they figure on the bilateral agenda of the United States in its dealings with almost every country in the world, this omission is rather baffling. Similarly, immigration concerns that have growing saliency on the domestic agenda of the Administration, but which also have enormous foreign relations implications, particularly in Latin America, are ignored.  All of these lacunae may represent the difficulty which foreign observers and scholars, steeped in the language of international relations, have in addressing what are “intermestic” issues, subjects which engage both the domestic and foreign agendas of the United States.   Virtually all of America’s engagement with the world passes through the lenses of these “intermestic” issues, and color our ability to get congressional approval for many of the recommendations that the authors urge upon the United States.

What kinds of recommendations to the authors have in mind?  One of the most important chapters by Gareth Price deals with South Asia and the challenges which the United States faces in its relations with India and Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Price notes the fundamental skepticism of the regional actors as to the staying power of the United States and sees the Afghanistan conflict very much in the context of the historical rivalry between India and Pakistan. While this is an important element of the conflict it is, by no means, the central one. The potential for a constructive engagement on the part of Iran, to which President Obama made reference in early August, does not get any serious mention.  Price concludes that the United States needs to keep its agenda open, engage inclusively and not become a tool in the hands of limited local interests.  The longer-term agenda must include a commitment to building and reforming institutions, development and democracy, instead of what he describes as a past tendency to cynically relying on its short-term interests to get what it wants out of South Asia.

On the Middle East, Claire Spencer argues strongly in favor of the United States adopting a lower profile and operating within a multilateral framework and seeking regional solutions to even the most intractable issue: the Israel-Palestinian dispute.  However, exactly how it is to bring about this regional approach is rather more difficult to see.  With respect to Latin America Victor Bulmer-Thomas sensibly argues for closer relations with the emerging regional powers: Brazil and Mexico, but then in the context of arguing for a normalization of relations with Cuba suggests a unilateral returning of Guantanamo to Cuban sovereignty, a grandiose gesture that few Americans are likely to embrace.

In some ways the most controversial of all the articles is the final one by Bernice Lee and Michael Grubb on climate change.  The article and the book end with a strongly hortatory list of recommendations, which, unlike the rather more modest recommendations in earlier chapters, are even italicized for emphasis. The United States, they insist, must re-energize multilateral efforts and set ambitious emission targets, spearhead a “dramatic acceleration” in climate related technological innovation and diffusion, forge strategic low carbon partnerships with China and the EU and make it a priority to bury the narrow view of action to confront climate change as the foe of U. S. industry and competitiveness. At a time when the Senate seems unable to take up even most energy legislation, these are valuable but pious hopes.


Ambassador (ret.) Anthony C. E. Quainton is Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University. Before assuming this position he was president and CEO of the National Policy Association, a Washington research and policy group committed to the promotion of business-labor dialogue. He served for 38 years in the U.S. Foreign Service with posts on every continent. He was Ambassador in Peru, Nicaragua, Kuwait and the Central African Republic. He held senior positions in the Department of State including Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, Deputy Inspector General, Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, and Director General of the Foreign Service. He was educated at Princeton and Oxford Universities.

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