It is a fundamental tenet of realist theory (and I identify as a classical realist, though I have a healthy and pronounced respect for the notion that international anarchy also causes nation-states to place interests over ideological considerations) that while domestic considerations–such as a change in the nature of a nation-state’s government, or a change in the head of government or governing party–may play some role in determining the shape and nature of a nation-state’s foreign policy, the primary influence on a nation-state’s conduct of foreign affairs are the permanent interests of the nation-state in question, interests that persist regardless of the type of government a nation-state possesses, or the specific person or party running that government.
As such, most realists assumed that a change in administrations from Bush to Obama would do relatively little to change American foreign policy. And in many ways, they have been proven right.
Indefinite detentions continue at Guantanamo. There have been noises to close the detention center there, and to be sure, there has been pushback against Obama administration efforts to close the center, but Team Obama has never really made it that much of a priority to end detentions there. Military tribunals have been brought back into service by the Obama administration. And as we now know, Team Obama has taken Bush administration surveillance programs and ramped them up a notch or several.
Now, we learn that the Obama administration has also endorsed spying on American allies–France and Germany, to be precise. To be sure, the French objections to American spying are more than a bit Captain Renaultesque (and if readers will be so kind as to forgive this lapse into pedantry, it is “Renault” and not “Reynaud”), but the German ones seem a bit more sincere:
German and French accusations that the United States has run spying operations in their countries, including possibly bugging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, are likely to dominate a meeting of EU leaders starting on Thursday.
The two-day Brussels summit, called to tackle a range of social and economic issues, will now be overshadowed by debate on how to respond to the alleged espionage by Washington against two of its closest European Union allies.
Representatives of both Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said the two would hold a one-on-one meeting ahead of the 1500 GMT start of the summit to discuss the espionage issue.
For Germany the matter is particularly sensitive. Not only does the government say it has evidence the chancellor’s personal phone was monitored, but the very idea of bugging dredges up memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, where Merkel grew up.
Now, I am willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that none of the Germans who showed up for Candidate Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin back in 2008 thought that President Barack Obama would be spying on the Germans, bugging the German chancellor’s mobile phone and evoking memories of the Stasi. They probably thought that was more of a Bush administration thing, and heck, Candidate Obama probably thought that was more of a Bush administration thing–which he may have aimed to bring to an end once he became president.
But here we are in 2013, and in the eyes of many Germans and French, Barack Obama is doing a fantastic imitation of George W. Bush.
He also appears to be doing a fantastic imitation of George W. Bush in the eyes of some in the Middle East. Consider this story by David Ignatius, which discusses how the Saudi-American relationship is fraying. And consider some of the reasons why–from the Saudi perspective–the relationship with the United States has hit hard times:
What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded U.S. influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.
Yes, realists are probably a bit confounded by the Obama administration’s policy on Egypt; they/we might have expected the Obama administration to have backed Hosni Mubarak more strongly, and to lend at least tacit support to the coup that ousted Morsi–supporting Mubarak and opposing the Muslim Brotherhood have traditionally been in line with the thrust of American policy vis à vis Egypt. But note the “without consulting close Arab allies” bit of the excerpt above. That sounds an awful lot like . . . unilateralism. And am I dreaming, or didn’t Candidate Obama tell us that he would end unilateralism, work more closely with our friends and allies, and make America more liked around the world?
I could, in fact, swear that he told us just that. And it’s not happening when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, American policymakers–including those that remain at their posts or advance to new ones no matter which administration or which party is in charge of the White House–have determined that a robust national security state and pronounced displays of unilateralism are in the interests of the United States. Whether they are right or wrong to think so is beside the point; what is important is that these particular policies transcend partisanship and ideology, and are practiced with roughly equal enthusiasm by both Democratic and Republican presidents. And this confirms just about everything that realists have said about the conduct of foreign policy.
The people who have to be really, enthusiastically ticked off about this entire state of affairs are Obama supporters. They voted for their man thinking that he would bring Change We Can Believe In to foreign policy just as surely as he would bring it to domestic policy. Somewhat inconsistently, some members of the Obama Fan Club also maintained that they are realists and that the 44th president is a realist as well. I don’t quite see how this latter group have kept from having their heads explode over the last five years.