Event ReportsPublished on Jul 31, 2015
The US needs to have a more practical approach combating the Islamic State, and it needs to collaborate with partner countries to end Islamic radicalism, according to a scholar from the Center for American Progress.
America's evolving foreign policy debate

The external challenges from "authoritarian governments like Russia and China" could lead the US into following a more hard-line foreign policy path, according to Mr. Brian Katulis, Senior Researcher at the Center for American Progress.

Speaking at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, on ’America’s Evolving Foreign Policy Debate’ on July 21, Mr Katulis said the US relationship with China is not defined by threats, rather it is defined by US objectives and goals. He also spoke about the possibility of a return to fear-based politics regarding American national security issues.

He said that there is hyper polarization and sharp divisions along party lines on foreign policy matters which continually impact America’s security dynamics with its allies.

Katulis gave example of the Iran nuclear deal which is intensely resisted by the Republicans. He also pointed out divisions within the Democratic Party on issues of international trade - the TPP and TTIP. This hyper-polarisation is increasingly becoming detrimental to American foreign policy making and according to Katulis, the Republicans are focusing more on rhetoric rather than coming up with strong alternatives.

On account of transnational threats like climate change, cyber security and Ebola, Katulis said that the US needs to work with partners to resolve these crises which affect all the countries.

Katulis said the United States is undergoing a structural change in its foreign policy engagements. American foreign policy decision making is becoming more realistic and pragmatic about the exercise of American power and influence in the world. From the start of his office in the White House, President Obama had a vision of forward engagement. President Obama has neither been hawkish nor dovish in his foreign policy engagements. Instead, President Obama’s foreign policy has been pragmatic regarding the limits of American power and increasingly less dependent on ideological imperatives.

He noted that the foreign policy of Obama, who is in the seventh year of his office, reflects this pragmatism of unbinding foreign policy to notions of democracies and human rights. Instead, his administration has focused on engaging adversaries like Iran and Cuba and expanding prosperity by working with allies and partners.

In the post-Cold War period, there was a sense of "American exceptionalism" as the US entered the "unipolar moment". However by the end of the Bush administration, an overstretched economy and the quagmire of two wars demonstrated the limits of American power. Assuming office in 2008, President Obama sought to bring incremental changes to end the global war on terror, military actions against the Al-Qaeda and withdraw large-scale American forces. Katulis said the limits of American power were seen in Iraq and Afghanistan which stressed the need for greater collaboration with partner countries.

He said the US needs to have a more practical approach combating the Islamic State and have realistic goals regarding Israel-Palestine reconciliation. With regard to the Islamic State, which poses a grave security challenge not only in the region, but also to the entire world, the US needs to collaborate with partner countries to end Islamic radicalism.

Katulis explained that the Obama administration has strived to chart a foreign policy that would outlive the administration and shape the contours of foreign policy making in the coming years. As part of his long-term strategy, President Obama has focused on developing robust partnerships with India, Japan and Africa. US-India bilateral relations serve as a template for foreign partnerships where two countries collaborate together on multiple issues.

Katulis pointed out that the US is also heavily invested in the Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific policy and its economic arm trade agenda i.e. the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Katulis’ presentation was followed by a lively discussion and a Q&A session. Katulis said that American foreign policy making is undergoing a structural change in response to a question on whether US foreign policy is undergoing a structural change or a strategic adaptation. He said the sense of American exceptionalism has fewer takers in the US and there is a notion of restraint and humility of American power. A vast majority of the young population in the US is more concerned with issues and long term threats like climate change, racial discriminations and gun-laws.

Answering questions pertaining to Chinese military assertiveness and increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, Katulis said that there is an overall consensus among the US policy makers that there is a need to engage China. He said while strengthening economic ties with China, the US also needs to have a firm policy on issues which negatively impacts relations such as cyber security.

Katulis concluded his talk by stating that ever since President Obama was elected the US foreign policy strategy and the instruments of power and influence have become progressively pragmatic. The goal of the Obama administration is to strike a new balance between defence and diplomacy.

The talk was chaired by Dr C Raja Mohan and attended by scholars and diplomats.

(This report was prepared by Sylvia Mishra, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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