Ambitious Diplomacy, Fading Firepower
Is President Obama turning America into a paper tiger?

A U.S. carrier battle group (U.S. Navy)


President Obama combines a very ambitious diplomacy with declining U.S. military and economic firepower. The result: Other countries gain influence outside negotiations while Obama works patiently to reach agreements in negotiations.

In his first days in office, Obama launched multiple diplomatic initiatives: to reset our relationship with Russia, engage China, jump-start Middle East negotiations, extend an open hand to Iran, and create AfPak (a unified policy for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan). He dispatched a bevy of special envoys to trouble spots around the world. At the same time, he announced a cut in defense outlays by $500 billion over the next ten years — to be followed by another $500 billion if sequestration occurs in January 2013 — and superintended the weakest recovery of the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. He negotiates more and more objectives with fewer and fewer resources.

The purpose of negotiations is either to achieve shared interests or to bargain over conflicting interests. Obama emphasizes the first approach. In Obama’s view, the biggest obstacle to agreement on a wide range of problems is U.S. policy. All countries, he believes, share interests in matters such as nonproliferation, climate change, and economic recovery; and if they are brought together in the right manner — meaning multilaterally and deferentially — they will reach agreement. Under his predecessor, George W. Bush, the United States acted unilaterally and disrespectfully. Change that behavior, and other countries will come around. Declining U.S. military and economic resources are not particularly relevant and may even help to ease the image of American arrogance.

But what if negotiations are not over shared interests but over conflicting ones? What if countries like to live in a world in which their own power expands and their values prevail? Moscow seeks a sphere of privileged interests in the former Soviet zone and feels uncomfortable with democracy in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia itself. Beijing opposes U.S. dominance of Asian sea lanes and fears democracy in Taiwan and political reforms in North Korea. In cases like these, agreement depends on bargaining, and bargaining depends on military and economic resources.

Military and economic capabilities provide three types of leverage: leverage to set the agenda for negotiations, leverage to conclude trade-offs once negotiations are under way, and, most important, leverage to deny negotiating partners their objectives while negotiations are taking place. Ronald Reagan used all three types in his successful bid to end Communism in the Soviet Union. He revved up the U.S. economy and initiated an arms race to negotiate with Moscow from a position of strength. He deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe to have something to trade off against Soviet SS-20 missiles. And he supported freedom fighters in Afghanistan, Central America, and southern Africa to deny Soviet forces the opportunity to expand Moscow’s influence outside negotiations.

Obama operates with none of these sources of leverage. He has cut defense expenditures and oversees a stalled economy; he gives away rather than cultivates bargaining chips to trade off within negotiations; and he merely watches as negotiating partners advance their objectives outside negotiations.