Foreign policy is like gardening, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, more than once remarked. And it begins, he pointed out, by making sure that relations with America’s neighbors, key allies, and friends remain regularly and well-tended. It is an axiom of foreign policy that the Obama administration is ignoring to its own detriment.
There has been abundant criticism about the way the United States has handled its relations with Russia, China, and an unfolding succession of crises in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and now Israel-Palestine – much of its justified. But there is also a major, growing problem in America’s relations with its key allies, where it is not only losing friends but also its capacity for influence.
U.S. relations with Germany – Europe’s economic and political juggernaut – have sunk to an all-time low. Edward Snowden’s revelations that U.S. intelligence operatives were conducting widespread operations in Germany, including tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, enraged Germans. Memories of East Germany’s Ministry of State Security (Stasi) major intrusion into the private lives of ordinary citizens during the Cold War are still raw, and U.S. insensitivity to Germans’ strongly held belief in the last right to privacy has cost relations dearly.
But the problem does not stop there. Germany’s decision on Thursday to expel the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Station chief is unprecedented in allied relations. The fallout will be felt not just in joint intelligence and security operations, where Germany and U.S. intelligence agencies have historically worked closely together, but the fall-out may be felt in other key areas of cooperation such as Russia-Ukraine, nuclear talks with Iran, and U.S.-EU free trade negotiations.
The health of U.S. relations with key allies is not much better across the Pacific. The Japanese government's recent decision that it would reinterpret its constitution and lift the ban on collective self defense – the biggest shift in Japanese defense policy in 70 years – has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Japanese fears about China’s growing military assertiveness are clearly behind the move, but so too are Japanese doubts about the strength its alliance with the U.S. at a time when the U.S. defense budget is shrinking and Washington is sending mixed and confusing signals to the region.
George Shultz also once wisely remarked that “foreign policy starts with your neighborhood.” It was the reason why his first two trips as Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed Secretary of State were to Canada and Mexico respectively. It was also the reason why his boss paid as much attention to North American relations as he did, with those efforts culminating in the 1988 Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement and, subsequently, NAFTA.
Today, U.S. relations with Mexico are being overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis at the border, a situation unlikely to improve anytime soon. Relations with Canada look more like a weed patch than a garden on just about any issue, be it trade, energy, border management, or joint infrastructure development. Of course, you would never know it given the sycophantic reportage by some members of the Canadian media. Those who have defended U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman’s clumsy remark that the relationship is currently no worse than a new car with a scratch – or choose myopically to blame their own government – ignore crucial facts about Canada’s national interests: Permission for the Keystone XL pipeline – now in its sixth year of deliberations – have been postponed yet again; the Administration has failed to advance expenditures for U.S. Customs facilities on the new Windsor–Detroit bridge, the full cost of which Canada is already shouldering; protectionist label requirements on Canadian beef and tighter Buy America provisions are adding additional strains to cross-border trade. The list goes on.
Irritants aside, the real problem is that the Obama administration has shown little capacity for imagination and executive leadership during its six years in office to tap the extraordinary potential in NAFTA and the major dividends that would flow from much greater levels of co-operation among the “three amigos.” A coherent negotiating strategy on trade using the highly integrated nature of its three economies as leverage would be to enormous mutual advantage in trade negotiations with Europe and Asia. Using the weight of its three democracies with the human capital of almost 500 million people and a continent rich in resources such as energy and agriculture, North America could be a global economic and political powerhouse. Just think how much better North America would be as a united force contending with 1.3 billion Chinese and with other major economies. Alas under Obama, NAFTA, the world’s biggest and most successful trading bloc has been sputtering and barely running on idle. Instead, America follows a ‘hub and spoke’ strategy on TPP (the TransPacific Partnership) to feather exclusively its own nest.
The malaise in North America is symptomatic of a broader diminution of America’s global role and prestige. The President’s approval ratings, notably on foreign policy, are at an all-time low. He is seen increasingly as disengaged on policy –foreign and domestic – and focused essentially on campaign fund-raising while the world is becoming a more violent and dangerous place. The need for a more resilient and confident America is stronger than ever but, without a firm political hand at the helm, the war weary American public will prefer to avoid global engagement and demand attention to problems at home. That is all the more reason why America needs friends to share the burdens of global leadership. But neglect by Washington, whether benign or worse, is not likely to encourage much more than a waiting game by America’s closest allies and neighbours.