PolicyMic pundit Laura Hughes’ recent piece on President Obama’s foreign policy gave me the idea to provide my own scorecard of our neighbour’s Commander-in-Chief and what should be the priorities for his second term.
In this first of a three-part series, I address the strong points of Obama's foreign policy.
The president began his term in 2009 with promises of hope and change, and with a legacy of foreign policy disasters, courtesy of George W. Bush. There are several foci of Obama’s foreign policy – the emerging Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, and Russia. In the first half of his term, he carried through a reset of relations with Russia, marked by the signing of a new START treaty in the beginning of 2011, which extends the prudent nuclear stewardship by the two superpowers and is really an example for all other nuclear club members to follow.
The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in late 2010 swept aside some of the fossilized regimes of Cold War strongmen, but its results remained inconclusive. Aside from Egypt, other key players in the region – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Afghanistan – did not see any systemic change. Popular revolts in Bahrain were put down with Saudi support, Egypt is still in transition with the Muslim Brotherhood, a previously illegal organization, now popularly legitimized and holding a new political sway in the country and the new Islamist governments in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria have yet to prove that they can actually govern. Obama effectively took these developments in stride, siding with the new political waves in North Africa, but was not as vocal in the case of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Bahrain – a political necessity out of America’s geopolitical concerns. However, a principal support for democracy along with methods that do not open a third front for America in the Middle East means that Obama aptly managed to restore some American credibility in the region while legitimating the flexible foreign policy that should be a staple for an American president.
The Asia pivot is perhaps one of the most important foreign policy developments for Obama. It is recognized that China will be the major power of this century and relative Western power will gradually decline. The president recognized that China is a geopolitical competitor, but also an indispensable partner and putting the world’s second economy first on the priorities list is the natural reaction. From here on, there will be tensions and moments of cooperation, but both sides recognize that the viability of the Washington-Beijing axis is fundamentally important in this century and Obama’s response came right on time.
The relationship with Israel is the most strained it has been in a long time – Obama took a stance against the illegal settlement activity in the West Bank, driving a wedge in the relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. While the foundations of the relationship are still there, but are changing, a more positive upswing can only happen with the election of a more politically literate government in Israel that does not wilfully isolate the country from the world. This tension could be a catalyst to move the Israeli-Palestinian issue to a qualitatively new level and make a solution visible.
North Korea – another tough nut for Washington. Here, the president has little choice aside from the six-party talks format. The recent failed rocket launch and Pyongyang’s nuclear status show that North Korean and American relations are at a standstill. It is not likely that Pyongyang will respond positively to an olive branch from Washington either, so the most Obama can do is maintain the status quo until somebody blinks. Despite Obama’s correctly diplomatic commitment to the country, Pyongyang is primarily working to undermine, rather than constructively move the issues forward. Yet, there is more America can do for trust-building, potentially with involving North Korea in military exercises within its ally system in the region.
Up next will be the weaknesses in Obama's foreign policy.