CAMBRIDGE – Approaching the end of his first year as president, Barack Obama has taken a bold step in deciding to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan to over 100,000.
Critics on the left point out that the Korean War crippled Harry Truman’s presidency, just as the Vietnam War defined Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Obama thus risks becoming the third Democratic president whose domestic agenda will be overshadowed by a difficult war.
But critics on the right have complained that Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been weak, too apologetic, and overly reliant on soft power.
They worry about Obama’s promise to begin withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan 18 months after the surge.
Obama inherited a fraught foreign policy agenda: a global economic crisis, two difficult wars, erosion of the nuclear non-proliferation regime by North Korea and Iran, and deterioration of the Middle East peace process.
Obama’s dilemma was how to manage this difficult legacy while creating a new vision of how Americans should deal with the world.
Through a series of symbolic gestures and speeches (in Prague, Cairo, Accra, the United Nations, and elsewhere), Obama helped to restore American soft power.
As a recent Pew poll reported, “in many countries opinions of the United States are now as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office.”
It is a mistake to discount the role that transformative leaders can play in changing the context of difficult issues. Power involves setting agendas and creating others’ preferences as well as pushing and shoving.
That is why Obama’s administration speaks of “smart power” that successfully combines hard and soft power resources in different contexts.
But soft power can create an enabling rather than a disabling environment for policy.
Critics contend that Obama has been all words and no deeds.
They portray him as a rock star who won a Nobel prize on the basis of promise rather than performance. They scoff at his popularity, and note that the Middle East remains intractable, North Korea nuclear, Iraq and Afghanistan unsettled, and Iran difficult.
But no serious analyst would expect otherwise in the short term. Bush and Cheney’s hard-power approach certainly did not solve these problems.
Moreover, in addition to words, there have been some important deeds. First and foremost was Obama’s handling of the economic crisis. When he came into office, his economic advisors told him that there was a one-in-three chance of a 1930’s-style depression.
If Obama had not avoided that disaster, all else would have paled in comparison. Success required not only an economic stimulus package at home, but international coordination.
Despite US measures against imports of Chinese tires, the level of protectionism has been much lower than in the 1930’s and than many observers predicted.
Moreover, Obama used the crisis to accomplish what many had suggested for years: transform the G-8 into a broader institutional framework of a G-20 that includes the major emerging economies.
Closely related to the economic crisis has been Obama’s handling of relations with China. How America responds to the rise of Chinese power is one of the most important foreign-policy challenges of the twenty-first century. Obama broadened the Treasury-led economic meetings to a strategic dialogue co-chaired by the State Department with an agenda that includes climate change as well as multilateral issues.
Contrary to some skeptical press reports, Obama’s summit meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November was a quiet success.
At the same time, he has recognized that maintaining close alliances with Japan and Australia – and good relations with India – helps to maintain the hard-power capabilities that shape the environment for a rising China.
A third significant accomplishment of Obama’s first year has been to reframe the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, which many experts regarded as being in crisis at the end of the Bush era.
By embracing the long-term goal of a non-nuclear world (though perhaps not in his lifetime), Obama reiterated America’s long-standing commitment, written into Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, he followed up by negotiating with Russia a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the end of this year, and has moved the non-proliferation issue to the top of the agenda at the UN and the G-20.
Critics charge that these accomplishments, as well as efforts to unblock the stalemates in Sudan and Burma, have been achieved at the price of giving up moral clarity on human rights.
But public proclamations are often less effective than long-term strategies in promoting human rights. Obama’s speech in Ghana, carefully located in an African country that recently had a successful democratic change of government, illustrated such an approach.
Other critics on the left have complained that he has not been able to get Congress to pass a tough energy bill before the Copenhagen conference on climate change.
But Obama has helped to persuade China and India to announce useful efforts, and he will set an American target of reducing greenhouse emissions that should prevent the conference from being a failure.
Of course, the big test lies ahead in Afghanistan. Can Obama combine hard and soft power into a smart-power strategy that works? Will the increase in American and allied troops, and the increases in development aid produce enough stability for his planned withdrawal to begin in 2011?
Can the Afghan government begin to provide the security that will protect its citizens against Taliban violence? Or will Afghanistan prove to be a quagmire that defines Obama’s presidency?
As Obama approaches the end of his first year in office, he must know that Afghanistan will be the major test according to which future historians will grade his foreign policy.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. teaches at Harvard University and is the author of The Powers to Lead.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.