La continuité ou la rupture? Who Represents the Obama Administration in Belgium?

Est-ce que la diplomatie de M. Obama représente vraiment une rupture avec la politique hégémonique et unilatéraliste de George W. Bush ? Regardons les données des deux ambassadeurs américains actuellement installés à Bruxelles pour mieux répondre à cette question.

La continuité ou la rupture?Who Represents the Obama Administration in Belgium?


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




It is an intellectual fascination of the chattering classes in France to ask whether incoming regimes and their statesmen represent continuity or a rupture with the past. This innocent pastime can also be functional and pertinent when we try to appraise an administration like Barack Obama’s which came to power on a platform of change. Has the American voting public been deceived?


A close look at two of America’s three Ambassadors posted to Brussels, Belgium sadly suggests that We, the People have been had. In several key respects, the bad ways of the George W. Bush administration continue to guide U.S. foreign policy however sweet-talking the gentleman in the Oval Office may appear to be. On the other hand, even when the latest appointees appear to mark a qualitative improvement, there remains the question as to who, in general, should run American diplomacy and with what kind of skill set. Specifically, we must consider what are the benefits and disadvantages of highly ‘credentialed’ appointees such as the Obama team has brought on board in profusion. As we shall see below, there may be reason to reconsider just how ‘bad’ it is to have no specialized knowledge for the job.


Obama’s naming of Howard W. Gutman to replace Sam Fox as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium represents pure continuity in U.S. treatment of this country as a minor league posting best known for chocolates and beer which can be filled by political appointees in the traditional trade-off of campaign contributions for social prominence. What easily can result is not much more than an extended shopping trip abroad for the incumbent’s spouse.


Both Gutman, the Democratic lawyer from New York by way of Washington, D.C. and Fox, the Republican St Louis financier, are affable, their public behavior smoothed to perfection by years in the business world where they accumulated considerable personal fortunes which enabled them to contribute handsome sums to their preferred candidates and hope for the diplomatic reward which eventually came their way. And yet despite their sophistication at home both men came to their international assignment clueless about the ways of the greater world. It is no accident that both Fox and Gutman set for themselves a fairly modest and content-free mission to visit as many Belgian communities as possible and ‘press the flesh’ on behalf of Uncle Sam.


At that point the similarity ends and one key distinction begs to be mentioned. Sam Fox arrived in Belgium in bad odor as a result of his overzealous support of Mr. George W. Bush. His Wikipedia entry reminds us that in the 2004 election campaign Sam Fox contributed $50,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (“SBVT”) which many saw as a smear campaign against Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, putting in question his decorations for wartime heroism. Consequently, Fox’s confirmation encountered strong Democratic opposition in the Senate and President Bush used a trick to get around legislative oversight. Fox was eventually appointed as Ambassador when the upper house was in recess. A whiff of scandal followed him to Brussels, where the government took its good time before recognizing Fox’s credentials.


In this regard, it is disappointing that Ambassador Gutman has chosen to commend his predecessor as a loyal patriot when given the opportunity to distance himself and the Obama administration from the deceptive and possibly illegal behavior of the Bush team. This is all too well aligned with the way Barack Obama never directly dealt with the responsibility of the ex-President and ex-VP for many abridgements of civil and human rights and possible violations of the constitution during their terms of office, choosing just to ‘move on’ in unreflective manner which does not promise anything good for American democracy in the post-Obama age.



The far more substantive position of U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO has traditionally been filled by professional diplomats. That is the background of the final, interim appointee of the Bush administration, Kurt Volker, who took office in the summer of 2008. It was true of his still more visible predecessor, Victoria Nuland, a career Foreign Service Officer who held the ambassadorship for three years. Nuland is credited in her Wikipedia entry with having ‘focused heavily on strengthening Allied support for the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, on NATO-Russia issues, and on the Alliance’s global partnerships and continued enlargement.’ This is a content-rich sphere of activity for which she was admirably prepared by her earlier service as Principal Deputy National Security Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003-2005 and prior to that, as U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to NATO from 2000-2003. Her still earlier government assignments in the 1990s honed her skills on U.S. policy towards Russia and NATO expansion.


Considering that Nuland directly reported to Cheney, the most powerful Vice President in American history who was deeply engaged in setting the conduct of foreign policy on a Neoconservative course in the aftermath of 9/11, it is safe to assume that Nuland’s political orientation was congenial to her boss, placing her in the midst of everything that was wrong with the Bush administration. Moreover, Nuland is one half of a high-powered political marriage that seems to have been pulling in the same direction.


During the years of the new millennium and particularly following the publication of his best-selling work Paradise & Power justifying American unilateralism and a militarized foreign policy, Nuland’s husband, Dr. Robert Kagan, became the leading foreign policy strategist of the Neoconservative movement. In the summer of 2008, when Nuland left her ambassad
orship, Kagan was already the top foreign affairs adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain. His political treatise The Return of History provided some of the key points McCain used on the campaign trail as Republican standard-bearer.


The 20th United States Permanent Representative to NATO, Ivo H. Daalder may not be a career Foreign Service Officer, but he falls into another post-WWII American tradition: scholars whose careers shift back and forth between prominent universities, Establishment think tanks and high-level government service. The question I would like to explore here briefly is whether, at the end of the day, the policies he stands for are all that different from those pursued by Nuland and what this says about ‘change we can believe in’ under Barack Obama.


Daalder is the intellectual’s intellectual. The holder of a Ph.D. in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has been a prolific author. The bibliography in the Wikipedia entry on Ivo Daalder lists eighteen of his articles in newspapers of record during the brief period from 2006 to 2008 plus more weighty contributions to Foreign Affairs magazine and other specialized periodicals of the international relations and security communities. Then there are the seven books in which Daalder figures as co-author or editor published between 2000 and 2009, some of them translated into Chinese, Dutch, Korean, Italian and Polish editions.


In keeping with this intellectual strength, Daalder has several prestigious academic fellowships to his credit. He is a former associate professor at the University of Maryland, former Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. Daalder has been a member of the Academy of Political Science, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. His think tank affiliation with the well respected Brookings Institution extended straight up to the years before his latest government assignment.


By contrast, Daalder’s government service prior to his ambassadorial appointment was rather meager. From 1995-97 he was director for European Affairs on the National Security Council with responsibility for coordinating U.S. policy toward Bosnia. During the next three years he was a member of the Study Group of the Hart-Rudman Commission, an intellectual and futurological exercise highlighting the issues which U.S. foreign policy would face in the coming quarter-century. This is to say, Daalder has come to his present position with no diplomatic experience as such, no man-management experience but a lot of intellectual baggage.


There is reason to believe that he also brought in a lot of ideological freight. Some of Daalder’s political beliefs revealed in his writings match the convictions of the President and of those of us who elected him. See, in particular, his essay ‘The Logic of Zero’ in the November-December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, arguing the case of a sharp reduction in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal as the key driver of a non-proliferation policy. Daalder’s stated objective is a world ultimately free of nuclear weapons, a view clearly shared by his boss and all to the good. But a lot more of Daalder’s ideological baggage is at sharp variance with what Barack Obama stood for as a candidate when he criticized the invasion of Iraq and the unilateralist policies that got us there and it is this side of his thinking which, unfortunately, he is well positioned to further in his new post in Brussels.


While Daalder may not be a card-carrying Neoconservative (Republican), I submit that he is a liberal hawk, the counterpart mindset in the Democratic Party which often melds seamlessly with the radical right in its furtherance of American hegemony against the interests of the American people.


Daalder’s Wikipedia entry mentions in passing that before, during and after the time he served as a foreign policy adviser to Democratic candidate Howard Dean in 2004 he also “signed four letters (2003-2005) on the stationery of the Project for a New American Century advising Congress and President Bush on foreign policy.” The NAC is the Neoconservative dominated movement which gave respectability to a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy towards regime change and promotion of democracy abroad at the point of a gun. The same Wikipedia entry qualifies this message by telling us that Daalder was one of ‘many others’ appearing among the signatories and that he did not sign the original NAC letter to President Clinton calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.


Nonetheless the mud sticks and finds confirmation in Daalder’s choice of precisely Robert Kagan as his soul-mate for an August 6, 2007 article in The Washington Post. ‘The Next Intervention’ argued for a bipartisan approach to foreign policy that was planted three-quarters of the way into the Neoconservative intellectual turf. While Kagan is agreeing here that the United States should seek legitimacy in the international community for its military interventions, unlike what happened in 2003 with Iraq, Daalder is agreeing that ‘the U.N. Security Council no longer suffices, if it ever did’ and is calling for some undefined consultations with ‘the world’s great democratic nations’ and eventually a ‘Concert of Democracies’ – the notion which later became a plank in the McCain campaign, but pointedly did not figure in the Obama campaign, with its greater emphasis on international law and institutions.


The stress in that article on ‘fellow democrats around the world’ as the building blocks for world order lies at the heart of Ivo Daalder’s political convictions. He insists that the domestic structures of regimes matter, that democratic countries are inherently peaceful, whereas autocracies, for example, are not. While these are notions which come down to us from the Democratic presidency of Woodrow Wilson, in our own age they have been fully appropriated by the radical right of the Neoconservatives for whom they serve as justification to perpetuate the Cold War divisions of mankind and a vastly overblown American defense budget.


The values-based, idealist approach to international relations Daalder is using defines itself principally by its rejection of the Realpolitik school promoted in the United States in the second half of the 20th century by Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger. Whether denominated as Neoconservative Republicans or Liberal Hawk Democrats, idealism just happens to be a virulently anti-Russian, often anti-Chinese turn of mind. And all of that has enormous relevance to Mr. Daalder’s on-the-job responsibilities today as the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, an alliance which was founded to contain Soviet expansionism in Europe after WWII and which now, in 2010, is about to attempt to redefine its mission in the 21st century.


One cannot close any discussion of Ivo Daalder’s preparation to serve as ambassador to NATO without mention of his article ‘Global NATO’ in the September-October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs where he argued for NATO’s going ‘out of area’ to meet the new challenges of the post-Cold War world and for changing the fundamental charter of the Alliance to allow the cooptation of a global, not merely North Atlantic membership. Given NATO’s original mission, it is absolutely stunning that in an article dealing
with its long-term future and attempting to ‘think outside the box’ Daalder does not mention Russia once. Not once! This intentional blindness to the realities of the distribution of world power renders utterly sterile all of Daalder’s initiatives. .


It is not my intention to ‘pick on’ Dr. Daalder, since, regrettably, his views and his formative educational background are all too common in the Obama administration. In this regard, Ivo Daalder fits in well with other Clinton administration hawks presently filling high offices in the U.S. diplomatic service, people such as Richard Holbrooke and Richard Morningstar.


This group of office holders traces its intellectual family tree back through Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who served in Bill Clinton’s second term in office, to her one-time graduate school mentor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter who never left the corridors of power in Washington and even to this day promotes a Cold War agenda in the Obama White House. NATO reform, the single biggest issue facing Daalder in his ambassadorial position, is the one where Madeleine Albright has had overriding responsibility since 2009. For these reasons, it is highly unlikely that the process of defining a new Strategic Concept for NATO which is scheduled for the Lisbon summit this November will yield any new and important changes to what remains an institution rooted in the past and lacking any persuasive vision for the future.


Moral of the story…


Ivo Daalder’s designation as U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO may be said to be symptomatic of the Obama administration’s stress on competence for office as evidenced by advanced academic degrees. Both in the electoral campaign of 2004 and again in 2008 the Democrats told us they would do it better, whether ‘it’ was handling a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or a man-made disaster like the occupation of Iraq, because they would find real experts rather than back-room political cronies to fill government appointments. They offered in effect a reiteration of the concept of a brain trust, a return to JFK’s ‘best and the brightest.’


Unfortunately, this attention to ‘how’ while playing down or ignoring the questions of ‘leading where’ and ‘why’ for a given government policy has ignored the sad legacy of the Kennedy years in the person of Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and other highly credentialed statesmen who suffered from grave ideological blinkers, perhaps from an ethical deficiency as well and so led the nation headlong into the Viet Nam War debacle.


To be sure, doctorate-bearing Secretaries of State are a tradition that goes back to a Republican administration, Richard Nixon’s, and to the venerable Henry Kissinger. In his memoirs, Kissinger distinguished himself as an academic from the vast majority of his law school graduate predecessors by ridiculing what he called an inbasket-outbasket mentality and the inability to conceptualize and drive a proactive as opposed to reactive foreign policy.



Over the past two decades American foreign policy has been a coliseum of ideologically defined gladiators. Most of the time, the field was dominated by the Neoconservative colors. Perhaps it is time to return to an inbasket-outbasket mentality if only to free ourselves of dated and dangerous preconceptions and to take in the world as it is rather than the world as we would wish it to be. In this sense, the well-meaning and apparently energetic though ‘uncredentialed’ Mr Gutman may be a better bet than the highly ‘credentialed’ Mr. Daalder who is charging off in the wrong direction.


© Gilbert Doctorow 2010

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G. Doctorow is a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and author of the newly published Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN-13 9781453764473. Now available from in paperback and downloadable e-book edition, as well as via Amazon sites in Europe and Japan. At Barnes & Noble and select book stores.