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‘American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order’ – A talk by Dr. Robert J. Lieber

By Staff Writer Jia Yao Kuek ‘19

· Jia Yao Kuek

Image from Wikimedia.

At a talk by Dr. Robert J. Lieber, organized by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs on the 22nd of February (with tickets generously provided by the Hopkins International Studies Department), the speaker shared his decisive judgments on the foreign policy success (or lack thereof) of the Obama administration, while also offering a glimpse into his own personal beliefs.

Set against a picturesque backdrop of downtown Baltimore, the talk ran past its scheduled hour-long duration, as participants asked incisive questions about the direction of America’s foreign policy under the Trump administration, as well as the challenges posed by an increasingly multipolar world order. Dr. Lieber started off by raising two main failures of Obama’s foreign policy: A disconnect between the Obama administration and its foreign policy establishment (referred to by former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as ‘the blob’), as well as President Obama’s mistaken dichotomous perception towards American’s scope of foreign policy actions, see-sawing between his personal peace agenda (towards countries such as Iran and Cuba), and the fears of another Iraq War quagmire. Dr. Leiber accurately surveyed how the Obama administration’s decision to completely pull US troops out “lock, stock, and barrel” from Iraq (against the advice of US military leaders) proved to be an ironic course of action, as the eventual reintroduction of 5500 military advisors made Obama the fourth President in a row, to deploy troops to Iraq.

In his characteristically strong oratory, Dr. Lieber reserved particular criticism for President Obama’s expression of “hubris and contempt” towards his foreign policy establishment; he also expressed harsh criticism towards the US thaw in ties with Cuba, condemning the lack of any references to Cuba’s human rights situation. Indeed, in raising the example of the UN Human Rights Council, Dr. Lieber went even further, condemning it as a simple and ineffective instrument focused solely (and unfairly) on Israeli actions.

In charting out the prospects for American foreign policy under the Trump administration, Dr. Lieber accurately points out the strong Jacksonian slant embodied in Trump’s rhetoric, focusing on a nationalistic, US interest-centered approach towards foreign policy. In addition, he highlights an area of potential conflict within Trump’s inner circle, differentiating between a foreign policy dictated by Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and incoming National Security Advisor McMaster, versus one driven by Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Jared Kushner.

In sum, Dr Lieber draws the conclusion that the world is becoming “more disorderly and dangerous”, and much unlike Obama’s optimism, the international community will not step up in the face of US foreign policy retrenchment. Dr Lieber caps his speech off by categorically stating that historians will not treat the Obama administration with kindness, unless the Trump administration “drives off a cliff”.

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