David Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent for the New York Times, gave a lecture on Tuesday at Cornell entitled, “What Happened to the ‘Light Footprint’ Strategy? President Obama and Interventions Around the World.”
His visit was sponsored by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Sanger, an experienced journalist with expertise in foreign policy, nuclear proliferation and Asian affairs, analyzed the foreign policy successes and failures of the last several years.
Sanger drew on a natural bookend; his last visit to Cornell was in October of 2008, and he posited from the start that America now finds itself in a much more stable position economically and internationally. However, this has not stopped a series of chaotic and unpredicted events from arising.
Sanger argued that although the globe is more peaceful and stable than it has been in recent decades, we still face significant international challenges, including the monetary and migrant crises plaguing the European Union, the prolonging of post Cold War Russian-U.S. tensions, and regional issues such as Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.
He expects borders to change in the Middle East, but added that in the modern world, “the pace of change has undercut our predictive abilities.”
In Sanger’s telling, the “light footprint” strategy was central to the foreign policy of Obama’s first term, and a direct reaction to previous wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. This strategy, Sanger says, consisted of drone strike, cyber attacks, and the extensive use of special forces.
Yet Sanger continued that this strategy has run out of gas in Obama’s second term. He believes that future scholars and observers of history will ask if decision-makers over-learned the lessons of the early 21st century; he used the example of unmanned aircraft—they’re effective against isolated targets in mountainous regions, but less so in crowded urban areas.
He also spoke on cyberattacks and the future of the practice, pointing out that cyberattacks give the least connected, poorest, and weakest organizations or countries a powerful and cheap weapon they can acquire and use easier than conventional weapons.
Furthermore, he predicted such attacks will continue to occur in greater frequency, because present doctrine considers such acts short of war, and they don’t—so far— elicit direct military responses. Sanger also asserted that the United States has yet to develop a strategy to combat this changing nature of warfare.
Sanger’s lecture was an informative overview and take on the last decade of U.S. foreign policy, yet it remains to be seen how U.S. strategy will evolve with a new administration in 2016.