A new U.S. Secretary of Defense: Obama’s opportunity to shore up alliances

A new secretary with the right message is an opportunity for the U.S. to recalibrate its foreign policy narrative and strategy.
By: /
November 25, 2014
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Though you might not know it if you took the gushing presidential press conference at face value, on Monday the U.S. secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, was let go.

Formerly a Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel was confirmed as secretary of defense in February 2013 in a bid by President Obama to reduce the political polarisation of the portfolio. The President ended up wasting tremendous political capital to get the appointment through the senate, and yet Secretary Hagel’s performance has generally been considered underwhelming.

Every failure bears the seed of opportunity, though. Secretary Hagel’s ‘resignation’ comes at an excellent moment for a second-term President in search of foreign policy successes.

The search for a replacement, the nomination process in Congress, and the new secretary’s inevitable ‘coming-out’ tour all represent opportunities for the Obama administration to recalibrate its narrative and strategy — especially in context of growing concern from allies about America’s reliability.

A new secretary with the right message could also mean tighter diplomatic alignment between Canada and the U.S. in several areas of mutual strategic interest:

Iran

The Vienna-based diplomatic effort to come to a global agreement about Iran’s nuclear energy program was extended on Monday. Whoever the president nominates (the shortlist is starting to take shape), that person will have to bear a strong, diplomatically aware message about the Iranian nuclear file right out of the gate. That message will ultimately help determine whether diplomacy succeeds or fails. It will also signal to America’s core negotiating partners, as well as to skeptical allies like Israel and Canada, the American military establishment’s new calculus on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Asia pivot

President Obama famously committed to a “rebalancing” of American power from the Middle East to East Asia, in a bid to encourage a peaceful rise by China and maintain a liberal order in the region. So far, that pivot has resulted in little more than inconsistent rhetoric. The secretary of defense nomination process is an opportunity to re-set this initiative. Canada, for our part, has significant interests at stake in the region, with a new Canada-Korea free trade agreement recently established and with Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations still ongoing. These both depend on maintaining an open maritime order, which China has tested in recent years. The new search for a candidate is also an opening for the Obama administration to vocally renew America’s commitment to the security of key regional allies as China’s stature grows.

Ukraine

The United States has been clear that it will not engage in military confrontation with Russia over the latter’s flagrant attacks on Ukraine. What must be made equally clear, is that the U.S. will not hesitate to protect NATO allies in the region from Russian aggression, especially the small and strategically vulnerable Baltic states. The nominee for secretary of defense would win major points with America’s allies abroad — including the increasingly hawkish Canada — and with the Republican conference in the senate by making a full-throated commitment to this policy.

Going forward

While the security environments in the Middle East, in Asia, and in central Europe are not exactly the same, the Obama administration’s reliability in the face of revisionist great powers is being closely monitored by its allies throughout those pivotal regions. Vacillation in the face of regional challengers could shake the democratic world’s faith in American leadership, ultimately worsening the global security environment going forward.

From the Canadian perspective, the new secretary’s message and approach will heavily influence a number of key files where Canada has staked out more assertive positions than that of its closest ally and partner.

Every failure bears the seed of opportunity. The new secretary of defense could be President Obama’s best instrument for strengthening America’s global position, supporting democratic allies around the world, and shoring up his foreign policy legacy.