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Thursday
15Jan

Charles Kupchan at RUSI

Charles Kupchan, After Bush: Can Liberal Interventionism Be Revived in the United States?

Wednesday 14 January 2009, Royal United Services Institute

In October 2008, RUSI was crowned Thinktank of the Year in the Prospect Magazine Awards, the citation for which praised its ideological shift from the right to the centre ground. Following on from incoming US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments about “smart power” and a new era of American diplomacy, there could not be a better time or place to hear noted Democrat Charles Kupchan discussing the centrist foreign policy challenge facing the Obama administration.

RUSI’s wood-panelled library was full for this evening lecture, and Kupchan, a likable and fluent speaker, did not disappoint the assembled ambassadors, military officers and policy wonks, although his message was a sobering one. His question: can Obama reclaim the bipartisan centre of US politics? His answer: a cautious and optimistic 'maybe’.

For Kupchan, the idea of liberal interventionism hinges on the trinity of power, partnership, and free trade, in which the US should revive its international presence through consensus, not coercion. Despite departing President Bush’s assertion to the contrary, the American international profile has been severely damaged over the last eight years, and Clinton’s comments suggest that rebuilding the image of US in the world will be a priority for Barack Obama. “Smart power” may be smart words dispelling any hint of Rumsfeldian “hard power”, but they also suggest that “soft power” alone will not satisfy either Obama or the US electorate. The phrase, “an iron fist in a velvet glove”, springs to mind, and we know that Obama will not be withdrawing, for example, from Afghanistan any time soon. Clinton has already laid the basis for an improved multilateral relationship with Europe but it will be up to Obama to convince the world that the US can move away from Bush-era unilateralism in favour of a more inclusive foreign policy. At the same time, Obama wishes to retain a strong military and the freedom to use it as he sees fit.

Kupchan suggests that the next few years will be characterised by “retrenchment” and “inconstancy”. A tired military means that a “lightening of the load” will be required, which mitigates against an isolationist America. The US will have to pursue a more modest brand of foreign policy, for practical reasons as much as ideological ones. At the same time, Kupchan proposes that “flip-flopping” may occur as a result of a rotating cast of presidents.

This is key to Kupchan’s thesis. Whilst Obama might be able to convince the world of a renewed American mindset, he is likely to face severe battles at home, principally in retaining the centre ground in a sorely divided domestic political landscape. A relatively strong victory in the election hides the reality of congressional politics, as well as an American electorate that is likely to return newly blue states to their more traditional red. For Kupchan, it is these structural obstacles that may hinder Obama’s chances of steering a centrist foreign policy agenda through Congress, let alone strengthening that consensus in the mid-terms and 2012 presidential election. Not only are the Democrats likely to find it very difficult to assure workable majorities in Congress, but the party itself is split between the “far left”, under-represented in the new administration, and the centrists, who have a certain affinity to more traditional Republicans. A skilled chief executive he may be, but Obama will have to run a very tight ship if he is not to become the victim of political infighting in his own party, or scuttled by Congress.

As a good liberal European, I am, like Kupchan, optimistic about future American foreign policy, and about Obama. But anyone who thinks that the US is about to reverse the disastrous foreign policy of Bush II overnight is kidding themselves, no matter how attractive that hope may be. Clinton has shown herself to be both hawk and dove, and Obama chose her for a reason. Kupchan argues that although an era of liberal internationalism is within the grasp of the new US president, we should be cautious in expecting too much, too soon. Although Obama’s election is a watershed, it is not, Kupchan suggests, a revolution.

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