Sunday 8 February 2009

That Biden Speech on Foreign Policy

At yesterday's 45th Munich Security Conference, US vice president Joe Biden outlined the character of Obama's foreign policy for the next four years. While it contained no real surprises it is an important speech for socialists to look at, even if it is light on detail. The US economy might be sliding perilously close to depression, but by a vast distance it remains the world's only imperialist superpower and no other state, be they the great powers of old or the emerging might of China and India, has the kind of global reach America possesses.

It is probably too early to speak of a distinctive approach to foreign affairs but at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Biden speaks of a "new tone" requiring "strong partnerships to meet common challenges", and a casting "aside the petty and the political to reject zero sum mentalities and rigid ideologies, to listen to and learn from one another and to work together for our common prosperity and security." He goes on to say there cannot be a choice between liberty and security as they are mutually reinforcing - "the example of our power must be matched by the power of our example", as he pithily puts it. Despite the diplomatic wording (it would have been impolitic for Biden to have said "we're breaking with Neoconservatism"), these comments clearly mark a change in direction.

What the administration has in mind is a return to a more collegial approach, but this is hardly earth-shattering news. Overseas antipathy toward Bush and the appeal of Obama to a large degree turns on this question of international cooperation. But nevertheless it's worth remembering that despite its Neoconservatism the Bush administration worked multilaterally through NATO and the UN to secure the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (and let's face it, much of the liberal opposition to the war in Iraq was because it did not successfully proceed through their precious UN, not because the invasion was intrinsically wrong). Therefore what really matters is not Obama's readiness to work with other states, but to what ends the "understandings", pacts, treaties and alliances will be put.

On this occasion though, Biden was careful to sound a liberal note few international relations watchers would grumble about. He identified the key challenges as:

* The spread of mass destruction weapons and dangerous diseases;
* A growing gap between rich and poor;
* Ethnic animosities and failed states;
* A rapidly warming planet and uncertain supplies of energy, food, water;
* The challenge to freedom and security from radical fundamentalism.
He argues America will work with others wherever possible and waxes lyrical about the building and enforcing of collective security arrangements. This enables him to wag a finger at Iran for pursuing its "illicit" nuclear programme and sponsorship of terrorist organisations, but also Biden explicitly states the US is willing to negotiate. What he doesn't elucidate is the second part of this principle - the reservation of the right to act unilaterally "only when we must"; an omission that lends a degree of pregnant menace to his Iran comments.

The second principle is a move from the Bush doctrine of pre-emption to prevention with the heavy accent on diplomacy. As Biden admits, the acid test for multilateral diplomacy is the ever-present destabilising effects of Israel/Palestine. He argues for aid efforts that strengthen the 'official' Palestinian authority at the expense of Hamas, the establishment of a lasting two state solution, and the defeat of "extremists" who perpetuate the conflict (as if the interminable strife can be boiled down to die-hards on either side). The second is the worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which will require multilateral cooperation from all interested parties. For Afghanistan it means ridding the country from terrorists. For Pakistan it is aiding the state against its recalcitrant tribal territories in the north and along the Afghan-Pakistani border and helping out with economic development - probably much easier said than done given the depths of the country's
economic crisis.

The third, quoting from Obama's inauguration speech, is "America will extend a hand to those who unclench their fists." He rejects the clash of civilisations thesis and instead paints a picture of a decent world threatened by extremism. Part of the foreign policy programme will see the USA reaching out to hundreds of millions across the Islamic world to strengthen the values most Muslims and America hold in common - and naturally restore the global hegemon's legitimacy. Biden may have in mind Islamic fundamentalism, but what of other sorts of "extremism"? How long will it be before growing labour and socialist movements are grouped into this category? Again, the Obama Doctrine is designed to avoid this scenario. Its favoured method of prevention is the encouragement of liberal democratisation and economic development.

Moving on to the 'vision thing' the development goals Biden sets the administration reads like a liberal interventionist's dream. Their objectives are

* To help eliminate the global education deficit;
* To cancel the debt of the world’s poorest countries;
* To launch a new Green Revolution that produces sustainable supplies of food and;
* To advance democracy not through its imposition by force from the outside, but by working with moderates in government and civil society to build the institutions that will protect freedom.
These are prefaced by a desire to cut global poverty by half by 2015. I think they're going need a bit of assistance meeting that one.

In the final part of the speech, Biden turns his attention to NATO and the perennially frosty relationship with a more assertive Russia. First off he recommits the administration to maintaining a missile defence capability, but only to protect the West from Iran and, importantly, in consultation with the Putin-Medvedev regime. This sounds the tone for a more conciliatory approach to Russia. For example, there is a strange almost-admission that its Soviet predecessor was right to fight fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan and calls for more cooperation between Russia and NATO against the Taliban (and presumably the Islamic movements and militias active in Russia's near-abroad). He also looks forward to cooperation with Russia over arsenal reduction and against nuclear proliferation. Interestingly Biden notes US opposition to the puppet states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but signals America's intent to keep it as a paper position.

And all this is concluded with a neatly-tied pledge to transatlantic cooperation. So far, so liberal.

It remains to be seen whether the administration's actions will match the rhetoric. But when all is said and done after
Guardianistas, Decent-types, sundry Democrat and LibDem commentators, and 'soft' anti-imperialists have pored over this speech, there is no real qualitative difference between the new administration and the ancien regime. Neoconservatives were equally partial to wield the apologia of liberal interventionism - their problem was virtually no one took their humanitarian gloss seriously, least of all themselves. The difference is because our liberal friends want to believe in Obama and his foreign policy actions are likely to get a free pass from this quarter for quite a while. It falls to us socialists to articulate the criticisms and offer an alternative.


ModernityBlog said...

excellent summary of Biden's speech and the imperatives the Obama administration face.

Anonymous said...

Jon Stewart often says that Biden is so gaffe prone that it might be better if the rest of the world didn't listen to what he says.

I think it was a BBC reporter who was told by a conservative Iranian scholar that talk of "incentives" was patronising and wouldn't go down well.

Ken said...

Good summary, Phil.

Nitpick: it's 'pored over', not 'poured over'.

Phil said...

Can you be my editor, Ken? ;)