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A Tough Second Term for Obama on Foreign Policy

Wednesday 7 November 2012 by Dr Robin Niblett, Director, Chatham House
   

By the end of the first term there were many inside and outside the United States who judged the Obama administration's foreign policy to have been a disappointment. After all, Afghanistan remains in conflict; the Arab-Israel stand-off has deepened; Putin is back in the Kremlin and as obstreperous as ever; and 'leadership from behind' hardly sounds like a doctrine. 

However, these criticisms neglect the fact that President Obama was successful in what were probably his three main foreign policy priorities. They also fail to take into account how difficult his second term's foreign policy may prove to be.

First, after many false dawns under previous administrations, Obama pivoted the US strategic gaze firmly from Europe and the Middle East to China and Asia. The US is now a central power-broker in the increasingly tense relations between China and many of its neighbours.

Second, he raised the pressure relentlessly on the Iranian leadership over Iran's nuclear enrichment programme – offering dialogue initially and then, with the support of the UN Security Council, ratcheting up the economic sanctions to the point where these are now adding to Iran’s deepening economic instability.  

Third, he established a firm exit timetable for US troops from Afghanistan, while taking the battle to Al-Qaeda through a merciless campaign of drone strikes against its leadership and foot soldiers in Pakistan and further afield. Obama can argue that he kept the homeland safe during his first term partly thanks to this tough, but targeted approach.

But where does the President go from here? Each of these priorities is likely to become harder rather than easier to manage in his second term.

China is adopting a more assertive stance in its neighbourhood, partly as a result of its own leadership change and partly because of competition between the growing number of actors involved in Chinese international relations. There is a real risk that a minor naval altercation between Chinese and Japanese vessels patrolling the waters off the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands could spill into a more serious military stand-off.

The United States provides the security guarantee to an increasingly beleaguered Japan and to a number of countries in South East Asia. The Obama administration has been at pains to stress that its pivot to Asia is diplomatic and multilateral rather than military, but maritime disputes and the intense competition over resources in the South China Sea will likely force the US into taking sides in ways that it deftly avoided in its first term.

Similarly, the Obama administration will be unable to sustain the ambiguity over its endgame on Iran's nuclear programme for another four years. Despite the sanctions, Iran's stock of enriched uranium will probably continue to grow and with it pressure from Israel's Netanyahu government for the US to support military strikes against Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.

President Obama is a pragmatist when it comes to the use of force. In his speech to AIPAC in April, he said: 'I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon'. But if he judges that preemptive military action holds little chance of doing more than setting Iran's nuclear programme back by a few years (which appears to be the view of the US military and many Israeli security experts), and if Iran continues its enrichment but chooses not to assemble a nuclear weapon, then he may introduce a more explicit strategy of containing and deterring Iran alongside the current tactic of tightening sanctions, whatever the effects on the US bilateral relationship with Israel.

Finally, the success of US drone strikes against the Al-Qaeda leadership in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan masks a worrying development. Violent extremists, including those linked with Al-Qaeda, are embedded within nationalist insurgencies from Afghanistan through Iraq, to Yemen and Somalia. These extremists are now infiltrating military conflicts in the Sahel and Syria.

Can the Obama administration afford to disengage from this continuing evolution of the terrorist threat or will the President expand his drone campaign ever more broadly in his second term, both to stem the extremists' advance and to prevent them from establishing new safe havens from which to attack the US and its allies? What impact will this have on America's international reputation and credibility? What new problems will it cause for US relations with Europe, where opposition to the US drone strategy continues to grow? 

To be sure, there are opportunities for President Obama to make a new mark in his second term in office. Striking a US-EU economic integration agreement, for example, would be an important achievement in the current economic context. Looking ahead to the next four years, however, President Obama will find himself increasingly pre-occupied with dangerous developments from his first term's foreign policy agenda. There may be little time left to use a second term to create a clear presidential legacy in foreign affairs. Instead, he will continue to manage America's entanglements in some of the most intractable aspects of international security at the start of the 21st century.



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Further Resources

The US Election Outcome
Daniel Drezner, Robin Niblett, Xenia Dormandy
Audio, Video, November 2012 

Obama: Change or Continuity?
Xenia Dormandy
CNN, November 2012

More on the US Election 2012 >>

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