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Kevin Bayona: Obama’s test will be in diplomacy

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Posted: November 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.

The election is finally over, and Barack Obama has been re-elected to another term in the White House. The president will face many challenges, but none will be more important than how America’s foreign policy unfolds over the next four years.

Charles Krauthammer wrote about America’s “unipolar moment” back in 1990, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The United States ended the 20th century as the most powerful nation in the world and left unchallenged to throw its weight around as it pleased. Although America found itself atop a world void of any existential threat to its security, the United States still found it necessary to intervene in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Haiti.

These interventions were natural manifestations of national sovereignty from an unmatched superpower. The economic boom of the 1990s filled America’s coffers and helped feed the ancient desire to spread its values wherever their absence seemed to produce turmoil. The liberal interventionists had set America upon a course to ‘civilize’ the world in a manner that would have made Rudyard Kipling proud.

The Sept. 11 attacks were a traumatic event and promised to alter American foreign policy at the dawn of the 21st century.

President George W. Bush and his neo-conservative advisers set out to depose illiberal dictators, promote democratic capitalism, secure America’s hegemony and essentially remake the world in America’s image.

President Bush articulated his administration’s foreign policy during his second inaugural address when he declared, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has had a sobering effect on the United States and its leadership. President Bush’s foreign policy objectives were promising and infused with the pioneering spirit of America.

The problem is that the ideological impetus to overthrow tyrannical regimes and promote democratic government was unaccompanied by the moral obligation to follow through on the fully manned and fully funded commitments that such endeavors require.

The United States could have done it — but it didn’t — and therein lies the tragedy of President Bush’s foreign policy.

President Obama’s election in 2008 and the almost simultaneous collapse of the economy signaled the end of President Bush’s neoconservative idealism. Mr. Obama’s first four years in office precipitated military drawdowns in Iraq, soon to be followed by similar downsizing in Afghanistan. The era of regime change and democracy promotion was coming to an end. The president has not articulated a new vision for American foreign policy, but declining budgets and changing global dynamics will force the president to make difficult decisions about America’s role in the world.

The president faces a very different world today, far from what America faced the day after the Soviet Union collapsed. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have either directly or indirectly affected revolutions across the Middle East and Central Asia. The status quo was destroyed and Iran has inevitably become a regional power with whom America must now struggle.

China continues to grow and evolve into an Asian hegemon and will present America with a serious threat into the foreseeable future.

Europe faces a sovereign debt crisis and many of its national economies are crumbling under fiscal turmoil. Europe faces an uncertain future, especially if the European Union falters and its states return to the days of nationalist rivalries. Russia still searches for its role on the international stage and has progressively found itself in the apparently comfortable position of creating a Russian sphere of influence and opposing America wherever it can.

President Obama must find a new role for America in this fluid and unpredictable world. America’s coffers are empty, the American people have no appetite for ‘civilizing’ missions, and the world is unreceptive to American intervention. America may have to pursue a more realist approach to foreign affairs and devise a grand strategy based on hard-nosed calculations of the national interest, such as preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon, preserving regional balances of power, and protecting global sea lanes and airspace. Good luck, Mr. President.

Kevin Bayona is a Valencia resident. He earned a BA in international relations and political science from Fairfield University, studied global affairs at New York University, and is a member of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.


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