8 January 2015
From a climate deal with China to rapprochement with Cuba, Barack Obama's foreign policy fortunes improved in late 2014. Can he build on these gains?
Peter Trubowitz

Peter Trubowitz

Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme


Barack Obama walks from Marine One prior to travelling to Estonia. Photo by Getty Images.
Barack Obama walks from Marine One prior to travelling to Estonia. Photo by Getty Images.


Last summer Barack Obama's foreign policy was failing – or so it seemed to many observers. The re-emergence of Islamist extremism in Iraq, the grisly beheadings of American hostages and the Ebola crisis had caught the administration flat-footed. With these problems coming soon after Russia's annexation of Crimea, the US administration was on the defensive. Foreign policy, an Obama strong suit, suddenly was a drag on his approval ratings.

No longer. The surprise announcement last month that Washington is normalizing relations with Havana after a half-century of containment and isolation has met with broad popular approval. So has the deal Obama struck with Beijing in November on climate change, and the recent decision to grant amnesty to some five million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico. A new CNN/ORC poll finds that Obama's approval rankings have jumped to a 20-month high of 48 per cent.

What explains Obama's foreign policy surge? Ironically, part of the answer is the drubbing he and fellow Democrats took in the November mid-term elections. With Republicans regaining control of the Senate and increasing their House majority, Obama had a strong incentive to counter the 'lame duck' narrative starting to take shape in the media. Because Republicans are more united on domestic policy, it made sense for the White House to focus its efforts on foreign policy.

The administration was also alert to the foreign policy opportunities that happened to present themselves at that time. A Cold War anachronism, isolating Cuba offered little geopolitical benefit for Washington. Isolation made even less sense for Havana, especially given the economic difficulties besetting its main benefactor, Venezuela. Meanwhile, China's leader, Xi Jinping, seemed to have concluded that Beijing's heavy-handed foreign policy in the past few years was not winning it many friends in Asia or beyond. By meeting Obama halfway over climate change, Xi signalled that China knows how to act responsibly on the international front.

Some might view Obama's recent actions as a strategic correction – as a tacit acknowledgment that his earlier approach to foreign policy failed. Yet his administration's recent record is pretty consistent with the broad principles that have guided US foreign policy since Obama took office in 2009: put greater stock in quiet diplomacy, be willing to negotiate with adversaries, and avoid getting sucked into conflicts of little intrinsic value to the United States.

Even the unilateral nature of Obama's recent actions is not the departure from historical precedent that some might imagine. When campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama criticized George W. Bush's use of executive action. However, as presidential scholars Sidney Milkis and Kenneth Lowande point out, Obama's record on this front is not fundamentally different from Bush's. Faced with the challenge of governing in an era of extreme legislative partisanship, Obama has done the expedient thing.

Nor are recent policy successes likely to prompt a change of course. Obama's overall strategy remains the same. The White House will continue to search for ways to cut America's losses in the Middle East and invest more time and energy in regions of greater long-term importance to the United States, most notably Asia. Moreover, Obama will continue trying to do this on the cheap: by using diplomacy instead of military power where possible.

As I have argued elsewhere, the reasons for this are as much political as they are strategic. Obama came into office set on rebalancing America's international and domestic commitments, and as we start 2015 there is no sign that the president's political calculus has changed. America may not be as overstretched as it was when Obama took office in 2009, but diplomatic means still look more attractive than muscular overseas entanglements for a president who was elected to do big things on the domestic policy front.

The success of Obama's foreign policies today is also partly a function of timing and other things that the White House cannot completely control. Just as high oil prices made it easier for Vladimir Putin to discount US economic sanctions over Crimea, the recent fall in oil prices has given those same sanctions additional bite. Venezuela's economic weakness helped bring Cuba around. By the same logic we should not be surprised to learn that Iran has suddenly become more willing to scale back its nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of Western economic sanctions.

Where Obama deserves credit is in taking the long view. Putin's forces are still in Crimea, but Obama's unwillingness to get dragged into the crisis is looking smarter by the day. In the smouldering conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the US administration still seems clearer about what it is trying to avoid than what it is trying to achieve. But here too Obama wisely ignored neo-conservative hardliners who were urging deeper American military involvement to no apparent strategic end.

For Obama, the political challenge is to build on the strategic gains he has made since November. For reasons mentioned, the nuclear talks with Tehran, which are scheduled to resume next week in Geneva, would seem to offer the clearest opportunity. Given the political capital Obama has gained with his Democratic base over climate change and immigration, we might also see him make a strong push for fast-track trade authority. As Obama, referring to the next two years, recently put it: 'My presidency is entering its fourth quarter. Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.'

This article is adapted from an article that first appeared on a London School of Economics and Political Science blog.

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