5 November 2008
Robin Niblett

Dr Robin Niblett CMG

Director, Chatham House


5 November 2008

Chatham House experts offer their perspectives on the key foreign policy and economic challenges facing the new administration.

  • Overview, Dr Robin Niblett
  • The US and Africa, comment by Alex Vines
  • The US and Asia, comment by Dr Gareth Price
  • The US and the Economy, comment by Dr DeAnne Julius
  • The US Economy, comment by Dr Paola Subacchi
  • The US and Europe, comment by Robin Shepherd
  • The US and the Middle East, comment by Dr Claire Spencer
  • The US and Russia and Eurasia, comment by James Sherr



Dr Robin Niblett, Director, Chatham House

Mr Obama's first job will be to keep Americans safe and not to please the international gallery. This does not mean that Europeans should resign themselves to be disappointed. To start with, the Obama campaign has pulled together a talented and deep bench on foreign policy. They are ready to act and, with a strong Democratic majority in the Senate, can expect to be confirmed into their posts quickly.

But, as an Obama administration juggles its complex domestic and international agenda, it should expect its European allies to step forward with their own suggestions of how to implement realistic transatlantic policies towards each of our common challenges. The success of Barack Obama's foreign policy initiatives in his first term will depend significantly on what European capitals can deliver and not just on his administration's own creativity.

Further, the deepening economic crisis of the past few months will make it even harder for Barack Obama to focus on new US international initiatives, never mind changing US policies on Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East peace process, climate change mitigation and the rest of the wish-list that many in Europe are hoping for.

The US and Africa:

Alex Vines, Research Director and Head, Africa Programme

Reining in stratospherically high expectations both from within Africa and from within his own administration will be a principal preoccupation for the first years of Obama's Africa policy.

The large number of Obama's campaign advisors with Africa expertise under the Clinton Administration, such as Susan Rice and Witney Schneidman, are impatient to make their mark. The danger is that, as with the first British Labour administration of 1997, impatience and over-confidence both underestimate the political complexities of African states and chafe with socially conservative African leaders, leading to misunderstandings, blunders and set-backs.

There are many good policy proposals, including a Secretary of State for Overseas Development Assistance to rationalize America's generous but ponderous aid programmes. However, public relations is key, and as China and other emerging powers gain greater influence across the continent, Obama's Africa team will have to take ever more care that good intentions are not blunted by poor diplomacy.

The US and Asia:

Dr Gareth Price, Head, Asia Programme

While the fresh start is widely welcomed in the region, Obama's protectionist impulses have caused concern, notably in India where his talk of ending tax breaks for US companies that move jobs off-shore has gone down badly. Most, though, assume that, when in office, his hands will be tied and that his rhetoric will not become practice.

A likely shift away from a security-dominated agenda formulated in response to the threat of radical Islam is to be welcomed, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling that shift, in a worsening security climate, will be challenging. There seems little likelihood that Obama will call a halt to air strikes within Pakistani territory, continuing to alienate Pakistanis. His threat to tie military aid to performance in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda could cause rifts between the US and Pakistani military, but his shift towards economic development assistance may help shore up the weak democratic government in Pakistan.

In broad policy terms, there will be little change in US relations with China. The aims will remain the same: to identify common interests and work together; to acknowledge dependency, especially in the economic sphere; and to manage areas of clear conflict. Obama should be able to take advantage of rapidly improving relations between Taiwan and China to soften the relationship, but concerns over trade will remain a threat.

For many in Asia, however, the key issue will be personal - whether or not he allows more immigration to the US. In the past Obama has voted against increasing the number of work visas offered, but lately he has suggested increasing the number of professional migrants. And the fact that this is a key issue, despite the economic difficulties the US faces, demonstrates the continued attractiveness of the US.

Obama, whose formative years were spent in Indonesia, in some ways brings greater cultural awareness of the diverse region than any previous president.

The US and the Economy:

Dr DeAnne Julius, Chairman, Chatham House

The downward lurch of the US economy during the final month of the campaign undoubtedly helped Mr Obama win the election. Can he now return the favour by arresting the economic decline?

The fundamentals are against him. A strong contractionary spiral has taken hold as households curtail spending and banks curtail lending, while house prices continue to drop and unemployment mounts. A US recession is 'baked in the cake' regardless of the stimulus package the new Congress decides to enact.

But psychology will be as important as policy in sparking the eventual recovery. The pre-election vacuum of leadership clearly contributed to the dire state of consumer confidence and the precipitious drop in the stock market during October. This Mr Obama has a good chance of fixing - starting even before the inauguration. The sight of a young, new President articulately engaging with other world leaders in Washington could be the spark that rekindles the optimism for which Americans are widely known and admired.

Dr Paola Subacchi, Research Director, International Economics

What does the current financial crisis mean for the standing of the US in the world? Will it mark the end of US hegemony and superpowerdom? Large empires, from Ancient Rome to Great Britain, declined at least in part as a result of economic weakness. Financial meltdown and recession in the US may act as a catalyst to the ongoing shift of the world economic order by dramatically rupturing the credibility of and respect for the American model. The crisis certainly exacerbates the US's economic weaknesses and constrains policy initiatives in a way that will be felt for years to come. However, calls for the end of US economic hegemony may be premature, as are predictions of China's takeover.

Despite being badly hit by the credit crisis, the US may still show great resilience. It is the economy best endowed with the flexibility and resources needed to get past present difficulties while the US dollar will continue to lead the international monetary system as the euro is far from having a global role and hence able to seriously challenge the greenback's dominance.

The US and Europe:

Robin Shepherd, Senior Research Fellow, Europe

There are many unanswered questions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and Russia. Obama needs to put meat on the bone now. Between now and his inauguration in January, he has a lot of work to do in defining his position on the great foreign policy challenges of our time. Obama has proved himself a master tactician as a political campaigner. He is clearly a great orator. But the business of government requires clarity of purpose and the resolve to push things through, often in the face of great difficulties.

The most dangerous temptation for Obama will be to succumb to over-enthusiasm in the desire to court international popularity and to rebuild bridges. The right thing to do may not always be the most popular thing to do. If, for example, he sustains America's principled support for Israel he will disappoint many in the Arab and Muslim world. If he pushes hard for a significant increase in troop commitments for Afghanistan from European governments he may run up against strong opposition, especially in Germany. In confronting authoritarian powers such as Russia, Iran and China he will need to be careful in ensuring that his admirable willingness to listen and engage is not mistaken for weakness.

In tandem with the process of developing policy will be the process of selecting his senior team. The focus will now shift to who will be Obama's Secretary of State, his Defense Secretary, his national security team and so on. As that process unfolds we will begin to get more and more clues as to what an Obama administration is likely to do in practice.

The US and the Middle East:

Dr Claire Spencer, Head, Middle East Programme

Expectations for a change in US direction towards the Middle East are high, especially amongst the Arab populations of the region. The recent US attack within Syria is a seen as a last ditch attempt by the Bush presidency to pressure the Syrians into controlling their border with Iraq and curbing their alliances with both Iran and Hizbullah. However, this is seen to be going against a wider trend, supported in Europe and Israel, to engage with Syria through negotiations and diplomatic enticements. It is anticipated that the new US presidency will fall into line with this.

The main headaches for the US administration will remain the three 'Is': Iran, Iraq and the lingering Israel-Palestine conflict. In none of these areas will the new presidency have much room for manoeuvre over the first few months. Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq will depend on the shape that the still unresolved 'State of Forces Agreement' (SOFA) takes. There is no guarantee that the outgoing Bush administration will agree terms with the Iraqi government in time for the projected 31 December 2008 deadline, when the UN mandate for the US presence in Iraq runs out. This could prompt a crisis of legitimacy in January 2009, yet in managing this, the new administration will be guided more by 'facts on the ground' than precipitate timetables for withdrawal.

On Israel and Palestine, the fragmentation of the Palestinian leadership and the lack of an Israeli government until new general elections are held in February/March 2009 mean that the new presidency will have no viable interlocutors until at least halfway through 2009. Managing the worsening crisis may then, by default, become a series of piecemeal measures rather than moves towards a credible peace process.

In Iran, too, the presidential elections of mid-summer 2009 will not see a change in official positions over the nuclear issue, even if Ahmedinejad fails to secure a second term. The dilemma then to be faced is how US officials might engage with Iran in ways that don't concede too much ground from the now weakened UN Security Council sanctions regime.

Overall, the greatest expectation is that the new US presidency will change its tone - away from the language of the 'global war on terror' to a more detailed understanding of the local and regional dimensions of change since 2003. Already, Washington DC is buzzing with new 'strategic plans' to combat terrorism and engage anew with the Islamic world. Whether US policy will reflect the wider reality that other actors are now taking the lead remains to be seen. The Gulf states, China, India, Russia and Turkey (inter alia) have moved the balance - in the financial, diplomatic and energy sectors - away from the central role once played by the US as the region's main security guarantor. Where this affords local actors and states such as Iran more leeway to resist US pressure, local hopes placed in a 'post-Bush' era for the Middle East may well be disappointed. The first sign of this will be in the new administration's incapacity to effect change on its own. The second, which will take longer and may even be avoided initially, will be when the administration undertakes a more root-and-branch reassessment of US priorities in the Middle East to adapt to the region's new multipolar options.

The US and Russia and Eurasia:

James Sherr, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Russia did not have a candidate in this election. From Moscow's perspective, 'messianism' is the essence of American political culture and 'hegemonism' the essence of American policy. Personalities matter far less than elites, and the US foreign policy establishment (which boasts 'Russia haters' as well as 'pragmatists' in both parties) will constrain the choices, methods and approaches of the new incumbent. Any significant changes in policy will be the product of 'objective' causes, notably the global financial crisis which, from the introverted perspective of Russia's leadership, is more damaging to US prospects (and the prestige of the liberal-market model) than to Russia, the growth of its state-guided economy, the dependence of Europe on Russian energy and the re-emergence of Russia's pre-eminence in the ex-Soviet 'near abroad'. The current Russian mood, resentment and revival, overshadows the background noise of the election.

But when it comes to secondary issues, there is a degree of uncertainty. Before the Bush administration came to office, Russians were predisposed to see Democrats as less 'militaristic' than Republicans, but more ideological: less 'pragmatically' disposed to geopolitical deals; more committed to human rights and democracy promotion. Even then, this was a stereotyped distinction, and many inside Russia knew it. There always were exceptions to the rule, and Bush/Cheney, 'militarists' as well as 'democratic messianists', were the biggest exceptions to it. In these respects, Obama is seen as an unknown quantity.

It is important to Russia that the new president realize that the USA and NATO have overextended themselves, that 'former Soviet space' is Russia's natural sphere of influence, that deals consistent with these realities will benefit the USA, but that it will lose far more than Russia from 'confrontational approaches' and a breakdown of cooperation. Russians hope the new president will be less ideological than his predecessor and more inclined to compromise on the basis of an interests-based rather than values-based policy.

It is important for the USA that Russia regain respect for its competence, interests and the judicious use of American power. This will entail:

  • treating Russia as a focus of policy and not simply a variable to be brought into the equation on an ad hoc basis when other issues (Iran, Afghanistan) arise;
  • respect for Russia's importance and distinctiveness, mature acceptance that Russia does not share Western liberal values, willingness to live with Russia as it is;
  • methodical but unprovocative steps to strengthen the independence, capacity and self-confidence of Russia's neighbours in the wake of the Georgia conflict;
  • a long-term, patient effort to repair relations with European allies and Turkey;
  • a concerted effort to cooperate with Russia where cooperation makes sense.

Further Resources

Please find further resources below:

Rethinking the United States' International Role

This project will draw on both our in-house and international network of experts to offer outside perspectives on the United States' future capacity and potential to influence the world beyond its borders. 

Chatham Experts in the News >>



US Election Series

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