January 11, 2010

Foreign Policy In a Vacuum

Foreign Policy In a Vacuum06/01/2010

Posted by opemipo3655 in BrazilCross postedForeign PolicyInternational Relations TheoryPower (IR)RealismState SovereigntySuperpowersUnited StatesWorld Politics
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The other two are still lost on the infinite plane of uniform density.


International and Domestic Constraints On Foreign Policy

Even though a head of state/ government may have an overarching philosophy or theme they want to guide foreign policy; neo-/ realism, liberalism, democracy promotion, multilateralism among others, their available actions/moves are constrained by domestic politics and the actions (and possible actions) of other statess. This blog-post from the London Review Blog looks at the restraints on the Obama administration’s foreign policy towards Brazil.

London Review Blog- Greg Grandin: Obstacles to Progress;

The honeymoon between Barack Obama and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva didn’t last long. When Obama was elected, the US press imagined a natural alliance between the two men, expecting them to sideline the ideologues and set the Western Hemisphere back in greased grooves. ‘This is my man, right here,’ Obama said at the G20 summit in London in April, grinning and shaking Lula’s hand. ‘I love this guy.’

Always be wary of the “natural alliance” or “special relationship”. There is no such thing in the international system.

Actually why would there be a natural alliance? They are both centre-left governments, both democracies and presumably interested in democracy promotion in South America. The Obama administration aspires to multilateralism and engagement with allies and foe which should dovetail neatly, if not seamlessly, with Brazil’s aims to become a major international actor; the US should reach out to Brazil so that Brazil can flex its muscles (no matter how controlled the flexing would be).

The first bump in the road was the coup in Hondurasin June, which sparked a clash of wills between the US and Brazil over how best to settle it. ‘Our concern,’ said Lula’s foreign-policy adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is that Washington’s push to legitimise the Honduran elections ‘will introduce the “theory of the preventive coup”’ – an extension of Bush’s doctrine of preventive war – ‘in Latin America’.

Then the Obama administration let it be known it was going forward with plans to lease seven military bases in Colombia.

Next came Washington’s decision to pick a fight with Brazil over a visit by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Obama sending a letter to Lula reminding him of his international obligations. The tone of the letter must have annoyed someone high up in Lula’s foreign-policy team, who leaked it to the press. This further irritated the US.

You cannot expect others to act in the same way you want them to (even though they might seem to be natural allies) or even accept your judgements (oh sovereign one) and policies without some retaliatory action (neo-/realism preaches insecurity and action begets reaction). Also do not interfere in other states’ affairs (especially in an arrogant manner, it might insult them and even states can get petty).

As in all politics “anything you say or do can and will be used against you in the” international arena. It might be “preventive war” to save your citizens today, tomorrow it’s “preventive coup.” Today it’s converting the heathen and civilising the barbarians, tomorrow it could be foreign intervention in sovereign affairs.

Finally there was Copenhagen. Lula showed up at the climate conference with an ambitious pledge to reduce Brazil’s carbon output by 40 per cent before 2020 and to slow deforestation of the Amazon by 80 per cent. After the conference ended with a tepid statement and no fixed plan to move forward, Brazil strongly criticised Obama’s leadership. ‘Do something, Obama,’ said Carlos Minc, Lula’s environmental minister, ‘or return the Nobel Prize.’

In a unipolar world, without the “hegemon” being willingand ableto police the world and whip other states into shape, nothing will be done. If there is a hegemon, and it is unable or unwilling to show an example, leading to failure in achieving collective world action, that hegemon will be blamed, whether it is at fault or not.

Insiders report that top officials in the State Department are furious with what they see as Brazil’s third-world grandstanding. They would do better to focus their ire at domestic targets, for the real obstacles to progress in US-Latin American relations are not to be found in Caracas, Managua or Brasilia, but much closer to home.

Obama could have used the Honduran crisis to showcase his ‘new multilateralism’, working with Brazil to restore democracy. But the legislative Republican right, led by two first-term senators, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Florida’s George LeMieux, pushed the other way. The White House caved.

The president could have scaled back plans for US military expansion in Colombia. But that would have meant rethinking a failed, decades’ long, multi-billion dollar, bipartisan War on Drugs – from which the Pentagon, influential US private security firms like DynCorp and blue-state based defence contractors like Connecticut’s United Technologies all profit – and Obama has other wars to extricate himself from.

He could have made some concessions to Brazil’s agricultural sector, promising to reduce tariffs and subsidies. But another senator, Charles Grassley, representing the corn state of Iowa – and the interests of Monsanto – put a hold on Thomas Shannon’s confirmation as ambassador to Brazil until the White House pledged not to.

The White House could move quicker to normalise relations with Cuba, as Brazil, along with the rest of Latin America, has long demanded. But that would mean taking on the Cuba lobby. After Grassley dropped his hold, LeMieux froze Shannon’s nomination until he was sure there would be no Cuba opening. The ability of unimpressive politicians to paralyse US foreign relations is summarised in the fitful progress of Shannon’s nomination: in between Grassley and LeMieux, DeMint stopped the confirmation until Obama turned on Honduras.

Obama could also try to come up with a new vision for a hemisphere-wide post-crisis political economy, one that abandons failed neoliberal prescriptions and tries to balance Latin American calls for sustainability, equity and development with the demands of corporate balance sheets. But the Democratic Party is the Wall Street party. Obama has long since abandoned his pledge to renegotiate Nafta, and there are indications that he will soon endorse the stalled free-trade agreement with Colombia – objectionable not only because of the country’s high body count but because the treaty would grant foreign corporations the right to overturn national environmental laws and would require the liberalisation of Colombia’s financial sector, including the deregulation of disruptive ‘hot money’ speculation.

Lula, no less than Obama, operates within constraints. Brazil has powerful agricultural, financial, and industrial sectors and a large, interest-aware military. But like most of the rest of South America, it also has a vibrant, influential left that holds politicians accountable. In the presidential elections later this year, Lula’s Worker’s Party is being challenged from the left by Lula’s former environment minister, Marina Silva – one reason for his strong stance in Copenhagen.

“Unimpressive” legislators looking after number 1 (their image to the kingmakers –the electorate) while holding up a major (ambassador to the closest power) executive appointment, which shows one of the drawbacks of the much needed separation of power for protection against tyranny (of the majority but not in these cases of minority tyranny- “paralyse US foreign affairs”). It also shows the serious implications of protection against majority tyranny by providing a veto to the minority on legislation that affects the minority’s interests.

Special interests, such as the military-industrial complex, Wall Street (financial markets), political parties and the agricultural sector, can all influence foreign policy even when a government has been given a mandate for its foreign policy (as the phrase is used here in the UK). They can assert influence by donating (or not) to individual campaigns or whole parties (aka BRIBERY ANDCORRUPTIONwhen practiced in the developing world), threatening to move their precious operations overseas (as if they would) and in the case of political parties, factions abstaining or voting against a “whip” on other essential bills (at least threatening to), leadership challenges and votes-of-confidence, as in the British parliamentary system.

All these force policy makers into pursuing certain policies they do not want, even when they know or believe them to be the wrong policies.

The US, in contrast, is still very much in thrall to a vibrant, powerful right. And that leaves Obama little more to offer Latin America than military bases, coups and the empty rhetoric of free trade.

(End of quasi-academic reasoning- ha)

Why do we even have a political right? They have nothing to offer other than these (above), free, open economy and freedom from government except in the case of abortion, same-sex marriage and all the rest that should be banned or supported (marriage). Salute Uganda. Come to think of it, politics is the only thing I want to be on the left of. Oh well, so much for my right-favoured asymmetrically planned life.

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  • Great post. This is exactly the area of news and debate I am following myself. Have you read all the… by on this entry

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