A European Critique of Obama’s Foreign Policy

There’s no longer any question that Europe is feeling a growing sense of frustration with the Obama administration. But for the most part, thecritiques to date have been more on the level of personal rapport andform (how the missile defense decision was announced, for instance)rather than substance. Now, Olivier Debouzy, who Jean-Dominique Merchetdescribes as a “discreet but recognized specialist on strategicmatters,” offers both a structural and policy critique from a European perspective that’s worth noting.

Debouzy begins by arguing that President Barack Obama’s foreign policyis incoherent, something he explains by both the absence in theadministration of a strategist on the level of a Kissinger orScowcroft, and by the divergent poles of power within theadministration’s foreign policy and national security team. What’smore, Obama’s insistence on personally synthesizing the policy optionsproposed by his “Team of Rivals” leaves many decisions unreached,because the president simply not have time for such a role. It alsocarries enormous political risk by making Obama personally accountablefor all of the policy formulations that result.

As for policy, Debouzy argues that transatlantic relations under Obamahave been characterized by “indifference, incomprehension and even acertain amount of annoyance”: indifference, because like hispredecessors, Obama expects Europe to follow America’s lead without questioning;incomprehension, because Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation ofEuropean concerns on its policy toward China and Russia, or for British and French misgivingsabout nuclear disarmament; and annoyance, because Obama is seen to beweak (on Iran), and writing checks (the CTBT) that he can’t cash.

There’s a lot here, some of it more valid than the rest. I’m not sure,for instance, if the Obama foreign policy is incoherent and lackingstrategic focus, so much as it is focused elsewhere than Europe. In particular, theidea that the U.S.-China relationship might take strategic priorityover the transatlantic relationship is understandably unnerving forEurope. But removing the American training wheels from the Europeangeostrategic bicycle will have long-term salutory effects, both forAmerican and for Europe.

On the other hand, I do think Debouzy has identified the Obamaforeign policy shop’s structural flaw: the president is effectively functioning asnational security adviser. That’s not to say that Jim Jones isn’t doinghis job. It’s just that his job has been defined in such a way as tolower it one rung on the decision-making ladder. The costs and benefitsinherent in the use of presidential envoys and the Team of Rivalsconcept were known from the start. And Jones’ job has been designed to maximizethe benefits — namely, shepherding the multiplicity of opinions itgenerates, as opposed to filtering them.

But the major cost remains that the president is entering the processat a much earlier stage of policy formulation. Obama’s willingness toentertain such a broad spectrum of opinion was, of course, one of hismajor appeals as a candidate, especially compared to the Bushadministration’s hostility to divergent opinion. But I agree with Debouzy that he would benefitfrom the kind of strategic guidance, and distance, that a morevisionary NSA could provide.

With that in mind, who would the primary candidates be for that job? I’m curious to hear suggestions.

More World Politics Review