TWQ: Strategic Engagement’s Track Record - Summer 2010
July 1, 2010
The word often used to describe President Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy is ‘‘engagement.’’ Obama has expressed his instinctive willingness to talk to the enemies of the United States, promised a new era of engagement with the Muslim world, extended an olive branch to Iran, spoken of his desire to engage new partners in global governance, and articulated a vision of international politics premised on the existence of shared interests among nations. Yet, engagement is an amorphous and vague concept. Its purpose, parameters, and promise remain unclear. To some, it is a tactic, not a strategy.
The Obama administration’s strategy of engagement, hereafter called strategic engagement, can be best understood as the first part of a worldview developed during the 2000s whereby U.S. foreign policy was conceptualized into two—engagement to build cooperative partnerships with those states and non-state actors who operate within, or seek to join, the international order, and war, containment, or coercive diplomacy toward those—such as terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and North Korea—who seek to undermine, destroy, or operate outside of it. Strategic engagement is premised on the assumption that most states increasingly share the same interests, and it seeks to increase global cooperation near to the heights achieved among Western countries during the Cold War.
The Obama administration has disaggregated strategic engagement into five components: engaging civilizations, allies, new partners, adversaries, and institutions. Strategic engagement began as a foreign policy experiment with hypotheses about how states were likely to respond to the offer of greater cooperation. But now, after almost a year and a half of the Obama administration, there is a track record that can be used to test its assumptions and propositions, and adjust course accordingly—keeping the ideas that have been validated and amending those that have not.
The principal challenge facing the United States is to blend engagement and competition to advance its vision of international order. What linkages among issues can it create, and what multilateral mechanisms, including coalitions, can provide alternatives to more inclusive forums that may be prone to deadlock because of diverging interests?