On June 21st, President Obama announced the phase-out of troops and moderated drawdown of US involvement in Afghanistan, while also setting a new path for America's involvement abroad. This will be marked by what Obama termed "a more centered course," dictated not by the pure idealism of those who would have America jump to the aid of every embattled state, nor by the isolationism some feel is warranted after an era of global policing.
President Obama said the US must "rally international action" in response to human rights violations across the globe, pointing to the ongoing multilateral intervention in Libya as an example future operations must follow. The implication is that, rather than spreading itself thin fighting fires alone, the US must pass a greater share of responsibility to its European allies and NATO.
Europe has shown a growing appetite for this kind of global peacekeeping, with a successful French-led intervention in the Ivory Coast election dispute serving as the most recent example. But Europe’s colonial history and its relative inexperience leading international peacekeeping missions raises difficult questions about its new role.
How will former colonies, especially in Africa and the Middle East, react to Europe as a peacekeeping force? More fundamentally, do NATO countries have the will and capacity for multiple, extended peacekeeping missions on a global scale? The financial crisis seems to have sapped NATO countries’ willingness to spend on defense. How long before the European decision-making apparatus has its house in order?
Rather than passing the baton solely to the Europeans, Obama’s speech also galvanized other international organizations, notably the United Nations, to play a larger role in crisis management. For this plan to succeed, however, there must be fundamental changes made in America’s collaboration with international bodies.
International institutions remain handicapped by inadequate funding and limited command mandates, to the effect that these institutions cannot respond to international crises quickly or effectively as needed. The United States cannot expect the global community to pick up the slack without endowing international institutions with the ability to respond to crises across the globe.
In his speech, the president also argued that the United States now stands not for empires but for "self-determination". If self-determination does indeed dictate US attitudes toward the independence movements in the Arab world, its actions speak otherwise. Even now, for example, the US maintains that it will veto any Security Council measure to include a Palestinian state in the UN. This contradicts Obama’s rhetorical support for democratic self-determination, and again leaves the Palestinians fighting for recognition without the backing of the most influential mediator in the conflict. Should the US follow through on its veto, Obama’s heady words on self-determination will seem rather empty.
The United States has relied too long on unilateral gamesmanship to guide its foreign policy. US dealings in Iraq and Afghanistan have counted on overwhelming displays of force to demoralize the enemy, but this course of action has become unsustainable. The US must help give international institutions more robust financial and political support to achieve its international goals. This is a far better option than doing nothing, which has been the case as the world witnesses and ignores the ongoing slaughter in Syria.
President Obama has made it clear that the US has set its sights on solving problems at home before it intervenes in any more conflicts abroad. While this is a laudable objective given the fragile state of the US economy, the international community still lacks a credible framework to prevent injustices occurring across the globe. This must be a top priority for the foreign policies of United States and its European allies in the coming months and years.
Emma McNair Diaz is a student at New York University.