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Obama Doctrines, Bland Rhetoric, and the Mealy-Mouthed West

| April 16, 2015

barack obama,obama administration,international relations,us foreign policy,obama doctrine,

More rainbows than warranted. (White House)

By Ana Palacio

Among the numerous challenges the West faces, one is consistently overlooked: its addiction to meaningless rhetoric. From President Barack Obama’s oxymoronic first-term mantra “leading from behind” to the recent German variant “leading from the center,” empty phrases have become the currency of Western governments’ foreign policies.

Of course, the inherent complexity and unpredictability of international affairs intensify politicians’ inclination to equivocate. And today, with the geopolitical environment more complicated and less predictable than ever, our leaders have even less incentive to offer the kind of boldness and clarity that effective policymaking demands. Unfortunately, the result has been to make a bad situation worse.

Strategic statements play an important role in signaling a country’s direction and intentions to its adversaries, allies, citizens, and government agencies. When such statements require endless interpretation and explanation, their impact is weakened dramatically.

This is not to say that there is no place for ambiguity in international affairs. History abounds with episodes when strategic ambiguity would have been beneficial. For example, some historians suggest that then-US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s decision in 1950 to exclude South Korea from America’s “defense perimeter” signaled to North Korea and the Soviet Union that the United States would not defend the South in the event of an attack.

The problem with today’s ambiguity is that it is not particularly strategic. Consider Obama’s underlying rationale for his foreign policy – the so-called “Obama doctrine” – which he finally provided following the announcement of the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. “We will engage,” Obama declared, “but we preserve all our capabilities.”

On the surface, that statement makes sense. But it leaves us with more questions than answers. What has Obama really signaled? What, in his view, are the boundaries for US engagement? Under what conditions would the US use its capabilities?

Nearly 70 years ago, when George Orwell examined the tendency toward ambiguity, he offered the rather simple explanation that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” In other words, hazy language is necessary to obscure unsavory realities. Massive violence against civilian populations is “pacification,” and ethnic cleansing is a “transfer of population.” As Orwell noted, “[t]he great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

To some extent, Orwell’s observations still ring true. But the issue today is different: politicians are using vague rhetoric less because their policies are fundamentally indefensible than because they fear having to defend any position at all. While there are myriad reasons for this reticence, when it comes to international relations, two stand out.

The first is the hyperbolic political atmosphere in Western democracies, where the 24-hour news cycle and social media have made “gotcha politics” the order of the day. Add to that the intrinsic uncertainty of foreign affairs, and it is unsurprising that politicians would rather spout empty lines than risk saying something that might blow up in their faces. Indeed, one need only consider the years-long stream of commentary – characterized by partisanship, hearsay, and hostility – following the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi to understand leaders’ angst.

The second reason is more fundamental: the waning sense of purpose and conviction that characterizes Western democracies today. Whereas, say, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan clearly confronted the Soviet Union in their speeches at the Berlin Wall, a succession of Western leaders has spoken in nods and winks about the crisis in Ukraine and China’s aggressive stance toward its neighbors.

The difference is not difficult to discern. During the Cold War, the West’s certainty that it occupied the moral high ground inspired confidence in both word and deed. Though the West still occupies the moral high ground on many important issues – such as the Islamic State and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the global system is far less clear-cut today. Internal social challenges, which have called into question the justness of Western countries’ liberal model, have exacerbated politicians’ reticence.

As diffident Western leaders offer garbled messages or, worse, mere verbal fluff, they allow cynical actors with simpler and more forceful narratives, often based on lies and distortions, to win support more easily. In Europe, the rise of demagogic populists on both ends of the political spectrum exemplifies this phenomenon. Likewise, Russian President Vladimir Putin, unburdened by facts or guilt, has taken advantage of domestic and international audiences’ deep-seated resentments and insecurities to craft compelling narratives in support of his policy toward Ukraine.

Western leaders should see no need to dispense with the truth; the facts are on their side. What is needed is the confidence to defend the liberal rules-based international order – and to back up arguments with action. After all, powerful declarations mean nothing if leaders do not follow through; worse, they undermine the credibility of the speaker’s future statements.

Obama learned this the hard way, when he drew a “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons and then failed to act forcefully when Syria crossed that line. The Obama doctrine cannot be credible if the US is not willing to use the capabilities that the president has pledged to preserve.

This imperative is not limited to Obama. All Western policymakers will, before long, have to move beyond their parochial political considerations and anxieties to present a clear strategic vision.

The habit of bland rhetoric is a hard one to break. Indeed, Orwell warned of its potential to weaken one’s capacity for critical thought, because “every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” But, as the global balance of power shifts toward the East and the South, the West must do what it takes to secure its continued influence – and that means taking a firm, clear, and credible stance on the strategic challenges it faces.

ana-palacioAna Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State, a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States. © Project Syndicate.

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7 Responses for “Obama Doctrines, Bland Rhetoric, and the Mealy-Mouthed West”

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    “Unfortunately, the result has been to make a bad situation worse.”

    Ms. Palacio, as former Senior Vice President of the World Bank and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States, you know godamned well that this is the intended result of a well planned global strategy in progress. It was given to our “Leaders” by their international criminal banker bosses to make the world in the image of our phony American Government today. where every country will have a false front of Democracy but in reality run for the benefit of the Multi-national corporations, banks and oligarchs. This will be done by using disinformation, economic warfare and destabilization to sew chaos and unrest in any country they do not already control completely. And after the chaos, we send in our NGO’s mercenaries and Special Ops forces to overthrow the current government and install a puppet regime we control, then allow the multi-nationals to come in and rape it’s resources and Bankstersasset strip it of anything of value.
    We’ve seen it happen to Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Ukraine and then Syria and Iran. After that Russia and China are all they don’t control. This is the true purpose of the World Bank and the councils you work for, so hold the Crocodile Tears for the chaos you caused.

    • Pogo says:

      Ms. Palacio; Florida’s young Mitt Romney’s op-ed, and a never ending supply of unmoderated ad hominem lies and trolls against President Obama. But not a peep about Palm Coast’s Ex-Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova. Oh well.

  2. Lancer says:

    Ambiguity allows flexibility in terms of foreign policy and is nothing new. The left should love non-committal policy. However, in some regions of the world ambiguity is seen as weakness to be taken advantage of.

    Bush’s foreign policy was very non-ambiguous. ‘Axis of Evil”. You may not have agreed with it, but you knew what was. Bush also acted on it. Again, whether you agreed with his foreign policies or not, everyone knew where they stood.

    0bama has been all over the place in an effort to cover all bases. Not good and extremely wasteful.

    Norton…you’re insinuation is that the USA is the predominant destabilizer in the world. You are wrong, terribly wrong. Your “global theory” doesn’t hold water because no one, Russia, China, the Middle East would never agree our cooperate without their controlling the game…which will never happen! Further, are you aware that countries have been playing this game for centuries?? C’mon, there is nothing new under the Sun.

    In Egypt, 0bama created destabilization backing the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s economy was STABLE and friendly. Tourism, a strong economic revenue producing industry, was severely hampered. Violence dominated Cairo. This completely contradicts your assertions.

    Ukraine, a former Soviet puppet state, is directly threatened by Russia…not the US. Europe is now threatened by Russia’s aggressiveness because of their need for Russian NG. Now…Russia is going to ship missiles to Iran. They also back Assad in Syria and keeping control of their port there. Russia continues to move forward with their policies and regaining former glory in the Near east and Eastern Europe because that is their sphere of influence and always has been.

    Iraq’s major resource, of course, is oil. Is that oil coming to the US? No. It’s being controlled and sold to China. Speaking of China…they are and have been active in Africa and have been very aggressive in South America. Our current policy is to not compete with them and just let them run amok. Personally, I trust our country more than China. Someone, China, Russa, etc. is going to be the predominant force…it should be the USA. If you disagree, you’re ignoring the human rights abuses by the aforementioned countries.

    Gripe all you want about “resources”, but the fact is…an emerging economy requires them. Asia is developing at a rapid rate and is being uber aggressive in trying to court businesses to move and stabilize their economy. They are offering Special Industrial Zones, that offer significant tax advantages to businesses who come to their country and employ their citizens. Further, is understanding that emerging economies require infrastructure development…that requires investment capital!! “Big Banks, evil corporations!!” are funding these projects. Asia Development Bank’s project lists are full of water and sewage treatment projects. Oh the horror!!

    The US should cultivate relationships with emerging countries. We should seek to engage with them economically and seek win- win relationships.

      • NortonSmitty says:

        Sorry. Premature post. This is General Wesley Clark (via WIKI: …retired General of the United States Army. He graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1966 at West Point and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford… Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO from 1997 to 2000.In other words, he is not a flake.) giving a speech after his retirement saying he was told in 2000 that we would be invading 7 countries in five years to destabilize the middle east. In other words, this chaos we are so shocked at today was planned and executed by our own Government. WIthout a doubt. And before 9/11.

  3. Jim R says:

    Your comment about Russian aggression sounds like it came from CNN or one of the other propaganda outlets on TV. We financed and were involved in overthrowing the elected leader of Ukraine . NATO made a commitment not to expand eastward and they have violated that commitment. It’s no different than if Russia decided to put bases on the other side of the Rio Grande. How do you expect Russia to react to NATO’s aggression? We are playing a very dangerous game with a country that has plenty of Nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
    If you don’t think the US is the predominate destabilizer in the world I would suggest you do a little research starting with William Blum’s book Killing Hope. In this book are a complete list of our military and CIA interventions in countries around the world, it includes assassinations of democratically elected leaders.
    All the information is available at the click of a mouse, use it.

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