February 28, 2013

2013 State of the Union

Observers of international affairs in the Baltic-Nordic region hoping to catch a glimpse of strategic thinking behind U.S. foreign policy were disappointed by President Obama’s State of the Union address on February 12 (www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/rem…). That speech offered merely a tactical list of international problems to be managed, but without a hint of strategy to resolve them.

Observers of international affairs in the Baltic-Nordic region hoping to catch a glimpse of strategic thinking behind U.S. foreign policy were disappointed by President Obama’s State of the Union address on February 12 (www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/rem…). That speech offered merely a tactical list of international problems to be managed, but without a hint of strategy to resolve them.

To be fair, President Obama’s annual address to the nation reflected the U.S. public mood. American voters care overwhelmingly about the domestic challenges of restoring economic growth, creating jobs, reducing the public debt, and distributing wealth more equitably. The president’s most significant foreign policy proposal was thus to seek free-trade agreements with Europe and Asia, each of which could boost U.S. economic growth a bit. But, the president failed to describe the potential strategic impact such agreements in binding the U.S. and its allies closer together while undercutting leverage of monopolists (such as Russia’s Gazprom, by allowing the export of shale gas to Europe.

Similarly on Afghanistan, President Obama promised that the U.S. would withdraw 34,000 troops in 2013, in addition to the 33,000 withdrawn in 2012, and that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Though the president won applause with this pledge, he did not explain how the U.S. would defend the strategic and human gains won with so much blood and treasure from the U.S. and its Baltic and other NATO Allies in Afghanistan. We are left to wonder who will protect Afghanistan’s women and girls when they risk torture and death by exercising their traditional pre-Taliban rights, such as education, once U.S. and other NATO troops depart and the Taliban resurges. The U.S. president simply predicts that “we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda.” It strains credulity to imagine that Afghanistan’s dismal security situation could improve with the departure of 67,000 U.S. troops, especially if those U.S. forces who remain will train – but no longer fight with – Afghan security forces.

Similarly, the 2013 State of the Union address lacked a strategic vision of how to empower the citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya who thirst for the same freedoms we in the Euro-Atlantic community enjoy. Rather than outlining how to protect the fading ambitions of the Arab Spring against Islamist politicians, President Obama promises, “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy” even as we recognize that “we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt….” Absent is any mention of what specific support the U.S. will offer Egyptians who thought they had wrested democratic freedoms from the Mubarak dictatorship, only to see them threatened by Islamists’ manipulation of religion and politics into a credo of “one man, one vote, one time” in a quest to replace modern secular law with a medieval interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence.

The vagueness of these prescriptions for the broader Middle East contrasts with the clarity of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address on January 20, 2005, (www.nytimes.com/2005/01/20/politics/20BUSH-TEXT.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0) in which Bush declared “…it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Though President Bush echoed President Obama’s caution against imposing democratic change, noting that “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling,” Bush provided pointed specificity in his declaration that “We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.” And, President Bush couched this policy in the strategic rationale that “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Of course, President Bush’s implementation of this vision by force in Iraq emerged as a great foreign policy blunder. But, the above ideas, which formed the foundation of his foreign policy, proved visionary during the Arab Spring.

In contrast, President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address did not explain the strategic or operational vision underlying his approach to the Middle East. Beyond Egypt, President Obama described a series of tactics, vowing to “keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian” but without suggesting how the U.S. might help restore regional stability, other than promising to “stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” President Obama insisted that “the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” but did not mention any new ideas about how to implement these timeworn slogans. While President Obama pledged that “In defense of freedom, we’ll remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia,” he did not articulate a strategic philosophy defining what those partnerships should pursue.

Despite these shortcomings, the 2013 State of the Union created some strategic openings for the Baltic-Nordic region in what President Obama did not say. First, the speech omitted any reference to the U.S.’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia. Indeed, the president’s emphasis on strong alliances could be seen as underscoring the centrality of NATO and the collective security guarantee of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty as an enduring cornerstone of U.S. national security.

Second, President Obama did not mention his “Russia Reset” policy. He spoke of Russia only in passing, pledging to “engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.” Although President Obama did not condemn Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons in the Baltic-Nordic region, nor did he suggest Russia was any longer considered a strategic partner of the United States. This shift toward a policy of U.S. indifference toward Russia provides the Baltic states an opportunity to “lead from the front” and help Washington determine how to reset its Russia reset. By working together on five key issues, the Baltic and Nordic states can recapture the strategic attention of their U.S. and other NATO Allies by underscoring their net contributions to Alliance security, even beyond important troop contributions and shared suffering in Afghanistan. These issues are:

•Cyber security, mentioned by President Obama in his speech as a domestic priority, but also a crucial foreign policy issue on which Estonia is already leading within NATO;
•Energy security, with the Baltic states able to help the EU achieve its strategic objective of a unified European energy market by developing a joint plan to develop the physical and regulatory infrastructure required for free-market trading of natural gas and electricity;
NATO air policing, on which a compromise could allow Estonia (and eventually Latvia) to join Lithuania in hosting NATO aircraft;
•Baltic Rail, which could catalyze the Baltic region’s economic integration with the EU if parochial differences between the three states can be overcome; and
•Enhanced Baltic cooperation with Sweden and Finland on energy, the Arctic, and regional security, as these two Scandinavian countries mull closer ties with NATO.

Mutual jealousies among the Baltic states pose challenges to achieving any of the above objectives. But, if any of these projects do take shape, Washington will take notice and could be drawn back into strategic action in this region, just as France drew the U.S. into Libya and Mali. In a few years, perhaps American leaders will thank their Baltic and Nordic friends for helping them emerge from the strategic funk of 2013, when an emphasis on quitting an unpopular war and arms control with Moscow echo the stagnation of U.S. foreign policy during the 1970’s.

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