18 January 2011
Robin Niblett

Dr Robin Niblett CMG

Director, Chatham House


As President Obama's administration hits its two-year anniversary, its foreign policy remains hard to judge. Simply preparing a tally sheet of the administration's successes and failures is an unsatisfactory exercise, not least because so many of its international initiatives remain in play.

The deeper lessons, however, appear to be twofold. First, the administration has been unable to reclaim America's leadership role on the world stage. Negotiations on world trade, climate change and post-crisis financial and economic governance have either been off the administration's agenda or they have remained relatively impervious to US pressure.

In the meantime, the Israeli government's unwillingness to countenance anything but the most minor unconditional concessions in the search towards building a durable peace with the Palestinians has undermined the President's outreach to the Arab world through his Cairo speech of June 2009. And the Taliban's dogged resistance to the US military surge in Afghanistan in 2010 has reminded the world once again of the limits of US military might.

Emerging powers

At the same time, the sense of relative US political decline has not been halted these past two years. China has become noticeably more assertive in its neighbourhood in the latter half of 2010 and also in the international economic arena, with Chinese President Hu Jintao calling this week for an international monetary system less dependent on the US dollar. And the competition for international leadership has risen as other powers, such as Turkey and Brazil, have challenged US leadership in their regions and on the non-proliferation agenda.

The one important exception to this limited role in global leadership, arguably, is non-proliferation. Here President Obama and his team crafted an intelligent campaign to change the global discourse (Obama's Prague speech in April 2009); followed this up with a structured approach to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May 2010; and gave the strategy meaning through the successful conclusion and ratification of the START Treaty with Russia and also through their consistent approach towards sanctions and negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme.

The US approach to Iran brings us to the second, more positive lesson of this anniversary. The under-appreciated success of the administration's first two years has been its tireless efforts, through the President, Secretary of State Clinton and her senior staff, to re-connect the United States with the world beyond the Middle East and Pakistan.

This approach, which has included numerous senior-level visits to Europe, Russia, Latin America and Africa these past two years, has been most noticeable in South East Asia, where a number of governments have responded by turning to the US openly to try to check China's growing influence in the region. Overall, President Obama has raised the sea-level of US engagement across the world in ways that could prove important as new crises emerge.

Looking to 2012

What then are the prospects for the next two years? Will the President build on the positives and seek to overcome the negatives? The answers are yes and no. Yes, he will keep the pressure on Iran without seeking an outright escalation of hostilities; he may try to move beyond START with Russia; he will continue to deepen US relations with its Latin American neighbours and across South East Asia. But he is unlikely to try to drive forward a new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict or take a leadership role on international trade or climate change.

The reason for sticking with the successes and avoiding getting bogged down with the impasses of the past two years is that President Obama cannot afford to let foreign policy dominate the second two years of his presidential term. Domestic economic recovery is vital not only for his prospects of re-election, but also because, without strength at home, America's strength abroad will continue to erode. True, the powers of the President are more limited in the domestic arena. On the other hand, limited presidential powers are sometimes easier to exercise in an environment of political co-habitation, which will be one of the features of President Obama's third and fourth years of office now that the Republicans control the House of Representatives.

Further resources

America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership
Wiley-Blackwell/Chatham House Book
Robin Niblett (ed), 2010

Ready to Lead? Rethinking America's Role in a Changed World
Chatham House Report
Robin Niblett, February 2009