Taking office earlier this year, the Obama administration promised to pursue “smart power” diplomacy. Eight months in, it seems fair to conclude that the term was a misnomer: “Smart power” diplomacy has so far consisted of unrequited concessions that have emboldened our enemies and dispirited our allies.
Consider Iran. Obama signaled his willingness to engage Iran without preconditions, and stated that he “supports Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections.” Defense Secretary Gates publicly ruled out military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Obama broadcast a Happy New Year video for the Iranian regime. Obama was muted after Iran successfully launched a satellite — despite the connection between ballistic-missile and space-launcher technologies — and largely remained silent as Iranian leaders presided over a rigged election and spearheaded a brutal crackdown on the Iranian opposition.
The result? Iran test-fired a missile capable of striking Israel and Western Europe, and it launched another flurry of missiles following the recent G-20 summit. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that he would “never” abandon Iran’s nuclear program. And in a recent meeting with the United States in Geneva, Iran managed through a mix of pseudo-concessions and misdirection to buy more time to develop its nuclear-weapons program. It “agreed in principle” to allow inspections at its Qom facility, but only recently committed to a timeline for those inspections — a timeline that gives Iran weeks to sanitize the site before inspectors arrive. More importantly, Iran said nothing about inspections at its Natanz plant, where it is already enriching uranium. And it purportedly agreed to send low-enriched uranium to Russia for enrichment, but Iran’s ambassador to Great Britain later denied that any such agreement had been reached. In any event, it is unclear how meaningful this exchange would be, given that Iran has not agreed to freeze its ongoing enrichment efforts.
As for North Korea, in April the Obama administration offered Pyongyang bilateral talks. North Korea spurned the proposal by launching a long-range missile and detonating a nuclear device. It then fired a flurry of missiles, nullified the Korean War truce, threatened to attack South Korea, launched a cyber-attack on the U.S., and declared the six-party talks “dead.” North Korea recently announced that it is enriching uranium as a second means of building nuclear weapons. In a sign of just how low the bar has sunk, Obama has now agreed to one-on-one discussions with North Korea merely to coax Kim Jong Il back into the six-party talks.
Then there’s Russia. Obama signed a nuclear-arms-reduction agreement that linked Moscow’s nuclear cuts to Washington’s limiting or abandoning its missile-defense efforts. Last month, Obama scrapped plans to develop missile-defense shields in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow had long argued that these systems would encroach on its sphere of influence and threaten its nuclear deterrent. In exchange, Russia signed a $2.2 billion arms deal with Venezuela. With respect to Iran, Russia’s president declared that sanctions “rarely lead to productive results,” and said only that he would consider sanctioning Iran. Prime Minister Putin, meanwhile, still openly opposes any new sanctions. Indeed, after Iran test-fired missiles following Obama’s Qom revelation, Russia balked at sanctioning Iran, a country the Kremlin views as “a partner that has never harmed [it] in any way.” This attitude might explain Russia’s anticipated delivery to Iran of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, which will allow Tehran further to fortify its nuclear facilities against a military strike. While Russia has agreed to permit U.S. aircraft to fly through Russian airspace to supply the war effort in Afghanistan, this hardly constitutes a concession, as success against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan will enhance the stability of Central Asia and thus benefit Russia.
Even our allies remain unmoved by Obama’s overtures. Obama announced that he would close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, which was supposedly a key impediment to healthy transatlantic relations. He traveled across Europe, apologizing for President Bush’s alleged abandonment of core U.S. values and explaining that the U.S. can no longer shoulder the burdens of global security alone. His request? Help from Europe on detaining terrorists and fighting the war in Afghanistan. Europe’s response? A few countries agreed to take one or two Guantanamo detainees each. Meanwhile, only Great Britain will send more troops to Afghanistan.
If there has been any “smart power” diplomacy in the last eight months, Obama has found himself on the receiving end of it — outmaneuvered at every turn by countries large and small. Our foes should be patting themselves on the back. Obama’s foreign-policy team, however, needs to take a step back and reassess.
– Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Paul J. Leaf, a Los Angeles attorney, is a former editor of the Stanford Law Review.