Richard Butler. US: What Leadership?

Aug 2, 2014

There is continuous debate, within the US, about President Obama’s handling of international affairs. To some, he has responded to their wish to see the US less entangled, everywhere; to others, he’s a feckless weakling and should be impeached. The only thing that seems clear about this debate is that it is agitated, apparently, interminable and operates on a low factual base. 

The role of the Washington Post, in print and on line, in this discourse in the US and beyond, is believed to be significant. This makes the thoughts and decisions of Fred Hiatt very important. He is editor of the Post’s opinion page, which publishes 4 or 5 op-ed pieces each morning, chosen by him, and Hiatt’s own piece once a week.

At the end of July, his piece lamented President Obama’s alleged disengagement with the world and the evacuation of US leadership it had produced: “We have witnessed as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of US disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide”. He gave as examples of such disengagement: the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the failure to adequately support the opposition to Assad in Syria, the failure to ensure a better post-Qaddafi Libya, and, the acceptance of the Russian proposal to dispose of Syria’s Chemical Weapons, rather than to bomb Syria.

Hiatt began his piece by acknowledging that the world is currently facing a somewhat bewildering array of disturbances and that opinions of Obama’s and his Administration’s responses to them varies widely.

But, he offered no concrete policy suggestions, relying instead on an unspecific notion of “leadership”, which it is fair to say, accurately translates, for most purposes in the US, as the achievement of US aims and interests, mainly through the threat or use of military force. Indeed, this identification of foreign policy with military actions has become entrenched in the US public discourse. This cast of mind is also reflected in the fact that the US maintains some 800 US military bases in the world.

Hiatt’s uncertainty in his own outlook, is underlined by his concluding remarks, drawing on his introduction of the laboratory analogy:

There are no true laboratory experiments in international relations. Even with different US policies the Arab Spring might have fizzled and the Iraqi army may have crumbled. No one can say for sure what would have happened if the United States had not signaled its exhaustion with external affairs, downgraded its interests in Europe and the Middle East, abandoned Iraq and stayed aloof from Syria”.

It must be pointed out that, astonishingly absent from this reflection, is any notion that at least one important source of current malaises is US military and political intervention, such as in Iraq.

If the need to examine so called US leadership in the world is to be taken seriously, it would be best if it were first defined in a way which went beyond the achievement of US purposes and was thus, able to attract some acceptance, because of its substantive goals.

One such goal was articulated by President Obama in Prague in April 2009. “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons”. This US policy goal, articulated publicly, at the highest level won world wide acclaim, And, President Obama was awarded the Nobel peace prize.

The current facts with respect to attempts to both control the spread of nuclear weapons and to eliminate them, are multifarious and depressing. Here are some highlights: the US is increasing it’s expenditure on it’s arsenal and reducing it’s expenditure on non-proliferation ( see: Douglas Birch in Politico, July 30); Russia is developing a new generation of warheads and it seems has recently violated the intermediate range nuclear arms treaty by testing a prohibited missile; India is significantly expanding it’s missile delivery range and capability; Pakistan is producing new nuclear weapons at a rate faster than any other country; a few days ago, the US and the UK signed a 10 year extension of it’s nuclear weapons cooperation agreement, keeping the UK’s Trident system alive; North Korea continues it’s nuclear weapons and delivery capability development.

To this list, which is merely some highlights, should be added the continued US protection of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability and the immensely fractious and plainly hypocritical business of attempting to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear explosive capability, while others maintain and expand theirs.

Incidentally, to introduce Ukraine into this picture, because of the current crisis; in 1994, the newly independent Ukraine decided to return to Russia the substantial number of nuclear weapons the USSR had stationed on its territory, and to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty. In return, its independence and territorial integrity was guaranteed by the UK, US, and Russia, the depository states of the NPT. This was an Agreement signed by those three and Ukraine, in Budapest. It seems to have been forgotten in Moscow and Donetsk.

Fred Hiatt accuses President Obama of thinking: “he could engineer a cautious, modulated retreat from US leadership”. This is Hiatt’s characterization of Obama’s decisions which wound down costly, misbegotten, failed foreign interventions, something which has widespread support within the US and which decency should recognize, as desirable.

Many contend, and it is clear, that President Obama has, in fact, shown determined leadership in these contexts, in the face of vituperative criticism from the right, within the US polity.

But, US leadership is, in fact, in deep deficit in the areas of: nuclear weapons and reform of the UN Security Council, which the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has publicly acknowledged is needed.

Nothing will happen in those areas without US engagement, and that of the other Permanent Members of the Council.

If nothing happens, the five permanent members of the Security Council will continue to abuse their veto power and neuter the UN in the performance of it’s responsibility for ”the maintenance of international peace and security” ( look, for example, at photos of Aleppo today, and the devastation in Gaza); and as was pointed out in 1995 by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, as long as nuclear weapons exist, they will one day be used either by accident or decision and, that any use would be catastrophic.

These are fit subjects for leadership

Richard Butler AC, was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and was appointed by Prime Minister Keating to Chair the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

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