Skye Thomas

Skye Thomas
Writer, Rebel, and Soapbox Ranter

Friday, February 03, 2006

Analysis: State of the Union

In Focus
Analysis: State of the Union

Analysis: State of the Union by Marco Vicenzino

As President Bush marked the start of his second term during last year's State of the Union address, the debate revolved around the continuation and consolidation of the Bush revolution in foreign policy triggered by the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. For many, it was within Mr. Bush's discretion to determine its pace and establish his legacy. However, one year later and with significantly less political capital, Mr. Bush's ability to determine its course has waned, causing a considerable shift in the American foreign policy debate. An early pro-active presidency which shaped events has been largely replaced by a more reactive but pragmatic presidency whose legacy may be ultimately determined by events beyond its control. Although this revolution is largely irreversible, its consequences and implications for U.S. foreign policy for the next generation and beyond are not yet clearly ascertainable, particularly the administration policy of transformation in the Middle East.

After 9/11 there was little transatlantic disagreement on the nature of the new threats to global peace and security. However, seeking a common approach remained the fundamental challenge. A new transatlantic relationship based more on common interests, and not simply common values, has been slowly emerging since last year. Although the transatlantic gap is narrowed, significant differences still exist.

The principal area where this transatlantic relationship will be forged remains the Middle East. Although Iraq proved to be the relationship's low-point in recent years, Iran could potentially be the high-point provided the united front currently on display persists. The outcome, whether positive or negative, is likely to determine the future of the transatlantic alliance.

Close cooperation on other regional issues such as Lebanon (particularly between the U.S. and France) and the Hamas victory in recent elections has also reinvigorated ties. Furthermore, the rarely publicized solid transatlantic working relationship on terrorism, principally since 9/11, has been regularly overshadowed by Iraq and other challenges.

Europe's increasing presence and assumption of greater responsibility in Afghanistan has further invigorated the relationship. The challenges are enormous but not insurmountable. The NATO states must continue to demonstrate a long-term collective commitment to this effort. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the present Afghan leadership and ordinary citizens that can guarantee long-term success.

The transatlantic approach to the rise of China differs. Whereas Europeans view China as an economic opportunity, the U.S. views it both as a benefit and risk, largely due to an unexplained astronomical rise in military spending and militant nationalism, particularly amongst its youth. Last spring's massive anti-Japanese demonstrations, led primarily by the young, were suddenly defused and reined in by Chinese authorities when they realized the potential of a “blowback” effect, that is, the demonstration could have turned on the government. Concerning China's rapid military expansion, conflicting messages emanate from the Chinese leadership. Although there is a clear consensus that global power status is the aim, its precise context may be fiercely debated within the upper echelons of Chinese power. Statements from the Foreign Ministry echo what China optimists want to hear, while the rhetoric from the Defense Ministry fuels alarmists who view China as focused on global domination.

The peaceful but rapidly growing Chinese colossus will inevitably present long-term strategic competition to the U.S., and is increasingly being perceived as an immediate threat. For Mr. Bush, it is mostly an issue for his successors to deal with, unless a confrontation over Taiwan unexpectedly arises. Strengthening the strategic partnership, formalized in July 2005, with an economically and diplomatically emerging India, largely aims to curb China's growing influence in the region and beyond. However, congressional support for the administration's nuclear understanding with India and India's stance on Iran remain challenging obstacles in this new, largely untested partnership.

Talks with North Korea within the context of the six-party talks will drag on indefinitely for the foreseeable future, which remains in North Korea's interests, particularly to continue extracting concessions from South Korea. North Korea astutely manipulates this forum by exploiting South Korea's fear of the North's overnight collapse and the aftermath. The August 2005 diplomatic breakthrough at the six-party talks allowed all to express satisfaction but was interpreted differently. For the North Koreans it was a statement in principle on the basis that future conditions and concessions are made. For the U.S., it was viewed as North Korea's vow to denuclearize. The breakthrough was a desperately-needed landmark and demonstration of short-term success in a long-term diplomatic process which may easily extend into the next presidential administration and in which success is far from guaranteed.

China's role as the principal provider of energy resources to North Korea remains crucial. The reality is that the U.S. will have to make concessions in return for North Korea cooperation in disarming its nuclear arsenal. Whether such an agreement endures will depend on North Korea's willingness to comply with inspections which must be verifiable, transparent, continuous and consistent.

Mr. Bush's original warm relationship with Russia's President Putin has been steadily deteriorating. Russia's increasing use of oil as a geopolitical weapon, most recently with Ukraine and arguably Georgia, is causing growing concern, particularly in Europe which depends significantly upon Russia for energy supplies. Upcoming elections in Ukraine and Belarus will likely downscale relations with the West, which may lead Mr. Putin to keep a lower profile but exert influence more discreetly. However, should Russia's solution to the emerging crisis with Iran prove successful, it should win Mr. Putin enough political capital with the west as it heads the G8 summit this year.

In conclusion, the foreign policy agenda outlined in this year's State of the Union is far from the perfect situation which optimists advocated or set out to achieve in Mr. Bush's first term. However, the complete nightmare scenario which pessimists had predicted has not yet fully materialized.

Whatever progress may have been achieved in foreign policy in the past year results less from any policies emanating from ideological grand designs and more of a result of pragmatic responses to often unpredictable circumstances caused by a greater shift to realism during the second Bush administration, triggered more by necessity and less by choice.

Whether America is able sustain its ambitious foreign policy, with its spiraling national debt, its overextended armed forces and the will and appetite of the American public for a greater role in world affairs, remains a major challenge for the second Bush administration. Necessity demands active engagement from allies. Failure to confront these challenges together and prudently will lead to greater global turbulence and turmoil. Ultimately, we will all suffer the consequences.

Marco Vicenzino is the founder and Executive Director of the Global Strategy Project. He served as Deputy Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (IISS-US) in Washington, DC, and is an international attorney. He is a graduate of Oxford University and Georgetown University Law Center and has taught International Law at the School of International Service of American University. He can be contacted at

Articles appearing in Viewpoints do not represent the views of the Foreign Policy Association and are the sole opinions of the author. If you have an article you'd like to to be considered for Viewpoints, email an inquiry to

No comments: