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Obama's Balancing Act Is Shifting to Manage His Allies

President Obama's foreign policy has pivoted from making new friends to reassuring worried old ones.

by Ari Ratner
Apr 25 2014, 12:25pm

Photo via Getty

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." President Obama's first-term foreign policy — with its outreach to traditional competitors like China, Russia, and Iran — might have been summed up as a more peaceful version of the aphorism usually misattributed to Sun Tzu's The Art of War (actually first said by none other than Michael Corleone).

But with President Obama skipping China while in Asia for the first time in his second term just as Vice President Joe Biden returns from the Ukraine, a new aphorism may be more apt: "Keep your friends closer, but make sure they don't drag you into a shooting war with your enemies."

President Obama came into office with an ambitious agenda to restore American leadership. His diplomatic strategy had two major prongs: restoring America's alliances following the strains of the Bush years and directly engaging America's adversaries to whom, as he said in his Inaugural Address, "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Yet, these twin goals contained an inherent tension.

In Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, a similar dynamic emerged: outreach to competitors often caused concern to allies worried about America’s commitment to their security.

This has required a careful balancing act. But the balance has shifted.

Even as the administration continues to engage adversaries, diplomacy has shifted to managing its allies.

The first term was primarily aimed at achieving a breakthrough with competitors. Term two has been consumed with reassuring allies, even while restraining them from provocations that may entangle America in a crisis.

In Asia, President Obama initially sought to enhance relations with China; there was even chatter of a potential US-China G2. But the lack of a breakthrough resulted in the 2011 enunciation of a strategic “pivot” to the region.

This “pivot” — or in later terminology “rebalance” — aimed to strengthen America’s regional presence. Its subtext included building the regional architecture necessary to counterbalance China’s growing power.

In Europe, the Russian "reset” aimed to clear pent-up tension and push a comprehensive agenda on everything from non-proliferation and economic cooperation to the Northern supply route into Afghanistan.

In the Middle East, the attempt to start negotiations with Iran involved offering an olive branch to Tehran while building a global coalition for harsh sanctions on Iran — all while coping with fallout from the Arab spring.

Yet, even as the administration continues to engage adversaries — negotiations with Iran may soon come to a head — diplomacy has shifted to managing its allies.

'New questions have arisen abroad about the use of force as a still-credible tool of our national security policy. These credibility issues have become a challenge.'

The centerpiece of Hillary Clinton's first trip as secretary of state was a visit to China. The first trip that John Kerry took as secretary of state involved a laundry list of concerned American allies — the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar.

The president has been on his own “ally tour,” starting this term with a trip to Israel and continuing through last month’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Both Middle Eastern allies are concerned with the perception of American weakness, particularly after what they saw as America’s failure to enforce its “red line” in Syria.

The Russian invasion of Crimea, meanwhile, has led many American allies — including those outside of Europe— to quietly question what it may mean for America’s willingness to use force on their behalf.

"What we're seeing now is in large part the unintended consequence of the American public's understandable war-weariness," Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and now a senior fellow at the Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy, told VICE News. "New questions have arisen abroad about the use of force as a still-credible tool of our national security policy. These credibility issues have become a challenge.”

One hundred years after a pair of two-bit powers dragged their stronger allies into the First World War, alliance management remains a dangerous diplomatic game.

Wilson’s views were echoed by Daniel Kliman, a senior advisor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"In East Asia, the Middle East, and now on Russia's frontier, an ever-expanding number of American allies are coming under pressure from rising regional rivals," he said. "Countries as different as Poland, Saudi Arabia, and Japan share similar concerns about American staying power. Simultaneously reassuring partners across three distant regions will put America's alliance management to the test."

Getting alliance management right will be no small feat. And it may carry profound implications for global security.

One hundred years after a pair of two-bit powers — Austria-Hungary and Serbia — dragged their stronger allies into the First World War, alliance management remains a dangerous diplomatic game.

President Obama’s seven-day trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines shows the tightrope walk involved.

In Tokyo, Obama reaffirmed that the Senkaku Islands — the Japanese name for the disputed islets between China and Japan — are covered under the US-Japan Security Treaty, even as he confirmed that America takes no position on their ultimate status.

Obama has also put pressure on Japan to avoid needless provocations such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s repeated visit to Japan’s Yasakuni shrine, the wartime memorial that evokes anger across much of Asia.

He has also been encouraging Japan and South Korea to improve relations, presiding over the first meeting between Abe and the South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, last month in the Netherlands.

In Europe, as Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia and architect of the “reset,” wrote: “The strategy of seeking to change Kremlin behavior through engagement, integration, and rhetoric is over for now.”

The US is calibrating its response to reassure allies — redeploying NATO jets to Poland and the Baltics, for instance — even as it seeks to avoid provoking further Russian aggression.

Alliances are by their nature entangling.

While in Kiev, Biden offered considerable economic support, including a $1 billion loan guarantee, even as military support only totals $20 million of “non-lethal” assistance.

In the Middle East, Obama has hoped to allay the concerns of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other allies, while preventing them from taking unilateral actions that may spark further regional unrest in the Gulf, on the Peace Process, or in Syria.

Alliances are by their nature entangling. Great Powers often seek to restrain their partners, lest they be dragged into a crisis. Lesser powers often seek exactly the insurance of having their stronger partner enmeshed with them.

Managing America’s alliances will continue to require close and skillful attention. Call it the Art of Diplomacy.

Ari Ratner is a writer based in Washington, DC. He served as an appointee in the Obama Administration’s State Department from 2009-12. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner