Obama's Foreign Policy 'Tetralemma'

US President Barack Obama's administration faces a major 'tetralemma' in terms of prioritising its foreign policy challenges.

The four main geopolitical challenges for the US are (in west to east order): 1) the Russia-Ukraine crisis, 2) the Islamic State's takeover of northern Iraq, 3) ongoing efforts to contain Iran's nuclear programme, and 4) 'pivoting' towards Asia while managing China's rise.

The US cannot effectively tackle all four challenges at once, for two reasons. Firstly, the Obama administration has limited domestic political capital, diplomatic energies, and military resources. Secondly, tackling all four at once would mean pursuing contradictory policies that will boost US interests in some areas, while gravely hurting them in others.

Below, we assess the threats posed by each challenge, and the difficulties in crafting the best response.

Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Threat: Russia's efforts to maintain geopolitical dominance over Ukraine have widely been seen as a form of aggression, but they do not fundamentally threaten US or Western interests, because Moscow has for many years dominated Kiev. Rather, the main threat stems from the possibility that Russia could use its policy of 'ambiguous warfare' to destabilise the Baltic states, which are members of the EU and NATO, and have substantial populations of ethnic Russians. Even so, we regard the risk of Russian destabilisation of the Baltic states as low. Meanwhile, the conflict in Ukraine is contained, and is unlikely to spread to other countries. Although many policymakers see dangers from Russian assertiveness, in practice Russia is unable or unwilling to fundamentally challenge US interests beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Costs of prioritising Russia threat: If the US prioritises the 'Russia threat', then the costs will be very high. Chief among these would be the risk of a new diplomatic coldness in Europe, and the likelihood that the West would end up driving Russia into a closer alliance with China. A more cooperative relationship between Moscow and Beijing could significantly frustrate Washington's interests in Eurasia. Meanwhile, US alienation of Russia could break the unity of great powers pressuring Iran to curtail its nuclear programme. Thus, one of Barack Obama's boldest gambits so far – the attempted rapprochement with Iran – could be jeopardised, as Moscow and Tehran would find their anti-American views more closely aligned. Washington's prioritisation of challenging Russia would also mean that less attention is paid to an even more anti-Western threat, namely the 'Islamic State' in Iraq and Syria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The former could pose a major terrorist threat to Western states, judging by reports that many EU nationals have joined the ranks of IS fighters.

The 'Islamic State'

Threat: The Islamic State does not yet threaten the US itself. The IS has barely managed to consolidate power over northern Syria and northern Iraq, and may not necessarily be able to form a durable state or state-like entity. Even if the IS were to form a statelet, its ability to threaten Middle Eastern states by conventional means (i.e. invasion) would be limited. The main threat posed by the IS is that it could form a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, capable of launching attacks against European and Arab countries. This cannot be underestimated.

Costs of prioritising the IS threat: The main risk is that the US will be dragged into a steadily deeper military conflict (including the use of ground troops) in Iraq and possibly Syria, for the third time since 1990. Another Middle Eastern quagmire less than three years after the US withdrew from Iraq after an eight-year conflict that claimed 4,500 American lives would be deeply unpopular amongst Americans and could lead to louder calls for a non-interventionist policy. Meanwhile, the US's increasing engagement in Iraq and/or Syria could bog down the American military, leaving Washington less willing and able to challenge a revanchist Russia or China. By the time the US became tired of fighting the IS, Washington could find its geopolitical strength far weaker than it is today.

Iran's Nuclear Programme

Threat: A nuclear Iran does not threaten the US per se, but it is perceived as an existential threat to US ally Israel, and some Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia. The fear is that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons, Tehran would come to dominate the Gulf and the wider Middle East, and would become much more assertive in interfering in regional countries' affairs, safe in the knowledge that its nuclear arsenal would make it virtually immune to retaliation. There might also be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Egypt sought to develop atomic weapons. This would undermine decades of efforts by the US to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Given the unfamiliarity with nuclear doctrine in the Middle East, there would also be a higher risk of an accidental or unintended nuclear exchange.

Cost of prioritising Iran threat: The US's ongoing attempts at rapprochement with Iran are highly significant, for an amicable modus vivendi between the two sides could drag Iran out of a possible alignment with Russia and China, and lead to cooperation against the Islamic State. In fact, a de facto alliance between Washington and a more moderate Tehran (as existed from 1953 to 1979) could be a major stabiliser of the Middle East and potentially even Central Asia. Yet, if the rapprochement fails, and the US moves towards renewed containment of Iran, or even airstrikes, there would be a major conflict, not to mention far fewer opportunities for joint endeavours to contain the IS or the Afghan Taliban, and Washington would risk driving Tehran deeper into Moscow's and Beijing's arms. During the 1990s, the US pursued dual containment of Iraq and Iran, but was unable to alter the behaviour of either party.

'Pivot' Towards Asia And Containing China

Threat: China is without doubt the only country capable of emerging as an alternative global hegemon to the US – something the US is keen to prevent. China has also become significantly more assertive in its maritime territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam (the former two are US treaty allies). The main near-term threat posed by China to the US is that the former could come to blows with Japan in the East China Sea, forcing Washington to come to Tokyo's defence (and thus militarily engage the Chinese navy) – at which point we would be on the brink of a naval war between great powers that would greatly shake the global economic system. The alternative would be to abandon Japan, thereby conceding to China hegemony over Asia, not to mention raising doubts about the US's entire network of alliances, including NATO.

Cost of prioritising Asia-Pacific: Deeper US involvement in the Asia-Pacific region could increase resentment from China, thus increasing the risks of an eventual military clash. This could also entail abandoning Europe and the Middle East, which would allow more assertiveness by Russia, the IS, and Iran. Greater military rivalry between the US and China would also risk dividing Asia into blocs of pro-American and pro-China countries, thus impeding regional integration. Meanwhile, China would have less reason to rein in North Korea, and may even find use in emboldening Pyongyang (rhetorically or by means of nuclear tests) against Washington.

US May Need Rapprochement With Russia To Tackle Other Threats

Based on the above dynamics, it would appear that the US's least worst option in terms of defending as many of its geopolitical interests as possible lies with 're-resetting' relations with Russia. This may entail tacit acceptance of Russia's annexation of Crimea and desire to dominate Ukraine. Ukraine has long been under Russian influence, so this would not be a dramatic change in the status quo. Amicable relations between Washington and Moscow would ensure that the two continue to cooperate against mutual threats, such as Islamist militancy in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan (tackling Islamist militancy is arguably even more urgent to Russia than the US, because of the proximity of the Islamic State and Afghanistan to Russia). Solid US-Russia relations would also serve to maintain pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear programme, and would also prevent the formation of a Russo-Chinese alliance against America. A Western-friendly Russia would also resume the rapprochement with US ally Japan (which was under way prior to the Ukraine crisis), thus counterbalancing China's influence in East Asia.

The question is, is it too late for a 're-reset' between the US and Russia?