Since Barack Obama became president back in January, his administration has launched a dizzying array of foreign policy initiatives. They've "pushed the reset button" with Russia, gotten serious about a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and doubled down in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama has extended an open-hand to Iran, made a major speech to the Muslim world, pressed ahead on climate change, and talked about major reductions in nuclear arsenals. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden added a few more items to the agenda just last week, suggesting that the United States might extend a security umbrella in the Middle East should Iran develop nuclear weapons, reaffirming U.S. security commitments in South and South-east Asia, and cozying up (a bit gingerly) to controversial Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. And Clinton’s earlier speech to the Council on Foreign Relations made it clear that she thinks that nothing much is going to get done without active U.S. involvement (while noting that the United States couldn’t do it all alone).
On the one hand, these initiatives (and Obama's own charisma) have gone some distance toward repairing America's tarnished international image. A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed a significant improvement in America's image around the world, and especially among U.S. allies in Europe. Chalk one up for a democratic system: holding regular elections does allow a country to get rid of incompetent leaders and hope for something better.
But the fact that more people around the world have a "favorable" impression of the United States does not mean that their governments are going to roll over and give Washington whatever it wants. Indeed, there are already signs that Obama’s ambitious agenda is facing significant resistance. India and China are not on board with Obama's proposals for a climate change agreement, which means that the entire project is in jeopardy. The Afghan and Pakistani governments are expressing reservations about U.S. strategy in Central Asia, and the past record suggests that neither government will play straight with Washington when dealing with the jihadi issue. North Korea remains defiant and Iran shows no sign of succumbing to Obama's charm offensive. Israel is digging in its heels on settlements and America's Arab friends are reluctant to begin normalizing relations with Israel in the absence of genuine (as opposed to rhetorical) progress towards a two-state solution. Even the Europeans stiffed the administration on its proposals for coordinating responses to the economic crisis, and key NATO allies are doing less in Afghanistan even as the United States does more. Trouble spots like Somalia or Sudan remain as intractable as ever, and I haven't even mentioned drug violence in Mexico or anti-Americanism in other parts of Latin America.
Moreover, trying to advance the ball on so many different fronts simultaneously carries its own risks. In particular, it provides governments that are opposed to some or all of Washington's agenda with an obvious way to respond: they can "just say no." In Taming American Power, I labeled this strategy "balking," (a term suggested to me by Seyom Brown) and I argued that it was a common way for weak states to prevent a dominant power from imposing its will. In a world where the United States remains significantly stronger than any other power, few states want to get into a direct test of strength with Washington. But American power is not so vast that it can simply snap its fingers and expect everyone to do its bidding.
Why? Because exercising leverage is itself costly, and the more you do in one area, the more latitude that opponents somewhere else are likely to have. There are still only 24 hours in a day, and the White House can't devote equal attention and political capital to every issue. So states that don’t want to do what Obama wants can delay, dither, obfuscate, drag their feet, or just say no, knowing that the United States doesn’t have the resources, attention span, staying power, or political will to force their compliance now or monitor it afterwards.
An even better tactic (perfected by a number of close U.S. allies) is to pretend to comply with American wishes while blithely going ahead with their own agendas. So NATO allies promise to increase their defense efforts but never manage to do much; Israel promises to stop building settlements but somehow the number of illegal settlers keeps growing, the Palestinians pledge to reform but make progress at a glacial pace, Pakistan suppresses jihadis with one hand and subsidizes them with the other, Iran agrees to negotiate but continues to enrich, China says it will crack down on copyright violations but the problem remains pervasive, and so on.
In On War, Carl von Clausewitz famously described what he termed the "friction" of warfare; the accumulated set of minor obstacles and accidents that made even the simplest of objectives difficult to achieve. The same problem can arise in foreign policy: even when everything is simple, "the simplest things are very difficult." States that oppose what the United States is trying to do have lots of ways of increasing that friction without triggering an actual crisis. In other words, Obama's foreign policy may fail not because he loses some dramatic confrontation, but simply because a whole array of weaker actors manage to grind him down. In this scenario he doesn't get vanquished, just "nibbled to death by ducks."
Obama took office with energy, a new vision, an experienced team, and lengthy "to-do" list. But one can already sense the forward motion slowing, which will encourage opponents to dig their heels in deeper and throw more obstacles in his path. If the administration keeps trying to do everything at once, there is a real danger that their actual foreign policy achievements will be quite modest. The sooner they decide which goals they think they can actually bring off, and focus their energies there, the more likely they are to succeed. And a few tangible successes now might actually make the other items on their agenda easier to accomplish later on.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.