Time for American leadership | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 22.03.2014
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Time for American leadership

Drones and sanctions as opposed to expensive military interventions: Obama's foreign policy strategy is shifting. Experts say he wants a light military footprint - however the Ukraine crisis may challenge that premise.

The situation in Ukraine is Europe's biggest security threat since the Cold War and the most difficult foreign affairs crisis in Barack Obama's term of office, according to Nicholas Burns, political scientist at Harvard University.

"I think President Obama has two great challenges. One of course is to respond with Germany and other countries to Vladimir Putin's aggression in Crimea and the Ukraine," he told DW. "And I think there is a big challenge that the United States face in Asia from Chinese expansionism in the South and East China Sea."

Two challenges - one consequence: "This is the time for American leadership," said Burns, who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs at the State Department under former President George W. Bush from 2005 until 2008.

"It's the time that we need to call NATO together. There have to be close ties between Europe and the US," he said. Burns thinks the US is capable of this leadership. "And we need to see that now from our president."

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun sets sail in the Dardanelles straits, on its way to the Black Sea March

There won't me a militray strike against Russia, experts believe

Since the referendum in Crimea, Obama has been accused of not taking strong action against Putin, especially by Republicans like John McCain. But a military strike against Russia would be fatal, according to Burns, especially given that Ukraine is not a NATO member.

Burns said Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Obama had both been very prudent to say that the response must be threefold. "Number 1: We have to help the government of Ukraine," he said, expaining that Kyiv must receive further financial support.

"Secondly: It's very important that we reaffirm the security commitments to the NATO allies - to Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - the other countries that are near to Ukraine geographically." And Putin must finally pay the price for his illegal actions, Burns added. "And there I think the sanctions make sense."

Rethinking in Washington

For some time now, the US Treasury Department has taken on role of the Pentagon's non-military branch. The guideline has been to move away from expensive, lengthy military interventions and instead fight intelligent wars with drones and sanctions. And to not go it alone.

That's why Obama made support by NATO and the Arab countries a requirement for airstrikes in Libya in 2011. And when former leader Moammar Gadhafi was toppled, America did not further invest in building a democracy, something that some see as a mistake in hindsight.

When the international community refused to launch a military strike in Syria last year, Obama also backpedalled - a bad mistake according to many Republicans. The hesitant stance regarding Syria has shown Putin that the US doesn't follow through with its threats, conservative US congressman Charles Dent told DW. According to him, Putin has been watching the US closely in the past five years.

"He has watched us in our negotiations with the Iranian nuclear program. He has watched us in Syria. He saw the US unilaterally withdraw its missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland."

Dent said it's not surprising that Putin may have arrived at the conclusion that the US doesn't fulfil its various obligations around the world. "And so he saw a vacuum being created that he could fill."

Portrait of Nicholas Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns

Burns says that US foreign policy is losing its effectiveness

Former diplomat Burns also thinks pulling back from Syria sent a wrong signal. "We drew a line in the sand and said if Syria crossed it, there would be penalties and there weren't penalties. So I think that was a mistake. But I don't think it's fair to somehow depict the US as soft or naive or having too much of a light footprint," he said.

Enduring power

It's quite the opposite,according to Bruce Jones from the Washington think tank Brookings Institution. "The US is not a power in decline; it's an enduring power," said Jones, who has just published the book "Still Ours to Lead."

"There are other actors on the world stage - that is true," he said. "But the strength of the American political system, the economic system, its military capability, its innovation, its high technology, our rapidly growing population, our young population, a huge boom in energy resources - that all shows that the US is an enduring power on the world stage."

According to Jones, the US is still a dominant military power. "When you add up the American military capability and economic capability with that of its allies, the west still has roughly 70 percent of the world economy and an overwhelming military capability," he said. The hesitation to go to war, he says, is a result of the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US foreign policy in a transition phase

Michael Werz PhD

Werz says the US foreign policy is stuck between two phases

Since the end of those two wars, Obama's foreign policy strategy has been in the process of developing and evolving, says Michael Werz from the Center for American Progress in Washington.

"And that's not because the White House or the US State Department don't have enough ideas, but because we're currently in a transition phase in which not only traditional forms of military disputes don't work anymore," he told DW.

The difficulty is that "the conflicts have become asymmetrical. You cannot enter conflicts with military power alone anymore," Werz said. That's one dimension. "The other one is that there is a huge geographical shift toward the Pacific Rim that's only in its initial phase."

The Obama administration has tried to react to these large tectonic changes with various initiatives. For one Obama is trying to create a network with future partners in democratic states, according to Werz. "His large investments in Turkey, Brazil and India are part of that. What's also part of it is a new orientation of the US foreign policy in the Pacific Rim, especially regarding the relationship to China."

The Obama administration is caught in a bind when it comes to its foreign policy, according to Werz. "It's stuck between the old conflicts of the 20th century - Palestine and the Middle East - and the future challenges of the 21st century in the Pacific Rim," he said. That transition, he added, is likely to take a couple of decades.

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