U.S. Foreign Policy after Obama Implications for Northern Europe

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Teija Tiilikainen / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Teija Tiilikainen / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Mika Aaltola / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Mika Aaltola / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Robert Nurick / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Robert Nurick / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Stephen J. Flanagan / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Stephen J. Flanagan / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Michael Haltzel / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Michael Haltzel / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Leo Michel / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Leo Michel / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä
Vibeke Schou Tjalve / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä Vibeke Schou Tjalve / Photo: Alvar Aalto-Setälä

Ons 31.8.2016 kl. 9:45-12:00
Kämp Hotel, Peilisali
Kluuvikatu 2, Helsinki

The foreign policy of the United States has often been seen as oscillating between isolationism and  interventionism. In theory, it is possible to predict US foreign policy based on this back-and-forth  movement. Despite the fluctuation, there are areas of long-term bipartisan consensus: the prominent role of the US, the need to stay at least relatively engaged with the world, and the importance of safeguarding the country’s commitments and alliance responsibilities. This seminar details the likely future dynamics  within these points of agreement. More specifically, it charts the options for future foreign policies in Northern Europe. How will the US see the Nordic region? What can the role of Finland and Sweden be in US engagement with the region? How does the US see the increasing role of Europe in sharing the burden of security production? 

Keynote Speaker: Stephen Flanagan, Senior Political Scientist, Rand

Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow, Johns Hopkins, SAIS
Leo Michel, Visiting Senior Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Vibeke Schou Tjalve, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies

Robert Nurick, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center  on International Security, Atlantic Council

Summary of the seminar

In her opening remarks Teija Tiilikainen, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), welcomed everyone to the first event of the annual Helsinki Summer Session on US foreign policy after Obama and its implications for Northern Europe. She stressed the need for research on contemporary US politics and foreign policy and since there hasn’t been much research in Finland on these topics, FIIA wanted to enhance expertise in these areas by establishing The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP). 

Mika Aaltola, Director of the Global Security Research Programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, noted that The Center on US Politics and Power is the leading research center in the Nordic region that focuses explicitly on US politics and foreign policy. The topics of previous Summer Sessions have varied from Nordic Baltic security and the future of US foreign policy to today’s transatlantic ties to Northern Europe. Aaltola presented the topic of this first seminar which had the purpose of explaining and perhaps refining already existing knowledge on US foreign policy and its relevance to the Nordic region. 

Robert Nurick, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council, chaired this seminar and started by pointing out some of the key observations he made in 2014 whilst focusing in his work on the hostile developments taking place in Ukraine at that time. Nurick stated that the crisis in Ukraine had a major impact on security policy in Washington and the relations with Russia and it created an intense concentration on security in the Baltic region. Another important question was where on the US global agenda the Nordic Baltic region was going to fit given the vast amount of issues on the agenda.

The keynote speaker of this opening seminar was Stephen Flanagan, Senior Political Scientist from Rand, who highlighted some of the key topics that will dominate the next US administration’s foreign policy agenda. Flanagan’s first remark was about a necessary reassessment of the US global counterterrorism strategy. The Obama administration has pursued a rebalancing of the counterterrorism agenda, after George W. Bush’s overemphasis on countering terrorism as the main element of US foreign policy. President Barack Obama’s strategy has been to focus on continuing cooperation with allies in Europe and elsewhere as well as developing regional partnerships. The Obama administration’s foreign policy tries to avoid overstretching the US forces and rather supporting and strengthening local capabilities to counter terrorism in the affected regions.

As a second key issue on the coming US foreign policy agenda Flanagan mentioned the future of US military presence in Afghanistan. President Obama was committed at the beginning of his presidency to end US military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving office in 2017. However, due to recent Taliban gains in Afghanistan, Obama has not been able to reduce the desired amount of US troops from Afghanistan. Flanagan stated that while Hillary Clinton agrees with Obama that cooperation with partners in Europe and elsewhere is highly important in countering terrorism, the primary issue for Donald Trump is to define the enemy clearly, which according to him is fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. 

The third key issue that needs to be reviewed by the next administration is China’s assertiveness in East Asia and China’s economic agenda. Obama’s security policy strategy in Asia has been a balance of pushback and engagement. Hillary Clinton has had a leading role in shaping Obama’s policy of rebalance to Asia, which does not mean the US is turning its back on Europe but rather involves a push for more EU engagement in Asia. Because of Clinton’s critique of China’s human rights situation, there has been a signal from China that Donald Trump could be an easier partner to work with. Trump’s China policies include a more transactional focus and less human rights issues. 

As a last point Flanagan mentioned countering Russian aggression. He emphasized the strengthening of allies in Northern Europe including Finland. Regarding the question of deployment of NATO troops in the Baltics to counter Russian aggression, Clinton has a strong willingness to cooperate with European leaders, and the EU would be a top priority of her foreign policy. According to Flanagan, it is likely that Hillary Clinton would take a tougher line with Russia compared to Obama. On the contrary, Trump sees Russian president Vladimir Putin as a strong leader like himself and has been talking about mutual respect and tradeoffs. 

In the last part of his presentation, Flanagan reflected on the role of Northern Europe in US foreign policy. One of the key US foreign policy issues from a Finnish point of view would be the next administration’s Russia policy. A Clinton administration would most likely take a tougher stance with Russia but still be ready to cooperate when needed. On the other hand, Trump would bring uncertainty, although Trump would have to work within a broader framework consisting of the US checks and balances system and the US Congress and cooperate with European leaders which he might not be prepared for.  

Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins, SAIS, stated that Hillary Clinton is likely to become the next president of the United States, although a lot of people still mistrust her. Furthermore, he predicted that if Clinton is elected, US security policy will remain largely the same due to Clinton’s support for NATO and her understanding of security policy. The issue of providing lethal aid to Ukraine will be one of Clinton’s key priorities in her foreign policy. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s strategy is based on appealing to the fear of the people and the main elements of his foreign policy so far consist of NATO criticism, destroying ISIS and possible cooperation with Russia. Trump’s rhetoric about the cost of NATO and diminishing the role of US involvement in NATO would break nearly seven decades of consensus in Washington. Regarding US relations with Finland, Haltzel stated that it would be important for Finland and the US to conclude the defense collaboration agreement before a new president is elected. He underlined that no US foreign policy can succeed without the people’s support and that it has to be organically connected to domestic policies.

Leo Michel, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, was looking forward to sharing his own experiences and learning about the Finnish and the Nordic perspective on this region and on transatlantic defense issues. According to Michel, the NATO Warsaw summit exceeded expectations and there was some positive news. The leaders in this summit managed to balance NATO’s highest priority of strengthening the collective defense with the need to respond to conflicts and terrorist threats even beyond its borders. As an example he mentioned the decision to deploy battle groups in three Baltic states and in Poland to counter Russian aggression. According to NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, the deployment is an open ended commitment that will stay in place as long as necessary. The summit also delivered new substance to the NATO-EU partnership with specific areas of cooperation, in which Finland could play a significant role in providing know-how. Michel stressed that there are new forces outside NATO that pose risks for NATO in delivering security. Among other things he mentioned the impacts of Brexit, Donald Trump’s unpredictable behavior, the rising tide of the European far-right and the recent developments taking place in Turkey. In his concluding remarks Michel emphasized that despite all these risks, NATO and the transatlantic relationship have proven to be resilient.

Vibeke Schou Tjalve, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, also underlined that the key to a successful foreign policy is that it is embedded in a domestic context and more importantly in the people’s sense of unity. Schou Tjalve presented three recognizable trends in US foreign policy that will remain, whatever the election result. Obama’s approach seeks to explain what foreign policy is in a 21st century context and what problems it should solve. It is a post-national and rather transnational approach that includes dialogue with the citizens. A lot of this is also applicable to Hillary Clinton’s model, however she represents the 20th century, including liberal institutionalism, and follows a "state-to-state” doctrine. Clinton strives to update liberal institutions, adapting them into new circumstances and making them more flexible and strategically oriented. According to Schou Tjalve, Trump’s approach represents the 19th century perspective. Although many view Trump as unpredictable, there are features in his behavior such as geopolitical paranoia and skepticism, even toward one’s own allies, that can be foreseen. These features create a bigger trend that evolves around centralization, sovereignism and nationalism, and acts as a response to Obama’s model of global governance. In her concluding remarks Schou Tjalve noted that in today’s world it would be vital to find the collective we, a sort of unity to save the transatlantic relationship, rather than using fear and threats to bring people together.