Secretary of State John Kerry is getting engaged in trying to contain the Brexit fallout. The Financial Times:
“It is absolutely essential that we stay focused on how, in this transitional period, nobody looses their head, nobody goes off half-cocked, people don’t start ginning up scatterbrained or revengeful premises,” John Kerry, US secretary of state, said on a visit to Brussels.
As he prepared to fly to London for hastily-arranged shuttle diplomacy aimed at urging both sides to limit the damage to economic stability and security co-operation, Mr Kerry conceded that the Brexit result “did not come out the way President Obama and I and others hoped that it would, but that’s democracy, and we respect the rights of the voters and we respect the process”.
Doing more of this earlier would have been better: the real time for this was when UK and EU were discussing the renegotiation on which the campaign would be fought. A better offer to Britain then would have made a Remain vote more likely. And this in turn might have strengthened the EU, as the reforms that would have persuaded the British would have strengthened the whole organization. This is exactly where skillful, patient, low-profile but engaged and informed U.S. diplomacy could have made a difference. Instead, Washington sat on the sidelines until Cameron was campaigning on a weak offer. Finally Obama parachuted in, made a speech, and expected his charisma and wisdom to work miracles.
Kerry’s decision to engage in intense shuttle diplomacy now that we are where we are is the best decision that could be made under the circumstances, but the job will be much harder now, and the U.S. will have to put more in to get less out than would have been the case with earlier intervention. The decision is also an admission that the critics were right: that the U.S. has very serious interests at stake here that justify substantial U.S. engagement in helping to find an answer, that U.S. involvement can make a difference, and that our previous level of effort and engagement was not commensurate with the importance of the issues involved.
The central weakness of the Obama Administration has been its repeatedly demonstrated lack of strategic insight: an inability to differentiate between the important and the trivial, the symbolic and the substantive, the necessary and the optional, the truly dangerous and the inconsequential. It is also bad at understanding linkages: the ways that problems and policies in one set of issues or in one region of the world impact American options, prestige and effectiveness in others.
Now, too late, when the house is in on fire, the Administration is realizing that the Atlantic system is in deep trouble and that Brexit is a major challenge to U.S. interests. So now when success is more difficult and the range of possible outcomes is less appealing, the U.S. is going to commit to the issue and dive in.
Still, to engage even now with the growing troubles of Europe is better than to sit on the sidelines. So let’s wish Kerry luck. Since neither the UK nor the EU would benefit from an ugly divorce, there are still some opportunities for the U.S. to be helpful to our friends at a difficult time.
But that won’t change a reality that the press does its best to tiptoe past: rarely has a presidency seen so many things go so badly for the U.S. in foreign policy. Obama’s track record is not looking good: at the end of his watch, the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia are all in worse shape than when he entered office, relations with Russia and China are both worse, there are more refugees, more terrorists and more dangerous terrorist organizations.
Obama has been focusing on the issues he thinks are important and he’s had some successes with these issues (climate treaty signed, Iran nuclear deal, reduced number of inmates in Guantanamo, killed Bin Laden and many other terrorists) but the results don’t amount to an enhanced American position in a safer world. Ultimately policy has to be judged by results rather than by intentions. George W. Bush had good intentions in Iraq and elsewhere, but the results won’t make historians think he was a great or even a good foreign policy president. Ditto for Obama.