Superficially at least, the ongoing civil war in Syria appears to highlight the West’s inability, unprecedented for decades, to put a stop to it. Adverse to direct military intervention, President Obama has even ruled out Kosovo-style punitive strikes without the endorsement of Congress. Premier David Cameron’s strident advocacy of military action against Syria has been silenced by a negative vote – the first such occurrence in centuries – in the British Parliament. The West’s economy is weaker than at any time in the past save the Great Depression and the increasingly assertive members of the UN’s Security Council are blocking any efforts to outlaw the slaughter of Syria’s own citizens by the Assad regime. This is surely not the unipolar world we got used to during the Clinton – Bush Jr. years.
By placing domestic concerns above military entanglements in far away places around the world, President Obama is in sync with the mood of the majority of his countrymen. Even if his foreign policy could appear to outsiders as indecisive, it is nevertheless popular at home. Like in the times that preceded the 1938 Munich conference, the West is economically distressed, tired of fighting, as well as challenged by a rising power – China – and an increasingly resurgent Russia.
The preference for diplomacy over the use of military force has become the hallmark of Barack Obama’s approach to international affairs.(During my masteral studies in international relations, I qualified Obama’s foreign policy as « Jeffersonian with Wilsonian trappings », an assessment that I maintain today). Taking into account Iran’s dire economic situation, for instance, diplomacy is seen by Obama strategists as having a chance of succeeding where sanctions and threats of military action have not.
In Asia, the US is currently shying away from endorsing the bellicose stance of the Japanese and the Philippine leadership against China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands or the Scarborough Shoal. Given the mayhem in the Middle East, the « pivot » strategy for Asia is being quietly put on the backburner.
A well-framed foreign policy could, however, be judged only in the light of its practical results. If the US succeeds in destroying the Assad regime’s stock of chemical weapons and finds a way of determining the Iranians to drastically reduce their nuclear ambitions, Obama’s foreign policy might just be remembered as a worthwhile contribution towards reducing international instability and ultimately to world peace.