In this Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank Group, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state, examines how President Obama “has failed to offset retrenchment with a strategic initiative.”
When President Obama assumed office, he wanted to reverse what he perceived as President Bush’s overreach in foreign policy. He determined on withdrawal from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the risks of unraveling that we are witnessing today. Then his administration failed to offset retrenchment with a strategic initiative. In contrast, as America retreated from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger seized the strategic initiative by opening relations with China and resetting the geopolitical chessboard to U.S. advantage.
Even cautious leaders, such as Mr. Obama, need to shape events rather than just react to them. The “prudent” George H.W. Bush steered a peaceful end to the Cold War and reversed Iraq’s aggression, while also laying foundations for the future through an enlarged North Atlantic Treaty Organization; by negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement; with global trade negotiations that created the World Trade Organization, Central America and Middle East peace processes; and by promoting the start of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
There are opportunities today to adapt the world to America’s benefit that do not involve U.S. military force. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations could advance international trading rules while underscoring U.S. economic interests in East Asia and Europe.
But the trade talks are faltering because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has blocked a vote on the president’s request for Trade Promotion Authority, which allows a president to submit a trade agreement to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote. Even though the president has Republican support, he has not insisted on getting the key congressional committees to at least begin action on Trade Promotion Authority. Mr. Obama’s lack of commitment leads U.S. trading partners to hesitate. As negotiating momentum slows, the emboldened opponents of open trade circle to strike.
The combination of energy innovation across North America and Mexico’s bold economic reforms creates an opportunity to build a stronger continental economic base. Mr. Obama should capitalize on this opportunity with new North American energy infrastructure, upgrades of Nafta, modernized and faster border crossings, and partnerships on issues ranging from human capital to security. The U.S. should be helping Mexico’s reformers show the benefits of liberalization through, for example, grid interconnections that would lower electricity costs. Yet the Obama administration has instead thwarted North American integration by blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada and blocking the participation of Mexico and Canada in the TTIP negotiations with Europe.
The tragedy of Central America’s children fleeing the violence and poverty of their home countries is a sad reminder of the security risks south of the border. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton worked with his Colombian counterpart and a Republican Congress to design Plan Colombia, an initiative to foster better security and governance in a country torn apart by terrorists and narco-traffickers. Today, Colombia is a successful democratic partner in the region. A new Plan Central America to promote better security, governance and economic development in the region should mobilize support from Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Canada.
The U.S. also needs a new partnership with Germany, the most important country in Europe. The first step should be a customized intelligence arrangement. The U.S. government doesn’t need to spy on Chancellor Angela Merkel or the German Bundestag, but it does need information on terrorists. Despite an embarrassing incident, the administration ignored German political opinion and bungled again by paying an inept spy to get information of questionable use.
The best antidote to Russian aggression is for Ukraine to become a successful democracy with a strong economy. If Ukraine makes economic reforms, as it is starting to do, the U.S. and Europe need to mobilize more resources. We can choose to invest in success or pay the price of failure. We need to work with Ukraine’s political factions as they build a republic worthy of its courageous people. And we should provide Ukrainians with weapons and intelligence to resist the Russian subversion strategy that NATO’s Supreme Commander Phil Breedlove recently described in an op-ed for this newspaper. The U.S. must also reinforce East European NATO allies in their efforts to improve defenses against Russia’s use of sleeper cells, cyberattacks, and internal strife.
The Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia hasn’t fared much better than its “reset” with Russia. Since the Sunnylands Summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping more than a year ago, the administration hasn’t taken steps to define what it and Beijing are calling “a new type of great power relationship.” China’s economic reformers seek to increase consumption, expand service industries and open capital markets, goals that could fit well with U.S. interests, while China’s defense hawks seek to push the U.S. out of the Western Pacific. Yet the administration appears to have no one connecting the strands of Sino-American relations. The U.S. will be better positioned to deal with China if it strengthens ties with longtime allies in the Pacific, especially overcoming tensions between Japan and South Korea.
The wider Middle East now faces a long period of upheaval—with conflicts between Sunni and Shia, Arabs and Persians, and tribes and modernizers. The rapid expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham shows the danger of disengagement. If the U.S. does not want to fight enemies directly, it needs to supply partners who share our interests—whether they be Kurds, Free Syrians, or tribal leaders. Instead, both friendly Gulf States and Israel fear they cannot count on the U.S.
The president can also take a strategic lead through actions at home. The House and Senate have passed competing bills to strengthen private-sector cybersecurity, with no compromise in sight. As a matter of national security, the president should press Congress to reach a compromise.
President Obama must do more than claim to be on the right side of history. His predecessors shaped history. The rest of the world is watching to see if the U.S. will again mold the world to mutual advantage.