14 January 2013
Xenia Wickett
Xenia Wickett
Former Head, US and the Americas Programme; Former Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs


President Obama has recently announced his principal foreign policy nominees: for the State Department, Senator John Kerry; for the Defense Department, former Senator Chuck Hagel; and for the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, Obama's current counterterrorism adviser in the White House.

What should we take away from these nominations and what, assuming the candidates are confirmed, should we expect from them in the coming months and years?

The new team

At the State Department, John Kerry's confirmation to succeed Hillary Clinton is almost assured. He has good and longstanding relationships with senators on both sides of the aisle. His nomination is no great surprise as it is a position to which he’s long aspired and worked towards. His active diplomacy in recent years, particularly with regards to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been very well regarded, not least by President Obama. And, as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he will be ready to start running from day one.

Kerry would be unlikely to diverge significantly from current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He has a similar perspective on the vital role of diplomats and has put much emphasis on promoting the role of non-military instruments of US power including diplomacy and development. At the same time, as a Vietnam veteran, he certainly has credibility and knows the capabilities and limits of the military. This will likely help him work with his likely counterpart in the Defense Department, former Senator Chuck Hagel.

Like Kerry, Chuck Hagel is also a Vietnam veteran and formerly in the Senate. Despite his Republican credentials, it is his former party colleagues that are resisting his nomination (although he will likely get approved anyway). Potential obstacles to his nomination are based on two main arguments: that he is insufficiently supportive of Israel and that he would likely support downsizing the military, seeing a smaller role for it in the future. As he said to a magazine, 'I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process.' Given the approximately $500 billion cuts in defence spending over the coming 10 years, and further ones likely, managing this process will be Hagel’s principal task. Unlike current Defense Secretary Panetta, he will not resist it.

Despite a previous failed attempt at securing the position in 2008, John Brennan’s move from the White House to the CIA is likely to be assured. Brennan has a 25-year history with the Agency, including in leadership posts during the George W. Bush administration, a fact that raises concerns for some given his, at a minimum, condoning of enhanced interrogation techniques.

There is every indication that if Brennan is confirmed, he would try to take the CIA back to its original task of intelligence gathering. Despite overseeing a significant increase in drone attacks in the past four years (which are largely controlled by the Agency), Brennan is likely to try to move such engagements back to military control, leaving the CIA to pursue a more traditional role. 

What do these appointments say about Obama’s second term foreign policy?

All three appointments are men well known to the President and very much in line with his own thinking – a less assertive military and a stronger diplomatic and soft power engagement with the world. They suggest that the second Obama term will continue on-going trends of an America focused on 'nation building at home' before considering strong (and expensive) action overseas. Despite Hagel's republican credentials, it is also clear that this time around, Obama is bringing in staff who think like him rather than building a broader, more disparate group as he did in the first term (by including his rival Hilary Clinton and keeping Robert Gates at Defense).

At the same time, the inboxes of the new leadership will also closely mirror those of their predecessors four years ago. Iran’s nuclear programme remains near the top of the pile (Hagel has shown he strongly supports negotiation over war), along with the draw-down in Afghanistan and America’s relationship with Pakistan. China’s position on the world stage will continue to gain attention. And, while the rebalancing to Asia will be the dominant foreign policy strategy, events in the Middle East and North Africa cannot be ignored; emphasis however, will be on engaging non-military tools to help support progress there. John Kerry, like Obama, is likely to want to refocus on the Middle East Peace Process. But a lack of desire by either Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu (who will almost certainly be re-elected as prime minister later this month), and counterparts in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, will make this difficult. 

In conclusion, the international community should anticipate continued pull-back by the United States. An active and strategic foreign policy is unlikely as emphasis and resources are focused at home.

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The Next Chapter: President Obama's Second-Term Foreign Policy