Much attention has been given to the recent appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power into the upper echelon of US foreign policy. On an individual level, both women carry a buzz with their name. Rice, known for her work as the US representative to the UN, dropped out of the nomination race for Secretary of State just six months ago. Her potential as a nominee looked bleak when House Republicans swore to do everything in their power to reject her confirmation due to contention over talking points on the Benghazi attacks. Alternatively, Samantha Power, a journalist turned policy-maker, received major recognition from her book, A Problem from Hell, which outlines concisely what Power believes to be some of the biggest failures of US foreign policy. Rice will take on the role of National Security Advisor (NSA), retiring from her position as US representative to the UN. Concomitantly, if confirmed, Samantha Power will pick up where Rice left off at the UN.
Moving beyond their individual achievements, these new insertions into the Obama foreign policy team indicate a shift – some are even calling it a shift towards a foreign policy that is more in line with Obama’s personal views. So, what can be expected from term two?
The Move to 2.0
The administration’s priorities have changed since the beginning of Obama’s presidency. The rhetoric around the first term’s foreign policy was dominated by the two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the targeting of al-Qaeda leaders (specifically Osama bin Laden). With the beginning of a new term, the USA has left Iraq and NATO is gearing up to leave Afghanistan in 2014. Already, there has been a transformation in their overseas concerns. Along with NATO, America has acknowledged its priorities in cyber security, reducing nuclear proliferation, and even framing itself as leader of environmental sustainability (outlined in the second State of the Union address). Priorities of the second term encompass more than the “two wars” and terrorism, indicating that America is ready to keep pace with the geopolitical climate of this day and age.
Military strength is no longer the sole requisite for superpower status, meaning that America needs to forge new relationships and strengthen the ones that already exist in order to stay relevant in an evolving global landscape. This is not to say that the US does not have strong alliances and is not still a superpower, but rather to recognize the increased variation of obstacles that threaten their status. Cyberattacks and rocky relations with China, attempting to work with Russia on developing some form of solution for Syria, and increased WMD threats (not only nuclear proliferation, but the re-introduction of chemical weapons onto the battlefield) demonstrate how the issues of the world are a mix of the old with the new.
As is made clear by their careers to date, the personalities of Rice and Power are adaptive; this is necessary for dealing with the constant evolution of global security threats. Rice, tainted by the failure of America to act during the Rwandan genocide, is motivated to not allow such a failure to happen again. In addition, and arguably more importantly, she has kept the UN a relevant organization to Americans and to the world. This demonstrates her understanding of the necessity of such multilateral organizations, and the importance of being open to new partners. Power has had a different approach, but similar motivations. She has been an open critic of the UN, especially regarding its failures to prevent genocides since WWII. However, those that question whether she will be able to be constructive in an organization which she critiques are out of touch with reality. Her ability to recognize the failures of the UN will be her strength. The problem with many of the older international bodies, such as the UN and NATO, is their resistance to enter into modern frameworks. To be fair, not all of it is resistance, but rather a lot of red tape that is hard to tear down, let alone get around. This does not mean things cannot get done, and that the importance of these organizations is any less relevant; instead, it stresses the urgency for more dynamic thinkers that are willing to get the job done in spite of these hurdles. This begins with recognizing that these organizations have had failures. Both Rice and Power have experienced the failures of the old approaches to foreign policy, and with the changes in US interests abroad, President Obama has chosen two leaders who send a clear message that foreign policy is ready to align with those interests.
In a recent post by Rosa Brooks on Foreign Policy, she succinctly states what these new appointments by President Obama signify: “Susan Rice and Samantha Power represent a profound generational shift in their approach to global problems. Unlike John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, or Tom Donilon, they were not shaped by Vietnam or the Cold War, or the age of great power politics. Instead, they cut their teeth on the very different challenges of the 1990s and early 2000s: the complex ethnic conflicts of Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan; the rise of transnational, globalized extremism; and the many novel economic, environmental, and socio-political issues characterizing our age of interconnectedness.” NATO should take note: its strongest member has just made a clear directional change. America’s foreign policy is ready to adapt, and it will be Rice and Power at the helm leading America into the modern age of international relations.