How has a year of diplomacy affected the U.S.'s international standing?

In 2013, the U.S. opted to negotiate rather than use force in Syria and Iran, but did these efforts lead to a loss of credibility? Anne-Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation, international consultant John Negroponte, David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer join Judy Woodruff.


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GWEN IFILL: Now we continue our series of conversations about the major news developments of the year, tonight's topic, the Obama administration's foreign policy challenges.

Judy Woodruff recorded this discussion before she left for her Christmas holiday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's been a busy year diplomatically for the Obama administration. Among the most notable developments was the interim agreement signed with Iran limiting the country's nuclear development program in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions. The civil war in Syria intensified, and after chemical weapons there were used against scores of civilians, the U.S. and Russia brokered a deal in which Syria agreed to give up its chemical stockpile.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The world will now expect the Assad regime to live up to its public commitments. And, as I said at the outset of these negotiations, there can be no games, no room for avoidance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Asia, tensions mounted, as China declared territory to be in its air defense zone that Japan also claimed.

So to put those events and others in perspective, we get four views.

John Negroponte held several major Alabamans positions, including United Nations. He was also the first director of national intelligence during the George W. Bush administration. He's now with an international consulting firm. Anne-Marie Slaughter directed the State Department's Policy Planning Department during the first term of the Obama administration. She's now the president of the New America foundation. David Ignatius is a foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post. And Trudy Rubin is a foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

We welcome you, all four.

And I'm going to start with you, Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Overall, when you consider U.S. foreign policy over the last year, how does it look to you? Was there an overarching theme you saw?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, New America Foundation: I think the overarching theme is leading through diplomacy or putting diplomacy very much first.

This is -- 2014 will be the year that we pull our troops out of Afghanistan. The president will able to say he ended two wars and he put diplomacy front and center. And on Iran, I think he really succeeded. That framework agreement is the best news we have had in a long time on Iran.

I think behind-the-scenes diplomacy in China -- with China and Japan and other countries in East and South Asia very effective. On Syria, on the other hand, yes, good diplomacy to get chemical weapons out, but where I think they have really fallen down is no successful diplomacy with respect to the underlying conflict in Syria, which just gets worse and worse, and, at this point, no credible threat of force, which means I think it's hard for there -- for -- to make diplomacy work in that case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will pick up on some of these individual countries.

But, Trudy Rubin, as you look around the world, what do you see? I mean, do you see a theme? How do you think the administration has done?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I think the administration is trying to put diplomacy first, but I think they have made a big mistake in underestimating how well you can do with diplomacy when people don't think that there's force to back it up, and when people think you need them more than they need you.

I think that has become clear in Syria, which I will mention because I think it affects almost everything else. The president's decision to go for a chemical weapons treaty and to back off a pledge that he had made and commitments he had made to allies to strike the Syrians in response for their violating his red line has had repercussions all over the globe, I think, as far as to China and certainly with Iran, because the president, by blinking, and making it clear that domestic considerations and his reluctance to use force were more important than keeping commitments and being consistent, has convinced a lot of countries, I believe, including Iran, possibly China, that he will not put muscle behind his diplomacy.

Certainly, it has convinced Russia. And that affects the kind of diplomacy you can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius, pick up on that. What do you see as you look around the world and what the administration has done?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: This is the year of diplomacy, without doubt. But, unfortunately, it has perceived as a year of weakness and reactive policy by President Obama.

I just have come back from traveling overseas, and I have never heard more complaining, criticism, unhappiness, and in some cases bordering on contempt for the United States. It's an unusual and worrying situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For the same reasons that Trudy Rubin was citing?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think U.S. policy -- this is a year in which President Obama really tried hard through diplomacy to reposition the United States after these very difficult wars.

But we saw how hard it is to reposition a superpower. You have existing commitments, allies, a whole network of people who are going to be upset by changes in the status quo. And I would fault the administration for all the things I think are commendable, this diplomatic effort, for lack of communication to friends and allies both, for lack of consistent follow-through.

A lot of these are process issues. It's hard to criticize an effort to see if you can get a deal to reverse Iran's nuclear policy short of war. But what is essential when you're doing something big like that is that you communicate, communicate, communicate, and I don't see enough of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we put a lot on the table here, John Negroponte.

What do you -- as you look around, do you see some of the same things? What do you see?

JOHN NEGROPONTE, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence: Well, first of all, I would say that diplomacy and the use of force are not mutually exclusive.

This is a spectrum. It's Clausewitzian, right? War is the continuation of politics by other means. So, as Trudy was saying, sometimes you have to have the credible threat of force available in order to achieve your peaceful diplomatic objectives.

And I think we saw an example of that in one of the areas which I would highlight as a success of the administration, which was the chemical weapons agreement through the Security Council with respect to Syria. And I think that is clearly a considerable success.

One thing we haven't mentioned, which I think is important to talk about, is the economic revitalization in the United States, the fact that we just passed a modest budget bill the other day, the fact that the United States' economy is on the mend, that our dependency -- our dependency on foreign imported oil and the shale revolution here in this country is taking place, I think, have put us in a much better position when you look back five, six years ago, where people thought we were sort of on our backs economically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're saying -- and you're saying that has an effect internationally on foreign policy?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Well, I think it helps improves the environment within which or through which we carry out our foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's just -- let's just pick up.

Go ahead, Anne-Marie Slaughter, because, you know, what I would like to zero in on here, are there places where the administration needs to change, places where they -- or approaches that can stay the same, can stay where they essentially are now?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: So I think you hear a lot of agreement among all of us on the fact that the administration is not at this point looking credible with respect to the threat of force.

So the minute that we really were credible and it was clear we were going to strike Syria, suddenly, the diplomatic game changed and you got the chemical weapons agreement. But since then, and as with that turnaround, what we're seeing is a country that is saying, you know, we want to negotiate a deal, but we're not actually willing to use force or economic coercion if we don't get it.

And certainly for Syria -- and Syria is so awful, that many of us just want to, you know, not think about it, because tens of thousands, over 150,000 people have died. The humanitarian conditions are awful. Al-Qaida-linked groups are growing in strength daily. Syria itself is coming apart.

We all, effectively, don't have a solution, but I think that's not good enough. I think this administration has to actively put together a coalition, make it a priority, and make clear that we are willing to use force in some ways to stop the killing. So, that's the main thing I would say.

TRUDY RUBIN: Can I...

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trudy, yes.

TRUDY RUBIN: Yes.

I just want to follow up on that. I just came back from the Turkish-Syrian border. And it was, actually, I would say almost tragic.

Watching and listening as Secretary Kerry said, we're ready to talk with Islamists, there is a new Islamist coalition now that is the powerhouse on the ground inside Syria, but that is a trap of our own making. And, actually, by failing to act, we have allowed an al-Qaida belt to flourish often both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

I bring this up because, as we go to Geneva, I think these Geneva talks, the Syria talks, are going to be the prelude to what we can or can't achieve with Iran. The Iranians are watching. And, frankly, we are in a position where we are totally dependent on Russia and on Iran to deliver anything from Hafez al-Assad.

I think we have to be willing to walk away from those Syria talks, unless the Russians and the Iranians in the background actually deliver a humanitarian opening which allows food and vaccines to be delivered to territory controlled by the opposition. There is a polio epidemic spreading, et cetera.

Bashar will not allow the vaccines in. So, this is the test case. If Geneva two doesn't work on Syria, then I don't think the Iranian talks are going to work either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, David Ignatius, I want to -- again, what I want to come -- try to get at here are, are there specific changes the administration can make to get some of these, whether it's Syria, whether it's Afghanistan, which we haven't really addressed, is not completely clear yet, to get these back on track and -- and, frankly, change some of these impressions we're hearing that are settling in about the United States?

DAVID IGNATIUS: What I would say is that the administration needs to emphatically, systematically apply the policies that it has.

The U.S. has a program now to train and assist the Syrian opposition. It has been a disaster. The first disaster is that it got started so late. Anne-Marie Slaughter was somebody who was early in advocating assistance to the Syrian opposition. Her boss, Secretary of State Clinton, aggressively argued for it, supported by General Petraeus, then the head of the CIA.

The president just didn't want to do it. And when he finally got around to doing it, he did it in a somewhat half-hearted way. That's a program that, even today, if you got started seriously, would make a difference in building the structure of a future Syria.

And we're heading into the most important negotiation maybe of my lifetime with Iran. And it's crucial that the United States in every aspect of its policy be tough, systematic, coherent. This is a deal that you can't get wrong. And I know the White House is worried about it, but they -- again, they need to be communicating, thinking with their allies, credible to adversaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how important is it, John Negroponte, that the administration get -- for example, get on a better track or a more successful track in Syria in order to get the outcome that it wants in some of these other countries?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: I'm not too sure about that.

But one thing I would add to -- you mentioned Afghanistan. I think it's very important. It's a more modest issue, but it's very important that the administration is successful in negotiating arrangements for a residual United States and allied force, coalition force to be able to stay in Afghanistan after we complete our withdrawal of combat troops...

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the commitment...

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN NEGROPONTE: ... in 2014.

We failed to do that in Iraq. And that was -- I wouldn't fault this administration. Both administrations kind of set that situation up. But I think it would be very important to get it in Afghanistan. I think it would be an earnest of our commitment to that part of the world and a good example of the correlation between our diplomacy and military issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Several of you have talked about the standing of the administration, of the United States in the world.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, does it -- how much does it matter whether the U.S. is respected or not? If the U.S. is pursuing a course that it believes is right, how much does it matter whether the Saudis agree, for example, with the Iran policy?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: Well, a great deal. I mean, it's actually highly ironic that President Obama came in at a time when our standing in the world was as low as it had been in 50 years, after -- as the George W. Bush administration went out, and President Obama immediately raised that standing and Secretary Clinton, too.

But there are all sorts of smaller issues and problems and crises that our diplomats work, try to work out. Somebody has to take the initiative. And the United States has traditionally felt that it was our job not to solve every problem, but to put together coalitions and, you know, the willingness to get the process of solving the problems started.

And if we're not playing that role and we're not even looked to, to play that role, that leads to much more chaos, much more kind of small problems becoming big problems. And the last thing I would say here, because we haven't raised it, is the whole spying with the NSA and what that has done to our stature, because that's another major, major problem for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trudy Rubin, just pick up on that as we conclude this, in terms of what the administration needs to do differently in 2014.

TRUDY RUBIN: I agree with David that communication is key.

Even if our allies disagree with us, and especially when they do, if we leave them flat-footed, as we did, for example, with France on the strike which we had pledged to do in Syria, and France had gone out on a limb, President Hollande, and suddenly President Obama backs off after communicating with his domestic staff and doesn't even inform Hollande in advance -- the same thing has happened repeatedly with the Saudis.

Then they begin to distrust us. Soft power, we have a problem. It's not entirely the president's doing. Congress's machinations on freezing the government have made us look weak. But what the president can do is at least have a coherent policy where he sends out emissaries and informs allies in advance of critical decisions. Otherwise, they don't trust us and they will go out on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just final word from David Ignatius and John Negroponte.

How much of what we're talking about, though, is due to administration policy, and how much of it is just the problems are harder than they have ever been, David?

DAVID IGNATIUS: These are nightmarish problems. We saw in Iraq and Afghanistan the limits on the efficacy of U.S. power. We cannot compel solutions to most problems.

If you look at our Iran diplomacy, I give the president really high marks for opening the door to Iran after 34 years of no talking, and then putting together a coalition and sanctions that pushed Iran through that door. He opened it and then compelled them really to think about changing. That's -- that was a good diplomacy effort.

The issue for this administration is follow-through. It's closing. It's getting the deal done. And that's what we're all going to be watching this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Negroponte?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: So, I think they have got to work hard on stabilizing the Middle East.

That includes the Syria problem. It includes support for Egypt. It's has got to continue. It includes working on the Iran situation. I think trade -- I mentioned economic factors earlier. I think we got two major trade agreements, an Atlantic agreement and a Transpacific agreement that are on the table for next year.

And it's important that we pursue those, because the American people pursue -- perceive foreign economic relations as very beneficial to our economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it's not sexy to talk about trade.

JOHN NEGROPONTE: It may not be, but I think the American people see a benefit in it.

And, lastly, there are these thunderbolts that come at us every now and then, like the Snowden revelations that Anne-Marie mentioned, which has been very prejudicial. And I think the president, under the circumstances, is managing that very difficult issue as best he possibly can. And that certainly has hurt us in our relations with countries like Brazil, for example, and others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to leave it there, a big subject, and we have got a whole -- a whole other year to look forward to.

Thank you very much, John Negroponte, David Ignatius, Trudy Rubin, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Thank you.