Interview with Professor Erik Jones

Interview with Erik Jones
Interview with Professor Erik Jones - The Editorial Staff


The BCJIA recently sat down with Professor Erik Jones, Director of European Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and Director of the Bologna Institute for Policy Research, to discuss his newest book, as well as current developments in American foreign policy. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, "Weary Policeman: American Power in an Age of Austerity"?

The idea behind the book was to get a good sense of what the possibilities are for U.S. foreign policy. Not primarily in the context of austerity, although that features in the subtitle of the book, but much more importantly in the context of the changing location of economic activity across the globe, and the possible change in administration around 2012 U.S. presidential elections.

How do two of the Obama Administration's high-profile foreign policy changes - the 'pivot' to Asia' and the 'reset' with Russia - play into this dynamic?

No matter what its resource base or economic situation, the United States cannot forever dominate the world; it cannot pursue its national interests without the assistance of other actors; and it probably shouldn’t try to do so because it would damage itself along the way.

The reset with Russia is part of this, because it’s one of our most important partners in Central Asia, whether we like that or not. The pivot to Asia is also a part of this, because in essence the U.S. has been overinvesting in securing Europe and the immediate neighborhood around Europe, and underinvesting in providing security in Asia. So the Obama Administration, faced with growing constraints on its resources and the need to prioritize action, chose to redistribute some of its attention from the European theater to Asia.

Now, this is not being disrespectful of Europe. On the contrary, the idea is really to allow and, indeed, even encourage Europeans to take a greater share of responsibility for securing those places on their borders where we have frozen conflicts and possibilities of real instability.. The pivot is an attempt to encourage the Europeans to act more decisively, earlier on.

Much has been made of Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article on Obama and the Libyan intervention, which gave birth to the notion of "leading from behind." Is this a national security strategy specific to Obama, or have we entered a new era in American foreign policy?

The argument goes as follows:  on the 28th of March, 2011, Barack Obama made explicit his own theory of leadership. What he said was that there are those that believe that being a leader is doing what you think is right, regardless of the opinion of others around you. Obviously that was an allusion to the George W. Bush administration, and specifically to the decision of the Bush administration to prosecute a war in Iraq. Barack Obama said essentially, “Look, this is not the kind of leadership that we believe that the United States should exercise. On the contrary, sometimes it’s more important for leaders to create the conditions within which their friends and allies can assume their share of the roles and responsibilities.”

That’s what this notion of “leading from behind” is all about. It’s not about the United States abdicating to Europe; it’s about creating the conditions from within which the Europeans do what is really in their vital national interests. The United States’ contribution to that is the obviously unique capabilities of the U.S. military.

Unfortunately, the unique capabilities of the United States tend to be much more extensive that we would like to admit, and the Europeans tend to have less capability than they arguably need to have in order to better secure the areas around them. This is part of the learning process that came out of the Libyan intervention, and it explains to a certain extent the reluctance of the Obama Administration to get into Syria as well.

There's been a lot of speculation about the possible impact of shale gas on U.S. energy independence. How will this domestic energy boom affect U.S. foreign policy? Could it energize the "Weary Policeman" described in your book?

Let’s assume the best-case scenario, and we do become, if not the Saudi Arabia, the Qatar of the new world order. What does this mean for American military capability or American foreign policy more generally? I think it insulates us a bit from our dependence on the Middle East, and shifts a lot of that dependence onto other countries. So China will find itself, as it grows, much more dependent on access to energy resources in the Middle East than the U.S. does at the moment, and presumably that will give China a much greater interest in the security and stability of the Middle East as a consequence.

What it’s not going to do is make it any easier for the United States to put boots on the ground, so to speak. It’s not going to make it any easier for U.S. presidents to engage in aggressive foreign military intervention or even foreign development assistance. So I think that the idea that this is going to rejuvenate American power in the same way that winning the Second World War did is a huge stretch. What it will do is make us more comfortable in our own skin at a time when the world is obviously changing. 

What’s changing in the world is not the redistribution of power from West to East or from the United States to China, but rather the bleeding out of power from the established global system. The institutions that provided order and facilitated collective action when the United States was predominant no longer seem as legitimate to the rising powers, and they no longer facilitate cooperation as a consequence. Collective action at the global level has suffered. With or without shale gas, this is not going to be rejuvenated, and without that collective action, there’s a lot less that we can accomplish than we could if we had it in the first place.

The effect of shale gas is pretty neutral in that context. It makes us more comfortable, but it doesn’t make us any more impactful in terms of our foreign policy or the achievement of our foreign policy objectives. 

On the other side of the coin, one might say, are the budgetary debates over sequestration and the debt ceiling. What are the implications for these issues on American foreign policy?

Sequestration is a problem if they ever allow it to go through because it is such a blunt instrument. I think there are good arguments that can be made that the U.S. military can be trimmed and rendered more efficient. Many of those arguments have been made since the 1950s, if not before. Taking a big axe and chopping into the military, however, is probably not the most effective way to achieve that objective.

It will be problematic if they allow the sequestration to go through, but they’re probably not going to do that. So then we deal with the issue as problematic in that it distracts American attention from the many significant crises we are facing in the outside world.

Look at what is happening in Syria right now. Obviously there are people in the Obama Administration who are concerned about this, but the focus of the president cannot be on resolving the [Syrian] situation and that is unfortunate. That’s before we get to some of the other slow-burning problems like what has been occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or what is happening in East Asia with the South China Sea.

And then, the slowest burning issues of all, but arguably the most important, have to do with the environment and global development. We’re no closer to achieving a comprehensive environmental protection accord to prevent global warming, and we’re no closer to completing the Doha Round of multilateral trade and development talks, either.

Without the presidential leadership that’s required in these dimensions, the prospects of finding some ultimate solution are relatively grim. That presidential leadership is being absorbed by ridiculous conversations like the fiscal cliff or, even worse, the debt ceiling.


This interview has been edited and condensed.