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US foreign policy: Atlas seeks normalcy

US foreign policy: Atlas seeks normalcy

President Obama's surprise weekend visit to Afghanistan was the curtain raiser to a two to four-week foreign policy sales pitch that will culminate in the release of the 2014 National Security Strategy.

The President made his fourth visit to Afghanistan after an absence of two years, arriving in time to address the troops and visit the base hospital at Bagram Air Field on Memorial Day. He made no significant announcements on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, other than to say the transition to Afghan forces taking the lead in providing the country's security would be completed by year's end.

'America's war in Afghanistan,' he pledged, 'will come to a responsible end.'

On Tuesday in the Rose Garden, President Obama provided the detail. The US troop presence will contract from the current level of 32,000 to 9800 by the start of next year, and to approximately half that number by the end of 2015, with nearly all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The President is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at West Point Military Academy on Wednesday, US time. He will deliver another foreign policy speech in Poland as part of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings on D-Day. Expect Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, to play supporting roles.

These events are widely regarded as an opportunity for the Administration to articulate a broad vision for US foreign policy and define America's role in the world. White House officials have revealed that the Administration will outline a foreign policy 'that is both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.'

My suspicion is that fans of oratory and rhetoric will be satiated, while those hoping to glean an understanding of the US attitude to her unique role will be disappointed. As Stephen Walt points out, the Administration has to date failed to give a clear articulation of its priorities, and Walt is not holding out that the West Point address will provide further clarity. [fold]

I spoke with Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass about foreign policy strategic planning in 2011. He said at the time that doctrinal debates must not be conducted in isolation to foreign policy decision making. Rather, doctrine must have meaningful linkages to decision making, real consequences in terms of resource allocation, priorities, and do's and don'ts.

Strategic planning documents can't provide all the answers, but they must be able to provide first-order approximations. This is precisely what was missing in the Obama Administration's National Security Strategy of 2010.

Haass, of course, outlined his own vision for a new strategic direction that could define and guide American foreign policy: restoration. In doing so, he entered the 'Kennan Stakes' — the search for the one-word replacement for George Kennan's doctrine of Containment. I suspect (and very much hope) that much of Haass' wise counsel is reflected in the forthcoming National Security Strategy, slated for release in the next few weeks. I am however, wary of attempts to create the 'bumper sticker' replacement for Containment.

As Amy Zegart argues, forging a grand strategy in the post-9/11 world is much more problematic and could not only prove unlikely, but dangerous. Stephen Krasner agrees and recommends 'orienting principles' vice grand strategy. Orienting principles, Krasner argues, 'provide a description of some elements of the existing environment and a vision for how they might be transformed.'

Robert Kagan provided just such an orienting principle this week in his excellent New Republic essay, 'Allure of Normalcy'.

Kagan argues that American foreign policy may be moving away from a sense of 'global responsibility that equated American interests with the interest of many others around the world' toward the defence of 'narrower, more parochial national interests.' What some describe as isolationism, Kagan refers to as the desire for normalcy.

The US role in shaping the liberal world order has been so 'unusually powerful and pervasive' that any departure from that role will result in a 'radically different' international system. America has been Atlas carrying the world on its shoulders, but has grown weary of the immense burden. 'Unless Americans can be led back to an understanding of their enlightened self-interest,' warns Kagan, 'to see again how their fate is entangled with that of the world, then the prospects for a peaceful twenty-first century in which Americans and American principles can thrive will be bleak.'

I share Kagan's grim prognosis. My hope is that America's orienting principles will be predicated on the country's unique role in maintaining the liberal world order. My fear, however, is that the vision that will emerge over the next few weeks will reveal one of less, not more, American global leadership.

Image courtesy of the White House.

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