US Foreign Policy


Dr. Geraint Hughes

In early March 1947 the US President Harry S. Truman faced a political and diplomatic quandary. His administration had been informed by the Labour government of Clement Attlee that Britain could no longer afford to provide military aid to Greece and Turkey after the end of that month. Both countries had become embroiled in the nascent Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and the USA was the only state in a position to offer their governments defence assistance. However, Truman also had to contend with Senators and Representatives who were bound to question his proposed $400m aid package to Athens and Ankara.

The President received advice from what would today be seen as a peculiar source. The Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a pre-war isolationist who had changed his mind as a result of the Second World War, and regarded it as inevitable that the USA would now assume a world role. He also understood that any justification of aid to the Greeks and Turks based on the complexities of geopolitics and strategy would fall flat with both the Republican and Democratic parties, and the electorate. Vandenberg told Truman that he had to ‘scare the hell out of the American people’. The President followed this advice in his speech to their elected representatives on 12th March 1947, outlining what was subsequently dubbed the Truman Doctrine.

Today, there is something almost quaint about a Democratic President being offered advice – and taking it – from the other side of Congress. Furthermore, while Truman was making the case for America to see its security interests as being interconnected with peace and stability in the Eastern Hemisphere, the 45th President seems bent on demonstrating the opposite. Nonetheless, Truman’s presentation of his aid programme to Greece and Turkey as a matter almost of life and death for American democracy has parallels with future Presidencies, for example with Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union speech in January 1980 (in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), or George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech 22 years later.

By early 1947 the wartime alliance between the USA, USSR and Great Britain had disintegrated. The imposition of Communist rule in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, quarrels over the fate of a divided Germany, and Josif Stalin’s uncompromising speech on East-West relations on 9th February 1946 testified to the collapse of trust between the Soviets and their former partners in the Grand Alliance, but it was a series of crises in the ‘Near’ and Middle East in 1946-1947 that helped precipitate the Cold War. In Iran, Moscow refused to remove Soviet troops deployed to the country as part of an Allied occupation during WWII, and appeared to sponsor separatist republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Stalin also tried to bully the Turks into revising the 1936 Montreux Convention governing the movement of shipping through the Straits, and also into making territorial concessions to the USSR, and these demands were accompanied by troop movements in the Caucasus and Soviet-occupied Bulgaria. Greece was mired in a civil war pitting the British-backed royal government against a Communist insurgency, aided by the Albanians, Yugoslavs and Bulgarians. Britain was the principal source of military aid to Turkey and Greece, but WWII had left it economically exhausted, and no longer able to sustain a Pax Britannica in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The intellectual foundations of the Truman Doctrine – and subsequent US Cold War policy – came from the ‘Long Telegram’ drafted by George F. Kennan, the then charge d’affairs of the US Embassy in Moscow on 22nd February 1946. Kennan’s argument, which was refined in an anonymous article published in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs, was that the Soviet regime was implacably hostile to the USA and the West, and justified its despotic rule over its subjects by presenting America and its allies as a menace to the USSR. Kennan also stated that Moscow was committed to expand its power and influence throughout Eurasia, taking advantage of the instability and chaos caused by the recent world war. He argued that the USA needed to block the expansion of the USSR’s influence through diplomatic, economic and military means, adopting a policy of ‘containment’ to ensure that the Soviet empire did not expand beyond its own borders and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Kennan’s appointment as the director of the newly-established Policy Planning Staff in the US State Department a month after Truman’s speech gave him the opportunity to help shape America’s Cold War strategy, although he subsequently argued that his concepts of containment had been militarised.

With his speech to Congress on 12th March, Truman outlined the problems that Greece faced; impoverished and wrecked by Axis occupation in WWII, now vulnerable to take-over by a guerrilla movement backed by Stalin and his Balkan clients. Turkey had been neutral during the war, but was now open to pressure from Moscow and lacked the means to defend itself. He then commented on the imposition of pro-Soviet regimes in Warsaw, Bucharest and Sofia, stating that:

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

Congress approved his aid package to the Greeks and Turks, and in retrospect the Truman Doctrine also provided the basis for the Marshall Plan later that year, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in September 1949, and ultimately the construction of an array of multilateral and bilateral security pacts which currently tie the USA to its allies in Europe and Asia. However, it is worth noting that Truman’s speech also had a controversial legacy.

The first problem with the Doctrine concerned applicability. What was good for Greece and Turkey was perhaps good for Nationalist China in 1949, South Korea in 1950, and South Vietnam in the early 1960s. Just over two years after Truman’s enunciation of his doctrine, his administration was pilloried by the Republicans for the ‘loss of China’, namely Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese civil war. Republican Senators and Representatives loudly demanded why the Democrats had allowed a stalwart ally to fall, and decried the package of military aid that Truman had provided to the Guomindang as insufficient. The logical implication here was that if arms, money and advisors were insufficient to stop a ‘free’ nation from being subjugated by Communism, then what was next? More military instructors? More equipment and munitions? The overt introduction of US combat troops?

Secondly, who exactly qualified to be ‘free’? East Berliners revolting against the GDR in 1953, and Hungarians involved in the 1956 revolution found that the criteria did not apply to them. The costs of liberating Eastern bloc countries would involve a Third World War, and no US administration confronted with turmoil in the Soviet empire was prepared to accept that outcome. In contrast, the criteria for ‘free’ throughout the Cold War essentially meant ‘anti-Communist’. Ngo Dinh Diem, Fulgencio Batista, Mobutu Sese Seko, Manuel Noriega and Augusto Pinochet were no more committed to contested elections, an independent, a free press and the concept of a ‘loyal’ legislative opposition than the USSR, China, North Korea or East Germany were. Yet their regimes were still deemed worthy of US backing because they were run by pro-American thugs, rather than pro-Communist ones.

Thirdly, there was a key question related to strategic priorities. Kennan subsequently argued that America would squander its means if it responded to every single Communist encroachment across the globe. Some countries and some regions mattered more than others from a power-political perspective, and in certain cases zero-sum thinking about successes and failures detracted from long-term calculations on strategic outcomes. NATO powers saw Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe as a strategic threat to the Western half. But this could also be viewed as an encumbrance to Moscow, particularly with the troop presence in the GDR, Poland, Hungary and (after 1968) Czechoslovakia that was needed to keep loyal regimes in power in the region. Further abroad, South Yemen (after its independence from Britain in 1967) was a basket-case. The Ethiopian and Angolan regimes needed substantial financial and military aid to fight off powerful insurgent movements, while a unified Vietnam required Moscow’s protection from China, particularly after the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. Furthermore, the Afghan ‘revolution’ in April 1978 proved to be a disaster for Soviet interests, requiring an extensive military intervention to save a client regime from downfall, leading to a war from 1979 to 1989 which contributed to Moscow’s economic and strategic woes.

Fourthly, there was the image of the monolithic Communist conspiracy that distracted US policy-makers from the multifaceted challenge they faced. The opening of Russia’s archives after 1991 showed that Stalin was not applying a master plan for world domination in the late 1940s, and adopted an opportunistic response to post-war crises. His territorial claims on Turkey were in part an attempt to appease the Communist Party of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, demonstrating that even the ‘captive nations’ could have a significant impact on the USSR’s foreign policy. The coup in Prague in February 1948 was largely the initiative of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Later that year the Soviet and Yugoslav leaderships had a bitter and public schism arising from Marshal Josef Tito’s clear frustration with Stalin’s efforts to direct his regime; the split removed one of the key sources of support for the Greek Communist rebellion. Twenty one years later, China and the USSR were on the brink of war over a series of border clashes in Siberia/Manchuria and Central Asia, and in February 1972 Mao welcomed President Richard Nixon – a formerly avowed enemy of the People’s Republic – to Beijing.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to judge the Truman administration for failing to foresee the eventual fragmentation of the Communist ‘bloc’. Statesmen, diplomats and senior military officers have fragmentary and contradictory information to guide them, and rarely have the ability to see ‘the other side of the hill’. There is also a tendency in international politics for policy-makers to overrate both the strength and the strategic acumen of an adversary. It is also worth noting the USA’s alliance with its European allies did give it an advantage over its superpower adversary, insofar as political differences (such as France’s withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure in 1966, or Britain’s refusal to send troops to fight in Vietnam or to back the USA during the Yom Kippur War) could be mitigated by the established arts of democratic compromise. Debates over Communist dogma could not be managed in the same manner.

Nevertheless, Truman’s speech to Congress on 12th March 1947 still represents a turning point in US foreign policy, as he was able to do what his predecessor Woodrow Wilson failed to achieve after WWI; persuade the American body politic and the electorate that the national security interests of the USA and the survival of its constitution depended on its ability and willingness to protect its friends worldwide. This was reciprocated by what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad called the process of ‘empire by invitation’, in which allies (notably Britain in this case) solicited US diplomatic and military intervention to bolster their own security interests. Truman told his audience that America needed a stable world order as much as the latter needed the former. It remains to be seen if the current US President can persuade Congress and electorate that the reverse is true, and also what the consequences of such an outcome will be.

Image: President Harry S. Truman addressing a joint session of Congress asking for $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey. This speech became known as the “Truman Doctrine” speech. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Age of Uncertainty: US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era?

By Dr. Ellen Hallams and Dr. Tracey German

In April 2016, Donald Trump declared ‘We must as a nation be more unpredictable.’ In a speech on foreign policy during the Republican primary campaign, Trump – who at that point was the front-runner for the GOP nomination – set out what the New York Times in its editorial described as a ‘strange worldview,’ one that appears to be a throwback to the isolationist movement of the 1930s – ‘America First’ – but which betrays a total misunderstanding of the complexities of the world in which America is deeply embedded. Dissecting that worldview and extrapolating what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will look like over the coming months and years is something of a fool’s errand; this is a man who prides himself on being unpredictable, in keeping allies and enemies second-guessing his intentions, and using his personal Twitter feed to make policy pronouncements.

Yet amidst the chaos, some things are all too clear. The first is that the world as we know it has been upended, and is now violently spinning on its axis. Most of us in the West have grown up in a world defined by certain core principles – democracy, liberty, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and fear – embedded in a liberal order that the US – more than any other nation – has sought to defend, maintain and advance since 1945. It is in part because we live in such a world that Donald Trump now finds himself sitting in the White House, democratically elected (though not by a majority of the American people) with the freedom to express the views he holds. But by doing so, he is undermining many of the values on which liberal order rests: refugees who find themselves being turned away from American airports are living in fear, their yearning to breathe free suffocated by the stroke of a pen; the LGBT community in the US feels more afraid than at any point since the end of the Cold War, while women in America face the prospect that their right to an abortion will be stripped away; Muslims in America are increasingly vilified and demonised, no longer free to worship in peace. Protestors are dismissed and derided; in the world of @readldonaldtrump these are not the legitimate acts of a people with the constitutional right to ‘peaceably assemble,’ but the product of manufactured outrage created by a liberal elite hell-bent on undermining the will of the people.

Internationally, Trump represents the greatest deviation from the liberal bipartisan consensus that has underpinned US foreign policy since 1990. In Obama’s parting speech to the UN he spoke passionately about the threats facing liberal international order. That liberal order has rested not only on a set of core ideas and values, but also an institutional architecture centred on the UN and NATO. Yet in his policy pronouncements thus far, Trump appears to be re-writing the script. He has injected a greater degree of instability into America’s relations with Europe and NATO than any presidency since the end of the Cold War, and is far more willing to embrace, rather than reject, the alternative vision of international order promulgated by Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s election has injected a new element of uncertainty into an already perilous state of affairs in Eastern Europe; not only are Putin’s intentions unclear, so are Trump’s. Lawrence Freedman once wrote that credibility is the ‘magic ingredient’ of deterrence. It is one thing for NATO to be facing uncertainty over Putin’s intentions, it is quite another to be facing its own crisis of credibility caused by uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy towards both Russia and NATO; this at a time when Europe is witnessing the biggest deployment of US military forces to the continent since the Cold War.

Relations with Moscow may well prove to be one of the most pivotal elements of Trump’s foreign policy; between them, Trump and Putin have the ability to shape international order in ways that affect us all. A matter of weeks after the election of Trump, Putin signed a new Foreign Policy Concept, outlining Russia’s ambitions to play a leading role on the international stage and boost cooperation with the administration of the new US president. It remains to be seen whether these two goals are mutually exclusive – whilst the early atmospherics surrounding both the Russian and US camp have been positive, there are still many obstacles ahead. Moscow has consistently opposed what it views as a US dominance of the international system and has made frequent reference to the destabilising influence of Washington, DC’s international actions.

Trump’s election success was greeted with elation in Russia, with Trump ‘fever’ leading to some interesting images being published in the Russian media: boxes of sugar bearing Trump’s smiling face, the Army of Russia store offering a 10% discount for US citizens and embassy employees on the day of Trump’s inauguration and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russian far-right party, the LDPR, drinking champagne with members of his party in celebration of Trump’s election victory. But these images contrast sharply with the realities of the state of the current relationship between Washington, DC and Moscow, which had hit rock-bottom during Obama’s presidency. Whilst it remains unclear what the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be, there are already signs that it will take a hard line, particularly with regards to international terrorism and the threat from IS – Trump has indicated that torture is an acceptable tool in the fight against IS, a hard-line stance that will appeal to the Kremlin, which has never shied away from the use of force (legitimate or not) in pursuit of its strategic objectives. This highlights one of the key potential drivers of any future US-Russia relationship: similar personality traits. Both presidents like to portray themselves as ‘strong men’ who are seeking to make their countries ‘great’ again. Relations between the two are currently in a honeymoon phase, with each president apparently delighted to have found a similar character in the other, but there could be problems ahead if neither is willing to embrace compromise or concession.

Following UK PM Theresa May’s visit to Washington, DC on January 27, Trump and Putin held an hour-long telephone conversation during which both leaders apparently undertook to repair bilateral relations. During a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the fight against terrorism and ongoing instability across the Middle East, as well as the possibility of expanding their economic ties. This latter issue raises the possibility of US sanctions against Russia being lifted, although the topic was not discussed during their call. Trump has mooted the possibility of lifting the sanctions regime, imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This position is at odds with that of Europe: European leaders including May, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, have all expressed their opposition to any lifting of sanctions until Moscow complies fully with the terms of the Minsk agreement. Any attempt by the Trump administration to ease the sanctions regime risks the emergence of further rifts between the US and Europe, which is precisely what the Kremlin is seeking.

The new Foreign Policy Concept suggests that Russia will continue its pivot towards Asia, partly driven by the lack of access to Western markets, a consequence of the ongoing sanctions regime. However, it also makes clear that Russia will continue to consolidate its position as a ‘centre of influence in today’s world’. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. The Kremlin appears to have high hopes for a considerable improvement both in its relations with the US and its position on the global stage. However, whilst relations between Trump and Putin are currently very positive, this could change dramatically if either oversteps and finds themselves in an opposing position.

However, as the relationship unfolds between Trump and Putin, one thing appears clear: we are living in an era of instability and uncertainty, the likes of which many of us have never experienced before.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump’s Improvised Foreign Policy

Dr. Andreas Krieg

On 20 January Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated to become the 45th President of a country trying to find its role in a globalized world. The United States remain the strongest economy and possess the most capable military force in the world. Yet, in the apolar world of the 21st century where non-state actors use disruptive technology and ideologies to effectively undermine state authority, and where global economic push and pull factors cause individuals and communities to migrate across borders and continents, the US regardless of their size or power have less and less means to singlehandedly influence or shape economic and socio-political affairs.

In this rapidly changing world where notions of state-centrism, nationalism and territoriality appear archaic, Trump looks like a relic of the past. His promises to make America great again appealed to the losers of globalization, those unable to adapt to the new realities of open markets and transnational communities. Responding to these fears and concerns is within Trump’s comfort zone: looking inwards and focusing on the economy. Thereby, the high politics of foreign and security policy have been widely ignored. And it is here where Trump remains an unpredictable enigma for analysts, diplomats and journalists.

Yes, Trump will not govern alone. Yes, Trump will have to delegate key portfolios to his cabinet. And yes, much of his racist, ignorant and naïve comments, as inexcusable as they might have been, were campaign rhetoric. Nonetheless, the foreign and security policy of the allegedly last remaining superpower in the world will be determined by the comments, actions and decisions of a man who up until 2015 could not have been further removed from geo-politics. Some say this might be his strength. However, looking at the fragility and unpredictability of the global security context today, someone as imprudent, undiplomatic, impulsive and ignorant as Trump could become a liability not just for the United States but the West at large.

Trump’s first press conference on 11 January revealed that he was still the same man he was on the campaign trail: impulsive, irrational and incoherent – a man without a clear strategy or vision for America’s place in the world. He lacks a defined worldview as he has so far just looked at the world through the eyes of a business man whose views of the world have not been shaped by geo-political developments but by his ability to generate individual business profit. His national security objectives remain defined by naivety and simplicity. With an oversimplifying stroke of black and white, China, Iran and ISIS are presented as threats, Russia as a potential partner, while NATO and the EU are being mocked for their ineffectiveness, red-tape and free-rider problem. These emotionally-formulated foreign policy maxims remain underdeveloped and provide no basis for a Trumpian national security strategy.

So what to expect? While Europe is concerned with his rhetoric of putting America first, partners in the Middle East see Trump as an ignorant pragmatist who can be easily impressed and won over by commercial opportunities, i.e. Riyalpolitik. His posture as a strongman might frighten liberals in Europe but appeal to Arabs who are hoping that after years of Obama’s dovish approach to foreign policy, Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran could work in their favour. Similar hopes can be heard within conservative circles in Israel who expect Trump’s support to be much more unconditional than his predecessor’s.

Trump will put America first, thereby putting an end to the implicitness of America’s role as the world’s police man. Here, Trump will not divert from the legacy of Obama but instead continue to limit America’s commitments overseas. In so doing, he will be pragmatist rather than ideological. His policies will not be guided by strategically defined objectives but by ad hoc responses to ongoing events. The world should not expect foresightedness in US foreign and security policy in the coming four years as Trump will have to learn along the way how to formulate strategy and how third-order effects of any action or comment could potentially have catastrophic consequences in the international arena.

At a time when US leadership might be most needed America’s new commander-in-chief lacks the qualities, expertise and experience to carve out a role for the United States in the 21st century. Trump’s presidency will be truly improvised.

Image: Presidential candidate Donald Trump, watch party, Feb 2 in West Des Moines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s Afghanistan Policy: At odds with Trump?

By Dr. Amir M. Kamel

The prospect of the US president-elect Donald Trump’s Administration has led to ripples across the international system, not least in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of writing, Trump had pledged to reduce the US tendency to carry out foreign interventions. Significantly, this included harsh criticisms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany). The problems this may cause have implications for Iran’s neighbours, Afghanistan in particular. Not least as a result of Tehran’s own interests in Kabul.

Indeed, in a recent book chapter, titled ‘Iran in Afghanistan: Rejecting Foreign Presence’ in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond, I argue that Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are increasingly driven by Tehran’s interests. Specifically, this pertains to the Islamic Republic of Iran regime’s (IRI) dedication to 1) rejecting foreign presence in the region, as well as 2) providing economic and political support to a Taliban-free Kabul. Predictably, such a dual-barreled policy has led Tehran to take contradictory actions since 2001. That being said, the IRI has continued to implement a policy which aimed to sure up its interests, particularly in light of the post-2014 withdrawal of the United States of America (US) led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.

A key part of this is Iran’s influence over its neighbour, whether it be as a result of the shared cultural history between the two countries or the fact that opium trade is able to flow across the border, which was identified by the outgoing President Barack Obama Administration choke-point for constraining the Taliban. The feeling of cooperation and shared interests is seemingly mutual. Indeed, for nearly two years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Iran twice a week in a drive to increase Afghanistan-Iran trade. The fact that Ghani has made such a concerted effort to boost economic ties with Tehran is further evidence of Iran’s interest in ensuring stability in Kabul.

With this in mind, it would seem apparent that an ‘onside’ Iran would also serve the potential interests of the Trump Administration. Indeed, one could speculate that the tearing up of the JCPOA, which already has its critics in Iran (most notably in the form of the more conservative political forces in the country), would hamper Tehran’s ability and propensity to align itself to the US (and broader) interests in stabilising Afghanistan. Whilst it is still unclear what Trump’s policy toward the region will be, the rhetoric in the run-up to what will be the 45th President of the US’ time in office, does not seem positive for Tehran’s interests in Kabul. The hope is that this will become more clear after January 20, 2017.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani meeting with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani in Saadabad Palace, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Watching the Start of a New American Era from the Edge of the World


On November 8 – the second Tuesday of November – I found myself in Anchorage, Alaska watching the poll counts climb state by state while the minutes passed. As polls closed and states on TV monitors lit up as either blue or red, ebullient celebration or quiet resignation crossed the faces of those around me at the public house. Having been at Shrivenham during the Brexit vote before embarking on a previously planned trip to Edinburgh the following Friday morning, I saw echoes of the same disbelief (both excited and disappointed in nature) that I had experienced during that train trip north as I caught flights home across the 4,900 miles separating me from my home after the presidential election.

I was asked if I’d be interested in writing this piece almost two weeks ago, and since I felt that I was still forming an opinion on how the election had played out, I hesitated to do so. However, just over two weeks later with the news settling in and finding myself back on the U.S.’s east coast for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve had some time to reflect on events that have transpired since the electoral college awarded the win to a president-elect who, as of earlier this week, had lost the popular nearly 2 million votes, but succeeded with 290 electoral votes to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 232.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump challenged the world order’s commitment to international trade, alliances, and collective defense, as well as core tenants of the American experience such as inclusion and diversity. While future policy decisions (and political appointments) will indicate how the incoming administration intends to address these issues, there are more pressing issues that the American electorate must focus on surrounding public discourse and behavior.

For instance, a friend of mine who works with immigrant youth in the Washington, DC area helped to translate a parent-teacher conference two days after the election. The second question asked about their son by the parents was, “Is he kind to all of his classmates?” – a question that, surely, they must hope all of their son’s classmates’ parents are asking as well. His schoolmate, an 8th grade white boy, was crying in the hallway the same week because he has two moms, and has witnessed the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by some of Trump’s supporters. Children’s behavior is often cued by their parents’, which might give us a bit of insight fears harbored by parents in a highly diverse, inner city school located in the nation’s capital.

One of the things that moved me most to write this piece, though, was seeing the gathering of Neo-Nazis – apparently rebranded as the “alt-right” – giving Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building of Washington, DC. Having heard that the gathering took place at the Reagan Building complex was quite surprising, given that it is situated neatly between the White House and the Capitol, is home to USAID (the USG Department of State’s Agency for International Development) and the Environmental Protection Agency, houses Customs and Border Patrol screening facilities, and plays hosts to diverse conferences whose topicality (and attendees) would be directly threatened by the views of those giving Nazi salutes to President-elect Trump. (Perhaps the only place that these activities would have had a more alarming host would have been across the street, where Trump properties recently reopened the Old Post Office Building – a longstanding DC landmark). While freedom of expression is an important basis of the American experience, that doesn’t mean that blatant xenophobic and anti-Semitic movements should not be called out for the acts of hate that they are.

Although a vote for Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter is a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, or bigot, it is difficult to think that not holding any of these as a deal-breaker when voting for a President does admit a certain level of acceptance of these values. Diversity and pluralism are what make America strong, and they must have a place within the new administration if that administration is to truly represent Americans. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each American to make their neighbors and their communities feel inclusive. As one email I recently received commented, “If a swastika is drawn on a sidewalk, there is a big difference between community members cleaning it up in two hours and the city cleaning it up in two days.”

The months ahead will show if Americans intend to use this outcome as an opportunity to draw together and support one another while demanding a government that represents our values, or if we will succumb to the vitriolic rhetoric that colored much of Trump’s campaign to divide the electorate into “us” and “them”. Misogyny, white nationalism, isolationism, and intolerance are not the values that America wants to show the world.

Image: Donald Trump on the campaign trail, via flickr.




Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.

The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.

At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.

Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.

The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.

The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were  collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).

So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.

Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame.  Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.

Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’

After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.

Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  and  Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.

The Impact of the Battle of Jutland on Economic Warfare

This is the third in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. 


Prof. Kennedy’s latest book, ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War They Thought and the War They Fought’ is now available. You can read more about it here.

Often the link between the outcome of campaigns or battles and the resulting changes to public or private perceptions; the changed nature of accessibility to critical air, sea or land domains; the subsequent inability to use military power in the same way thereafter; or, the ongoing ability to influence domestic and foreign opinion in a manner consistent with that practices prior to the combat, has gone unnoticed. Military historians have focused on the fighting; diplomatic historians on diplomatic activity; economic historians on economic factors. Rarely is any attempt made to analyse the strategic context existing at the time of battle, or to follow the ripples of tactical and operational success, or failure, through to their logical resting place amongst the strategic assessment process. Using the May 31st, 1916 Battle of Jutland, famous and infamous for its tactical indecision, questionable operational objectives, but strategic impact and enablement, we will A. show the complexity of the relationship between battle, diplomacy and strategic decision making, as well as B. reinforce the centrality of the oceanic domain to the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers, one seeking to use it to create overwhelming power and the latter attempting to deny the Allies access to it for that purpose.

In January 1916 Anglo-American strategic relations were becoming more strained due to the increasing restrictions on American maritime commercial activity being imposed due to Britain’s blockade policy. Tighter and more extensive contraband lists, as well as an increasing number of American vessels being seized and detained for Prize Court proceedings in United Kingdom harbours, was whipping up a higher degree of anti-Britishness in the United States than had been seen since the beginning of the war. German propaganda and nominal gestures of conceding for American demands regarding attacks on merchant shipping and the contemplation of possible peace negotiations had moved the initiative as far as wooing American public opinion towards Germany for the moment. Forthcoming British replies to the American State Department rejection peace proposals and demands for a lessening of the blockade’s effectiveness would only exacerbate that condition. One of the very real dangers of a rift in Anglo-American relations was the fact that America could limit its sale of munitions to Great Britain in order to get the terms governing blockade policy changed in their favour. Such an embargo would have a crippling effect on the Allied war effort until alternative sources of munitioning could be established in Canada, Australia India, or Latin America. Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States hinted and insinuated to the American State Department throughout late January 1916 that they should prepared themselves for little movement by the British with regard to weakening blockade policy. While relations between the two nations did not fracture, or indeed impair the ability of the Allies to wage war, Germany retained a more favoured position within the American Congress and large swathes of the public in the spring of 1916. That governmental and public perception of Germany would change rapidly as the autumn of 1916 came to pass, and that change was a direct result of the Battle of Jutland. While Germany was held in good odour in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the great sea battle, the question of Germany’s desire and willingness to use unrestricted submarine warfare was an issue of concern to America. 

In early October 1916 the American Chargé at the Embassy in Berlin, Joseph Grew (future American Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and at the time of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific) reported that Germany’s return to indiscriminate submarine warfare was a distinct possibility. The Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, along with the Kaiser, and key senior Army officers such as Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, continued to be able to dissuade the Reichstag from approving the unleashing of the submarine weapon, but it was thought that such a state of affairs would not last for long. The German Navy was seen to be readying itself physically for a renewed submarine offensive, with more material and resources being targeted at the construction of a greater number of such vessels. With Admiral Tripitz and other members of the naval staff agitating openly and covertly for a resumption of submarine operations it was thought not possible for many party members and leaders within the Reichstag to remain opposed to the renewal. By mid-October the conviction that submarine warfare ought to be carried out indiscriminately was gaining ground among the leading men of all parties and the great mass of the German people.

On October 13th German naval officers, heading by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, presented the Emperor with a petition demanding the immediate resumption of submarine warfare without consideration for neutral rights as being the only way to win the war. The petition referred directly to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for Germany’s strategic condition:

High sea battle may damage the enemy but would not force England to make peace as fleet could not overcome disadvantages of Germany’s military geographic situation and great [naval] preponderance of the enemy. Victory can be attained only by overcoming English economic life which means beginning of a submarine war against British commerce. To choose any weaker method would be in vain and I most urgently dissuade Your Majesty, as I did before, from the choice of this dubious form, not only because it does not correspond with the character of submarine weapons, but the endangering of the boats would not compensate for the profit to be obtained thereby. It would also be impossible in spite of the great conscientiousness of the commanders to avoid in England’ waters where American interests are lively such accidents as would humiliate us and which would force us to give in if we cannot hold through to the fullest extent.

More and more the realization of the Battle of Jutland signalling the end of any consideration of the use of the sea to progress German war aims in a conventional fashion was percolating throughout the German policy making system.

By November the “von Tripitz” policy, as the submarine solution was described by Grew, was frustrated still by the reluctance of the political apparatus to approve the use of full unrestricted warfare. The fear of embroiling the United States fully and openly on the side of the Allies was a major part of the opposition’s argument. And, while parts of the German Navy recognized this potential danger in escalating the situation thru such submarine actions, they believed the risk worth the investment, and that America would not engage in the war if enough effort was spent in either compensation or propaganda to put the blame for Germany’s need to take such measure squarely at Britain and her blockade’s feet. With the blockade beginning to be felt to a greater extent and through a wider range of parts of the economy, pressure to counter such effects were growing greater and greater in Germany. Denied access to the sea by the finality of the Jutland engagement, but requiring some means of exerting pressure onto the strategic lifelines that were the British Sea Lanes of Communication which ran throughout the world, Germany was left with no choice.

The Battle of Skagerrak forced the German strategic policy makers to have to return to the one thing that was assured to rekindle harsh German-American relations, and, by default, create closer Anglo-American strategic relations. To arrive at that decision took time, time that saw a strategic paralysis and dissonance within the German strategic planning elite. That disconnection and friction allowed the Allied blockade valuable time to tighten the economic blockade both at sea and in various markets, such as strategic metals. As well, the naval victory and resultant German debate over the return to submarine warfare was observed by the Americans. That German debate and resultant action worked to further influence the American strategic policy making elite into believing that Germany’s eventual ability to win the war could only revolve around actions detrimental to American strategic interests. Overall, therefore, the Battle of Jutland’s strategic ripples resulted in a great commonality and accommodation of strategic relations between Great Britain and the United States in areas related to the vital ground occupied by economic warfare.

Image: A steamer sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…The US: heading into election year

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr Ellen Hallams

2016 might just turn out to be the year of Donald Trump. The US presidential election is still 11 months away but the Republican presidential contender is dominating the race to succeed Barack Obama; the primary season is already an unseemly spectacle doing further damage to the reputation of the US political system and electoral cycle. Trump’s candidacy would be comical if it wasn’t a realistic prospect. Although he has peddled lies, fiction and outright xenophobia, he has tapped into a deep discontent among white working class voters alienated by eight years of an Obama presidency. Neither is he quite the aberration some have suggested. His anti-immigration rhetoric is rooted in the Nativist movement of the mid-19th century, embodied by the ‘Know-Nothing’ party and candidacy of former President Millard Fillmore who in 1856 captured 22% of the popular vote. Trump’s pledge to implement a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ certainly puts him at the extreme end of the nativist spectrum but the mood in Washington – and across the country – is already hardening, fuelled in large part by the Paris terror attacks, as well as the shootings in San Bernadino. The US Congress is already legislating to tighten the US visa waiver programme to prevent any foreign national who has visited Iraq, Iran, Syria or the Sudan in the past five years from entering the US without a visa, with further measures possible. Conventional wisdom would suggest Trump’s campaign will self-implode but none of the other candidates as of yet is emerging as a clear challenger. Trump’s candidacy has also overshadowed Bernie Sanders challenge to what will surely be Hilary Clinton’s last bid to be America’s first female president, but it is hard to see Clinton not emerging victorious from the Democratic primaries. Whoever wins the respective nominations, the election will hinge on domestic issues – the economy, immigration, healthcare, welfare reform – but in the context of events in Syria and the growing threat from IS, there will likely be considerable debate over what many see as a weak and ineffectual foreign policy from Obama that has eroded US influence and prestige on the world stage. Clinton has already lamented Obama’s ‘doctrine’ of ‘strategic patience’ as not worthy of a ‘great nation’ and the campaign will no doubt be filled with hubristic reassertions of America’s ‘greatness.’ Whatever happens, the election will make for compelling drama over the next 11 months.

Image: Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2015, via wikimedia commons.

American Decline and The Middle East: The Role of Isolationism


Nearly every major International Relations journal has recently forecasted the United States’ decline. Washington’s limited role in NATO airstrikes in Libya and President Obama’s restrained foreign policy are cited as evidence of American demise. The decline perspective (summarised here, here and here) maintains that “foreign policy failures, most notably the Iraq conflict, have eroded America’s position in the world, both by revealing the impotence of American power and by eroding its legitimacy,” and “other powers are rising to challenge the dominant position of the United States: primarily the European Union, China, and Russia.”

This is not the first time that America’s decline has been predicted. The decline debate tends to reappear every decade or so. Past predictions of decline have been based on either economic distress or military failures, and often both – with the latter having a greater impact. According to Joseph Joffe, the United States is currently in its fifth wave of declinism. After World War II America was in a position of unparalleled strength, but discussion of decline started to emerge in 1957 with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. The second wave of declinism came in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War and Henry Kissinger’s prediction that the bipolar world was ending. The third wave in the late 1970s was precipitated by two oil crises and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Poor economic indicators brought on by Reaganomics and Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in 1987 ushered in the fourth wave of decline. The most recent wave of decline has been brought on by the military problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis.

In recent decades the Middle East, more than any other region, has been a proving ground for American power, with rising and declining American power being equally tied to military operations in the region. Power is difficult to measure and is based as much on economic and military indicators as perceived ability and willingness to project force. This post argues that these predictions of decline are linked to and often caused by America’s ebb and flow of power projection that is brought on by its isolationist and interventionist shifts. The post compares the decline wave under President Carter with the current wave under President Obama to highlight the role that American power projection have in sparking predictions of decline.

Jimmy Carter took office on the heels of the American defeat in Vietnam, which saw the U.S. take a step back from the use of force and enter into a prolonged period of isolationism. It is important to note that this was not the same type of “true” isolationism that the U.S. exhibited before World War I. Instead, it was a reluctance to use military force and to engage in foreign conflicts. Today this phenomenon might be described as retrenchment. This reluctance to engage abroad, especially in the Middle East, in turn started predictions of decline in earnest. The Carter administration was especially reluctant to use force, even more so than other post-Vietnam War presidents. Carter had developed a reputation as a pacifist, and he took pride in the fact that no soldier was killed in combat during his presidency. Carter’s reluctance to use force and his handling of international crises solidified in many people’s minds, both domestically and internationally, that the American century was truly coming to an end.

One of the major challenges Carter faced in the Middle East was the Iranian Revolution. The Shah of Iran had been a long-time ally of the United States, but when uprisings began in Iran, the U.S. failed to assist the Shah or lend support to his government to keep it in power. Once more, after the Shah fled Iran Washington was reluctant to grant him sanctuary in the U.S. and only eventually acquiesced to admitting him into the country for short medical visits. To many Middle Eastern allies it appeared as though the United States had abandoned their long-time friend. This eroded the image of the U.S. as a reliable ally and caused other Middle Eastern heads of state to question their relationship with Washington.

The problems brought on by the Iranian Revolution were followed quickly by the Iran Hostage Crisis. On November 4, 1979 students overtook the United States embassy in Tehran, capturing the embassy staff and subsequently holding them for 444 days. Throughout the crisis Carter resisted persistent calls to use force or to punish Iran for its actions. Instead, Carter emphasized the importance of hostage safety and relied on diplomatic negotiations and sanctions, rather than force. However, many moderate Arab states viewed the U.S. response as slow and ineffective. This perception was further exacerbated by the failed rescue mission that was launched in April 1980. The dramatic and public military failure of the mission only furthered the growing perception of American impotence. Allies questioned whether the U.S. was a reliable military partner if it was not even able to defend its own interests. The lingering crisis and Washington’s apparent inability to resolve it were often cited as further evidence of America’s imminent demise.

American inaction during the hostage crisis was being contrasted with a Soviet display of power and decisiveness through its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. This led to a growing perception both internationally and domestically, that the United States was grossly inferior to the USSR militarily, and that it was a clear second in world military strength. French news Le Figaro summarized this perception on November 16, 1979, stating “It has become obvious in very recent times that the famous gap between the military capabilities of the two superpowers has narrowed, and to such a point that experts currently waver between two conclusions: either the balance of forces…has now been achieved, or else has already been upset in favor of the Soviet Union.”

Carter’s difficulties in the Middle East and his reluctance to use force diminished America’s international image and compounded the effects of the Vietnam Syndrome in a way left regional allies questioning American capabilities and commitment for decades. These lingering doubts resurfaced in both the Gulf War and the Iraq War when the United States attempted to obtain regional allied support for military operations.

Many of the issues that led to predictions of decline during the Carter administration are being repeated today, including the U.S. taking a step back from the use of force, mismanagement of crises in the Middle East, and a failure to support long-term allies. Much like the Carter administration taking office at the height of the Vietnam War Syndrome, President Obama took office with the wars and associated military setbacks of Iraq and Afghanistan still ongoing. The difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the U.S. to adopt a policy of retrenchment. This is a cycle we see time and again in the U.S. When Washington suffers a military setback it allows isolationist tendencies, to re-emerge. This tendency has perhaps been most visible in the United States’ response to the Arab Spring. Critics of the Obama administration argue that its reaction to the Arab Spring has been ineffective and inconsistent and has exacerbated the region’s problems. This has led to a questioning of American military power and willingness to use force. As with the Carter administration, Middle Eastern partners have once again begun to question whether the U.S. is a credible ally that will defend their interests. This was precipitated by the United States’ failure to support long-time ally Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprisings. Washington’s reluctance to use force and engage in foreign conflicts was again highlighted when it failed to take action against the Assad regime in Syria after it crossed Obama’s infamous “red line” with the use of chemical weapons. Many world leaders wondered if the U.S. had become a toothless superpower that had lost its appetite for the use of force.

Meanwhile, U.S. indecision was once again being contrasted with a Russian challenge to its dominance in the form of the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in which the U.S. seemed unwilling or unable to stand up for global order and self-professed values. These indicators of American retrenchment have fueled predictions of decline and have caused several regional allies to take a step back. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has ignored Washington’s calls to cease settlements in Palestinian territories. Likewise, Palestine approached the UN for formal statehood recognition, against the wishes of the Obama administration. Finally, even long-term ally, Saudi Arabia, has pursued a foreign policy independent of the U.S. in the Middle East by leading airstrikes in Yemen.

By comparing the decline of the 1970s with the current period of decline, certain commonalities start to appear. Both waves of decline have been precipitated by military setbacks, and both periods have been exacerbated by a policy of retrenchment that has caused allies to question U.S. credibility and its willingness and ability to effectively defend its interests and theirs. These cases suggest that predictions of decline are linked to American isolationist tendencies. Thus, the predictions of decline are not so much caused by diminishing capabilities, as commonly assumed, but by a diminishing willingness to use force and engage abroad.

Image: ‘Prior to the start of their working dinner during the Middle East negotiations, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel check their watches to see if it is officially sunset’ via Wikimedia Commons.

Domestic Challenges to US Primacy?

This is the third in a series of posts from a recent research symposium organised by Dr Ellen Hallams on ‘The Reconfiguration of American Primacy in World Politics: Domestic and International Challenges.’ In this piece, Dr David Houghton discusses the role of domestic factors in shaping current and future US foreign policy.


Domestic impediments to US executive action have seemingly mounted in recent years. Public opinion – especially the ‘war weariness’ of the American public after Iraq and Afghanistan – has increasingly constrained executive branch adventurism, making it more and more difficult to commit military troops overseas and for the United States to play an international role generally. At the same time, congressional challenges to executive primacy – most notably, the attempt by Republican Senators in 2015 to take control of foreign policy towards Iran and other states – are making it harder for the Commander-in-Chief to forge a path independent of the legislature. Interest groups like the increasingly conservative Israel lobby, meanwhile, have sought to prevent the Obama administration from forging an independent approach to US foreign policy. Horrendous media images of the civil war in Syria, meanwhile, appear to be pulling Obama inexorably into some kind of ‘CNN Effect’.

Somewhat paradoxically, though, Barack Obama has been ‘freer’ from most of these constraints in foreign policy than any president in recent memory, mostly because the very limited agenda he is pursuing in this arena already meshes with inward-looking US public opinion. Some suggest that Obama is nothing more than an elaborate pragmatist. But as the political scientist Colin Dueck has noted, Obama does have an overall strategy. The President has been rather unadventurous – especially when compared to his predecessor – and has sought to address America’s own internal problems rather than external issues. Obama has said that he wants to focus on “nation building here at home”. Heavily influenced by foreign policy realism, his strategy has been one of retrenchment (of pulling back, in other words).

Looking at recent public opinion data, what is most striking is the fact that the retrenchment strategy happens to match US public opinion, which is at its most isolationist since the 1930s. The effect of Iraq and Afghanistan upon ordinary Americans seems to have been directly equivalent to that of Vietnam, or even greater. The proportion of Americans saying in a 2013 Pew Research Center poll that the United States should ‘mind its own business internationally’ rose by just over 20% between 1964 and 1974, about the same as the equivalent rise between 2002 and 2013. The effect seems to have been greater than that which accompanied the end of the Cold War, meanwhile, since the proportion favouring a smaller US role rose by only about 10% between 1989 and 1994. And for the first time in 40 years of polling, a majority of Americans – about 52% to 38% – think that the country should ‘mind its own business’, the most striking finding of all.

What, then, of the much-vaunted Israel and Cuban American ethnic lobbies that supposedly ‘rule the roost’ in American foreign policy? In reality, Obama has regularly flouted the will of both, safe in the knowledge that Jewish voters tend to support him very strongly and that commercial interests have reduced the power of the Cuban lobby. Commentators frequently attribute great electoral power to the latter, based on their concentration in ‘swing states’ like Florida and high degree of organization. But two forces have changed the equation in recent years. First of all, we have seen the emergence of significant commercial interests as a rival or alternative lobby, which see the potential of the island for what it used to be, a grown-up ‘playground’ for Americans abroad. Secondly, younger Cubans are far less likely to take a hard line on the Castro brothers than older ones since they do not remember the Cold War. Today, even a small majority of Cuban Americans favours liberalization. It is no coincidence then that in 2015 diplomatic relations were finally restored between the United States and Cuba, and the US has just re-opened its embassy in Havana for the first time since 1959. Obama has also called for the lifting of the long-established trade embargo and is clearly on a mission to liberalize relations between the United States and Cuba before he leaves office.

Similarly, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) have been virtually ignored in Obama’s rapprochement towards Iran. While the Israeli lobby benefits from even greater electoral advantages and levels of organization than the Cuban American one, fears that the lobby will exert a pernicious influence on policymaking during the Obama years have mostly not been realized. This is because a majority still overwhelmingly supports the president and the Democratic party, while AIPAC and the current Likud administration in Israel have increasingly responded only to conservative Jewish Americans.

The Obama administration announced in 2015 that it has successfully arrived at a nuclear deal with Iran, meanwhile, a move to which both AIPAC and Netanyahu are implacably opposed. Opposition to the deal in Washington has centered on the claim that this is a ‘bad deal’ for the United States, but the real problem is that the deal is so good that it may be too good to be true (it promises to get rid of 98% of Iran’s enriched uranium, for instance). Leaving AIPAC aside, moreover, a clear majority of Jewish Americans – a group with especially high levels of turnout – actually supports the Iran nuclear deal, something which surprises most people. The Senate has recently approved the deal, although Obama indicated that he will go ahead with or without congressional support (which he does not really need).

If public opinion and the lobbies are not able to meaningfully constrain Obama’s hand in foreign policy, the possibility remains that a ‘CNN Effect’ may be pushing him to be far more adventurous than he is. The instantaneous nature of TV and computer images today has sparked a debate in recent years about the supposed ability of news agencies to set the political agenda. Under the Obama administration, it has sometimes been alleged that the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya was the product of a CNN Effect, for instance, and that the weak US response to the Syrian crisis is the result of an absence of video images.

It is not true to allege that there were no images of suffering broadcast on American television, however. In fact, the spread of photographic and video technology made it relatively easy in both cases for Libyans and Syrians to send harrowing images of civilian suffering to the US media outlets. It is also instructive to note that the Obama administration – for good or ill – has not bowed to considerable congressional pressure (especially from Senator John McCain) to intervene in Syria. On the other hand, the real reasons for the difference in response were probably the relative difficulty of the task and available intelligence about the likely consequences. Libya would be ‘easy to do’ and would allow for a quick intervention from the air, based on the notion that a friendly force on the ground could capitalize on Allied control of the air. But who was the friendly force in Syria? Intelligence sources suggested that a moderate or friendly force on the ground either was not present at all, or else had been disillusioned into non-existence by Obama’s own failure to act after he stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the administration.

Obama is not running for elected office again, which gives him a freer hand. However, a future president attached to different priorities – especially one attempting to re-assert American primacy in a more forceful way – might not be so fortunate. It all depends on what you are trying to do, and a neoconservative Republican or liberal internationalist Democrat might find himself (or herself) constrained again.

Image: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Nov. 23, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons.